More work needed

Many small steps can lead to substantial change

Lions, like this one at Animal City, need open spaces and shade to escape the sun’s heat (Photo credit: Greg Demarque)
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Two new rules regulating animal businesses and the ownership of big cats are a welcome step forward, but alone they are not sufficient. Lebanon needs a law governing if and how all types of animals can be brought legally into the country, the conditions in which they’ll be kept and prescribing how violators of such a law will be penalized. More rules are necessary to formalize an industry that, as a whole, has operated without government oversight and with impunity, where poor standards of captivity are the norm, where trafficking is seemingly ubiquitous.

If, as several stakeholders hope, Lebanon could one day have a zoo as a sort of national attraction, drawing visitors from all over the country and from neighboring ones too, then it needs an appropriate legislative framework. Such a concept requires long-term thinking, government oversight and demands clear rules for such a business, all while ensuring high standards for animal welfare and eliminating trafficking concerns. Lebanon may never approach the per animal potential of say, Uganda, whose native gorillas pull in some $1 million each per year in tourism revenues, and it probably wouldn’t compete, in terms of tourist numbers, with regional animal attractions like the Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo. But a national zoo could help diversify Lebanon’s tourism sector, contributing eco-tourism dollars and creating potential opportunities for other players, such as travel agencies offering package deals including a visit to the zoo, airfare or other local transportation options like buses as well as hotel accommodation.

That may be a far off dream, and Lebanon must first get its house in order by ratifying a law and issuing the necessary regulations. Such legislation is not likely to be forthcoming given the political impasse that has frozen work in parliament, and rolling out additional regulations to fill legal gaps is patchy at best and will take time. But there are a number of issues Lebanon can confront without legislation; measures that the government, judicial system and private sector can take to address the ethical and business concerns of subpar conditions and trafficking.

In 2014 Lebanon’s judiciary showed some receptivity toward protecting animals suffering in poor conditions, citing a violation of administrative protocols. An update to the criminal code is necessary by first adding penalties in line with the government’s new regulations for animal businesses and big cat ownership. To go further, the government must issue rules defining animal cruelty and the trafficking of all species, the violations of which must be prosecutable.

To contain animal trafficking the government needs to gain more control of the country’s entry and exit points. Part of that does need to come through legislation and regulation, but administrations can do more. One positive move was the recent expansion of customs at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport, and the installation of new technology and procedures for cargo inspection. The late August upgrade should curb trafficking at the airport, the minister of finance said in a press release.

But it is fair to point out that customs would be more effective with trained agents with a solid understanding of wildlife species, perhaps working alongside inspectors from the ministry of agriculture, that can distinguish between what may be written on import forms and what is actually being transported. The sheer volume passing through airport customs might demand more agents or ministry inspectors, and manpower deficiencies are not exclusive to Lebanon. One US airport was targeted by elephant ivory traffickers exploiting such weakness, the Washington Post found in 2014.

Customs officials are the gatekeepers of our borders and should be well-positioned to not only limit tax and duties evasion, the smuggling of drugs or counterfeit goods but also wildlife trafficking. According to a 2014 survey commissioned by the World Customs Organization, the MENA region’s customs administrations (the results were not country specific) ranked wildlife trafficking as their lowest priority. The study concluded that “Customs administrations with special investigation units tailored to wildlife smuggling have more interest in combating it than those relying on basic regular check-ups at borders”. If Lebanon’s customs does not already have such an investigation team then it needs to establish one. To have specialized agents or an investigative unit, alongside ministry of agriculture inspectors, may require additional financial resources and, without a budget being passed, that may not be feasible.

But at the airport, businesses too can have an impact. For starters, airlines and shipping firms hosted at Beirut’s airport can commit to an industry promise to shut down the illicit trade of endangered species and their products. Middle East Airlines must join regional carriers, such as Qatar Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline, pledging to the commitment set forth by the industry’s trade body, the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Freight forwarders too can commit to the IATA pledge. Local companies like BCC Logistics and global shippers like DHL or Aramex moving freight via the airport can improve cargo screening before it leaves sorting facilities, and they should also share cargo information more freely with customs and law enforcement officials at the points of departure, transit and destination.

Lastly, Lebanon’s flag carrier can contribute to the public’s awareness of wildlife trafficking and its consequences to the environment with a short public service announcement on flights arriving to and leaving Beirut. Other companies in the transport business can play their part by sponsoring awareness programs through, for example, social media to reach younger audiences or by increasing clients’ and customers’ awareness of wildlife trafficking. A law is needed, but these small steps can have positive results for animal welfare and to limit trafficking.