‘Save the hyena to save the planet’

Le­banon’s na­tional an­i­mal is at a near-threat­ened sta­tus. The coun­try’s renowned wildlife ex­pert tells us why dis­lik­ing the hyena is such a bad idea

Gulf News - - FRONT PAGE - BY MALAVIKA KAMARAJU Fea­tures Ed­i­tor

With Le­banon’s na­tional an­i­mal un­der threat, the coun­try’s renowned wildlife ex­pert ex­plains why dis­lik­ing the an­i­mal is a bad idea

‘Come visit me and you will fall in love with hye­nas.”

It’s an in­vi­ta­tion from one of Le­banon’s renowned wildlife con­ser­va­tion­ists.

If you loved Dis­ney’s Lion King and hated the hye­nas in it, it’s exactly the kind of pop­u­lar (mis) rep­re­sen­ta­tion of these an­i­mals that trou­bles Dr Mounir Abi-Said, who has spent decades try­ing to change the per­cep­tions of people on this mem­ber of the mam­malian king­dom. He re­ceived his PhD in 2006 in Bio­di­ver­sity Man­age­ment from the Univer­sity of Kent based on his re­search on the Striped Hyena (Hyaena hyaena), na­tive to Le­banon.

Not for him are the tor­ment­ing tales of hye­nas that many cultures still use as scare tac­tics on chil­dren. In fact, the hyena scare, he says, is the big­gest one on the spook scale.

“As a child, I used to hear about hye­nas,” says Dr Abi-Said, a full-time pro­fes­sor at the Le­banese Univer­sity Fac­ulty of Sci­ences in the de­part­ment of Life and Earth Sci­ences. At that time they used to say that if a hyena sees you, he will mes­merise you, then catch you and drag you to his cave where he will tickle your toes till you die of laugh­ter and then eat you up.”

There are other tales too. “When a man was afraid to go at night, it was said that he was sim­ply avoid­ing be­ing mes­merised by the hyena. His courage was never in ques­tion,” says Dr Abi-Said. As al­ways, blame it on the hyena.

LOVE FOR NA­TURE

Grow­ing up in the city of Aley on Mount Le­banon, his boy­hood was spent soak­ing in the delights of na­ture. It set the tone for his love of flora and fauna.

“We had a big garden in my par­ents’ house and I would spend all my time there. I find peace in na­ture. My par­ents also en­cour­aged me to de­velop my love [for na­ture].”

At univer­sity, he opted for an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in Agri­cul­ture and a Master’s in An­i­mal Sci­ences at the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Beirut. At that time, it was all about “live­stock, do­mes­tic an­i­mals, sheep, goats. I never thought I would end up work­ing with wildlife,” he says.

The pe­riod right af­ter the Le­banese Civil War in 1991 sign­posted a new di­rec­tion for him.

“I used to go around Beirut, and other vil­lages, and see a lot of wild an­i­mals in cages. So I would buy them and re­lease them into the wild.”

But he soon saw the per­ils of his ap­proach: he was, he re­alised, un­wit­tingly en­cour­ag­ing the il­le­gal wildlife trade.

“Also, the an­i­mals, in­clud­ing hye­nas, were get­ting used to people, they were not afraid be­cause they were so close to them and be­cause of that they were be­ing shot,” says Dr Abi-Said.

It be­came his en­dur­ing de­sire to avert this fate for the hye­nas. Shot on sight in Le­banon, hye­nas are also hunted for sport though Le­banon has strong con­ser­va­tion and wildlife pro­tec­tion laws, says Dr Abi-Said. The hyena is the na­tional an­i­mal of Le­banon.

He re­alised that his ef­forts would yield bet­ter re­sults if he set up a cen­tre for an­i­mals.

AN­I­MAL EN­COUN­TERS IS BORN

The re­sult was An­i­mal En­coun­ters, a shel­ter and ed­u­ca­tional cen­tre about wildlife that was set up in 1993, with help from Green Line As­so­ci­a­tion, a non-govern­men­tal en­tity in Le­banon. “I didn’t have the space or the money so we [his wife Diana, a plant sci­en­tist] de­cided it would be in our back­yard,” he says.

