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The Hunters hunted

Hunting in Lebanon

Thirteen-year-old Baker Taha was killed in a hunting accident last weekend in the town of Denbu in Akkar in North Lebanon. His hunting partner accidentally shot Taha in the abdomen and immediately turned himself in to the local police station. Such incidents are not uncommon in a country where hunting is unregulated but seen as an integral part of manhood — a rite of passage in which boys as young as eight years of age follow their fathers, brothers and uncles on seasonal excursions. It is unclear how many hunters there are in Lebanon; some estimates put the number as high as 300,000. There are no regulations in place, and the ambiguity of the hunting laws, as well as lax enforcement, has resulted in confusion, accidents and ecological damage.

Is hunting illegal?

 “Lebanon is this country that everybody loves, because everything that’s illegal is legal,” said Mohammad, a seasoned hunter in his twenties. Hunting was banned by President Elias Hrawi in 1994 for five years after pressure from Western countries to protect migratory birds (Lebanon is a major stop-over site), according to Pierre Doumet, the president of the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa, a local conservation NGO. The ban was extended on a yearly basis since 1999, until a 2004 law laid down regulations to legalize the sport. But even between 1994 and 2004, lack of enforcement resulted in rampant, unregulated hunting, which led to the extinction of a number of local species, according to conservationist Chris Naylor from A Rocha Lebanon, an international NGO protecting the Ammiq Wetland, a major site for migratory birds. On occasions that the state made serious efforts to enforce the ban, people stopped hunting for a while. But interestingly enough, Naylor affirmed that the most effective tool thus far for prohibiting hunting has been “the scare of bird flu.”

The 2004 law requires among other things, establishing a Higher Council for Hunting presided by the Minister of Environment, as well as the conditions for obtaining a hunting permit, which includes possessing a gun permit, having insurance against accidents and passing a hunting exam. While the Higher Council for Hunting was established in 2006, there were no application decrees to implement the law comprehensively. The council, in fact, had its first meeting this September, presided by Environment Minister Tony Karam — a keen hunter who believes that the sport is “instinctive” to every man. In its third and most recent meeting on October 24, the council agreed that permits should be distributed through arms shops, without insisting applicants sit for an exam, and also that the hunting season should officially be opened this year. A pending decision by Minister Karam, which will activate these controversial edicts, has led to a huge debate on whether it is proper to recognize hunting and give permits so freely.

One of the root causes for the controversy lies in the muddle produced by the 2004 law. No one agrees on whether hunting was legal since then. According to Karam, hunting “is not illegal since there is a [2004] law that regulates it,” rather than “just one line” that prohibits it. If hunting was legal to begin with, Karam believes that recognizing the sport by giving permits and opening the season are proper first steps to regulating it. However, environmental NGOs strongly disagree. Without properly training hunters on the safe use of weapons and their environmental responsibilities for biodiversity and migratory birds, the new law “will give [hunters] the legality and nothing more,” says Bassima Khatib, the associate director-general of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, which was established in 1984 and is the first official environmental NGO in Lebanon. And as the 2004 law has not been applied in its entirety, “the existing status continues until today, [and] hunting is forbidden,” seconded Doumet. 

Even the state seems divided on the legality of hunting. Just two weeks ago, the army called on “all the citizens to abide by the decisions prohibiting hunting and to abstain from walking around carrying any sort of weapons, especially… south of the Litani River.” In other words, the army recognizes an overall ban on hunting, contrary to the Environment Ministry, while enforcing it “especially” in South Lebanon, in line with the Security Council Resolution 1701, which limits the possession of all arms in South Lebanon to national security forces.

Others are equally confused. Bchara Baaklini, a former agent for Browning guns, said that based on the 2004 law, hunting is allowed, but that the regulations for hunting promised within that law were never implemented. He lamented how “people are not concerned about anything, about the environment… There is a ban on hunting, [but] everybody is hunting. So what’s the ban for?” So is there, or is there not a ban? Politician Dory Chamoun, who is the son of the former president and avid hunter Camille Chamoun and involved in local clay pigeon shooting tournaments, also seemed confused. “As far as I know, [hunting] is legal,” said Chamoun while asking people around him whether they agreed. “[But] I’m not so sure either,” he qualified.
 
Yet the bottom line is that most people hunt regardless of any law. Arms and ammunitions are easily bought, and people can shoot birds of any kind by the hundreds with impunity. If you have connections with influential people in the army or the government, one only has to invoke them to get out of trouble when caught. Pierre and Patrick, who were hunting last week in the Metn, got pulled over by the police. “We just made our phone call, and it was fine,” said Patrick. In the same vicinity, Sara was hunting last weekend with her brother when, along with ten other hunters, they got caught by the police. Luckily, Sara’s brother was a doctor working in the same neighborhood as the arresting police officer. When the policeman learned about this link, he released them both. “We didn’t even have to call anyone up,” said Sara gleefully.