At first glance, the photos are cute: the tiny lion, tiger and bear cubs nestling in their owner’s arms could be stuffed animals. But there’s no escaping the fact that these are wild animals, part of an illegal trade that can see these baby animals sell for thousands of dollars apiece.
Lebanese Internet users pose with newly bought lions on social media as if they were puppies. It's easy to find ads for wild animals on sites like OLX, the Lebanese equivalent of Ebay. A bear cub can sell for $6,000 while a baby tiger might be priced at $25,000. “Sales have skyrocketed in the last six months, but we don’t really know why,” Jason Mier, director of the NGO Animals Lebanon, told FRANCE 24. His group has been fighting animal trafficking for years.
Jason is American, but he spent many years living in Africa, where he worked in animal conservation. He moved to Lebanon in 2007. At the time, the country was a major hub in chimpanzee trafficking. Since then, Jason has continued his work from Beirut.
‘Not long ago, you could go to the zoo and pick up a lion cub for a tidy sum’
Most of the animals come from outside the country, especially Ukraine and Syria. The ones from Ukraine go through Beirut’s international airport. Just two days ago, someone told us about three baby tigers that arrived there, and which are still held up at the airport as we speak. These animals end up getting imported legally just by having “live animals” on the travel documents, without any mention of the fact that they are wild animals. That’s how they get through customs. Or they’re part of a shipment with many other items, so they slip through the cracks. In a shipment of twelve dogs, for example, a lion cub can get hidden at the back of one of the cages and the security agents never notice. Plus, we know how porous the Lebanese borders are at the moment. Just like refugees can get through illegally, smugglers are able to bring in animals they’ve stolen or bought from Syrian zoos. In Lebanon, too, you used to be able to go to the zoo and pick up a lion cub or a baby tiger for a tidy sum. But luckily it’s more tightly controlled than it used to be.
Just in the last six months, we’ve heard about four lions, two tigers, one leopard and at least six bear cubs. A lot of people are taking action against this just by letting us know about ads they see on social media, or about animals they’ve seen on the street or at the airport. Sometimes people who know the owners expose them by accident. Recently a family bought a lion cub and their daughter showed her classmates pictures of it. The principal let us know about it right away!
Our NGO has no legal power. We can’t confiscate animals from their owners. Our role is just to let the authorities know—in this case the Agriculture Minister—and give them all the information that we have so that they can begin an investigation and possibly remove the animal, and then we can take care of it. Unfortunately, even when the police have taken action, it’s never led to legal action and the owner of the animal gets off without even paying a fine. So we’re trying to push the government to be tougher and to not let people get away with this. If there was a lawsuit it might teach people a lesson!
On the other hand I know that the authorities have good intentions. [Lebanon became a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, in 2013.] An animal protection law has been drafted and will be debated in the Lebanese parliament. But with the current political instability [Lebanon has gone two years without a president], you understand that that kind of legislation isn’t considered a priority. It’s hard to assert animal rights in that context.
People buy these animals to show off. They’re rich, and $20,000 isn’t an exorbitant sum for them. They’re prepared to pay that amount if it means they’ll get a lion cub that they can walk down the street like a little dog, just to get attention. Some buyers don’t even realise that it’s dangerous for the animal, who isn’t meant to live under those conditions. Other people know but don’t care. What they all have in common is that they don’t think about the long-term consequences and the fact that the animal can become dangerous over time. Plus they give it cooked meat instead of raw meat and keep it in a dark space, to try to tame it. But most of the animals die before they even reach two years old, since they’re forced to live in conditions that aren’t at all appropriate for wild animals. We often get felines in horrible condition: they have broken paws because they’ve been deprived of exercise and are chained up in tiny spaces, sometimes even on the balcony of an apartment.