While the 35 species who in­habit the cen­tre are all important to him, he pur­sues the cause for

When a man was afraid to go at night, it was said that he was sim­ply avoid­ing be­ing mes­merised by the hyena. His courage was never in ques­tion.”

Dr Mounir Abi-Said, on how hye­nas are mis­rep­re­sented

the hap­less hyena with pro­nounced pas­sion.

‘HYE­NAS ARE SO MIS­UN­DER­STOOD’

The hyena, he says, is cru­cial for a healthy ecosys­tem. Many of its di­etary habits are a boon for the planet. Possess­ing the strong­est jaws in the an­i­mal king­dom, the hyena crushes and pounds away at the bones as it eats them. “The hyena’s stom­ach is rich in sul­phuric acid and when the bones en­ter the stom­ach, they break down, re­leas­ing cal­cium.”

This cal­cium re­turns to the earth in the hyena’s exc­reta, re­plen­ish­ing the soil. “Ev­ery­thing needs to be re­cy­cled in na­ture,” he says.

“Hye­nas also have 10 times the num­ber of white blood cells as com­pared to hu­mans and that is why they can eat rot­ting, dis­eased prey and con­trol the spread of dis­eases. That is rea­son Le­banon never had a case of bird flu be­cause the hye­nas ate up the in­fected birds and saved the pop­u­la­tion from be­ing ex­posed to them,” says Dr Abi-Said.

Also, if they can’t fin­ish up the car­cass, they drag it into the wild, away from people.

The hyena is also an om­ni­vore. “They eat fruit and ex­crete the seeds as they move around, which helps in foresta­tion.”

Fed up with the an­i­mos­ity for hye­nas, he wants the com­ing gen­er­a­tions to have a pro­gres­sive view of these species. “I did not want my chil­dren to grow up fear­ing an­i­mals who are one of the most important as­pects of this planet’s diver­sity.”

Lest his affin­ity for the hyena be looked at through an emo­tional lens, he is quick to ex­plain that “there is no emo­tion here. It’s purely a sci­en­tific way of bring­ing a bal­ance of view about the im­por­tance of wildlife for the planet’s health.”

HAVE HIS EF­FORTS BORNE FRUIT?

“People’s at­ti­tudes have changed a lot whether it is about hye­nas or other wildlife,” says Dr Abi-Said.

Seven years ago, he was ap­proached by Le­banon’s Min­istry of Education. “They wanted to have a small chap­ter in the cur­ric­ula for schools on the role of hye­nas in the en­vi­ron­ment.”

He be­lieves there is a need to cre­ate lit­er­a­ture on wildlife and get people to un­der­stand how important it is for the planet’s well-be­ing.

“We are not ap­pre­ci­at­ing their role.”

Nei­ther are people in­formed on the diver­sity of the species.

There are four kinds of hye­nas: spot­ted, striped, brown and the aard­wolf. “The striped hye­nas are scav­engers; they don’t hunt, whereas the spot­ted ones live in groups and also hunt. Hye­nas in Le­banon are the striped kind. We do not have spot­ted hye­nas in Le­banon.”

On the near-threat­ened list ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Union of Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (IUCN), with a global pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mated to be un­der 10,000 ma­ture in­di­vid­u­als, hye­nas, says Dr Abi-Said, may be truly en­dan­gered in a few decades.

In Le­banon, “their fate is bet­ter now than it was 15 years ago. There are [also] now more NGOs in Le­banon work­ing to pro­tect the hyena. That is the im­pact An­i­mal En­coun­ters has had.”

Photos: Mounir Abi-Said

Le­banon’s striped hyena. ■ Left: A warm bond … Dr ■ Mounir Abi-Said with a striped hyena at his shel­ter An­i­mal En­coun­ters.

Chil­dren ob­serve a lady bug at An­i­mal En­coun­ters. ■

Dr Abi-Said and his team re­lease a buz­zard back into the wild. ■

Vis­i­tors to An­i­mal En­coun­ters view a hyena up close. ■

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