Friday, February 6, 1998

LebEnv # 47


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

(Note: the word 'hunter' is used very loosely here and is not meant to denigrate law-abiding hunters in most other countries where they follow strict rules and limits, and whose activities often include the conservation of wildlife habitat. It is simply being used as a literal translation of the word used in Lebanon, 'sayyad,' and in reality refers to poachers who kill wildlife in an indiscriminate manner.)

For decades, a huge number of Lebanese have had the urge to kill anything that moved, and especially anything that flew. Despite hunting laws that were on paper, most Lebanese hunters felt free to go hunting whenever they wanted, and to shoot as much as they could of anything.

Hunting became a virtual part of Lebanese culture, almost as much as drinking Arabic coffee and playing backgammon. As a result, large mammals were decimated decades ago, beyond the lifetime of most Lebanese alive today. Even an animal such as the squirrel, common in most western cities, became very scarce in Lebanon. With the mammals gone, hunters pointed their guns skyward.

A child might start with a slingshot. Soon after, he might receive a little pellet gun to shoot little song birds with. In my school, some classmates boasted on Monday about how many birds they had killed during the weekend, the way sports fans in other countries talk about the Sunday football game. The gun caliber grew in tandem with the boy's height (and testosterone levels). Manhood came with the heavy-guage, double-barreled shotgun (and even a Kalachnikov sometimes). In college, one classmate of mine once came back from a trip with a plastic-bagful of dead birds.

No area was off limits. People hunted everywhere. 'Everywhere' included not just remote open areas but village streets and even backyards, where large- caliber guns were used to shoot migrating birds in the midst of residential areas, raining gunshot and dead birds on nearby properties. Hunters cut up fences and hunted inside protected private property where they were unwelcome because the birds outside had already been decimated.

On an early Sunday morning in the mountains, one woke up to the sound of continuous gunfire that was more like another battle of the Lebanese war. Thousands of birds fell out of the sky. Particularly hard hit was the Bequa'a Valley at the end of October, which hunters mobbed by the thousands, producing a deafening racket throughout the day, after which they clogged up the Damascus Highway with their cars loaded with thousands of dead birds of all kinds. Even Beirut was not exempt. I've seen children shoot songbirds in trees among residential buildings. I've even heard the story of a man who got out of his car, stopping traffic, so he could shoot a bird with a machine gun in the heart of the Hamra district! Only rainy weather timed right could save the birds. In the woods, empty shotgun cartridges on the ground were as common as wildflowers elsewhere. Trees suffered damage to new growth from shotgun pellets. And, the woods were silent.

Some of the birds were eaten (a key component of ethical hunting in other countries). But most simply went to waste because they were of inedible species or too many in number. They simply made for good photographs with their murderer, whether it was one big stork or eagle, its wings spread by the proud hunter, or dozens of little birds cascading down a chest or weighing down a belt. Many were sold on roadsides to motorists, and to restaurants. (Hunting for profit is another no-no in other countries, including the U.S.) 'Asafeer mishwiyyeh' or 'miqliyyeh' (skewered or fried songbirds) were a staple of most Lebanese restaurants. There is the story of the foreign lady who dumped her Lebanese boyfriend after he ordered 'asafeer' at a restaurant.

More on hunting, including migratory birds and the hunting ban, in two weeks.

Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



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