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Fighting for animal rights in Lebanon

By Arwa Damon, CNN
  • Lebanon does not have basic animal protection laws
  • An animal rights NGO is campaigning to stem trade in endangered animals
  • Lebanon is not a signatory of CITES that governs trade of animals
  • Many animals from Africa are traded to or through Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- "Grooming is a social thing, a friendly thing, it calms chimpanzees down," says Jason Mier director of animal rights NGO Animals Lebanon.

As Mier talks, Omega, a 12 year old chimpanzee, picks through Mier's hair, occasionally yanking out the offending strand. It's one of the few displays of natural behavior that Omega has shown in over a decade.

Omega used to serve customers at a café in southern Lebanon until some got him drunk. As a result he turned aggressive, attacked some clients and was sold to a small, decrepit zoo.

Mier, who first met Omega six months ago, points to trash littering the floor of the 5m by 10m cage, a putrid blend of old food, water bottles and plastic bags.

"There is cement, there are metal bars, there is nothing natural whatsoever," he says.

Fighting for animal rights
There is just a lot of wildlife going through Lebanon, mainly to other countries in the Middle East and eastern Europe.
--Jason Mier, Animals Lebanon

Mier spent years in Africa studying chimpanzees and tracking the illegal wildlife trade and found that often his investigations led him to the Middle East.

"There are so many Lebanese living in Africa that Lebanon has ended up being a hub for the smuggling of wildlife," he explains.

"Whether its great apes like this chimpanzee, or parrots or big cats -- lions and tigers -- there is just a lot of wildlife going through Lebanon, mainly to other countries in the Middle East and eastern Europe."

In the Middle East many individuals, especially in the Gulf states have private collections and want to own exotic animals, and that demand tends to be met illegally.

Lebanon is among a fraction of countries that are not signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), making it an easy transit point for wildlife smugglers.

This allows unscrupulous traders to exploit the situation, according to CITES chief enforcement officer, John Sellar.

"In most cases if a country is not a signatory, therefore if doesn't have legislation, and can't regulate or control illegal trade," he says.

The animals that end up sold on the Lebanese market are often subjected to appalling conditions.

Alongside a busy road, less than a meter away from roaring traffic and blaring horns, a rust colored Asian monkey is methodically hopping from one end of its tiny cage to the other.

"There is nothing left for this animal to do, he's gone insane," Mier says. "There is still a chain around its waist, for no purpose. There is no shade, no food or water. You know that's an animal that either needs to be confiscated immediately or euthanized because of the level of abuse."

But Lebanon has yet to pass legislation that would allow for that. Animals Lebanon is not just fighting to pressure the government to sign on to CITES but additionally to pass basic animal welfare laws.

Inside a pet shop we find two gray parrots, which can sell for up to $2,000.

"You can import these animals legally, but they just aren't," Mier explains.

"Gray parrots are a CITES-listed animal, they are protected animals, their trade should be regulated. But in Beirut and throughout Lebanon they are easily available for sale; private individuals have them all over."

The pet shop owner says he knows nothing about regulations or protected species.

Sitting outside the store, in the baking sun without shade, is a baboon. Someone just sold him the monkey, the pet shop owner explains, so he put it close to the street to attract customers.

However, things could be starting to change.

The Lebanese Minister of Agriculture Hussein Al Hajj Hassan acknowledges that many things, including partnership with CITES, has been delayed. But he says they are now working with animal welfare groups to draft laws.

Animals Lebanon has already succeeded in shutting down one zoo that kept its animals in abysmal conditions and sent the animals to proper sanctuaries. And they succeeded in sending Omega to a new home in Brazil.