LYING BELLY DOWN, her elbows propped on the edge of a cliff, Shirine Bou Raffoul peers through her binoculars, watching a group of men and boys among the pines on the other side of the valley. The woods of Akkar al Attiqa, in Lebanon’s far north, are breathtaking — sharp cliffs dramatically giving way to crisp, undulating green — but the scenery is a second thought. Bou Raffoul is focused on poachers.
A member of the local Middle East Sustainable Hunting Center’s Anti-Poaching Unit, or APU, Bou Raffoul and her fellow team of six, including her older brother, Maroun, are on a mission to capture video evidence of the illegal killing of migratory birds. Both Shirine and Maroun are employed by the German Committee Against Bird Slaughter, or CABS, which sends members over and runs anti-poaching missions each migratory season with partners like the APU.
Between three and five million migratory birds are shot in Lebanon each year.
Lebanon is situated in the middle of the East African-Eurasian flyway, making the country one of the most important migration corridors in the world for many species of birds. But the country also has a long tradition of bird hunting, which has been a disaster for species of concern like honey buzzards and lesser spotted eagles. Between three and five million migratory birds are shot in Lebanon each year as they make the dangerous trip from Europe to Africa and back each spring and autumn.
In Akkar al Attiqa, the wind is strong so the birds are flying low, making them easier targets. Two shots reverberate across the valley, and with their video cameras poised, the anti-poaching team announces they have caught a poacher shooting two honey buzzards. The team immediately calls the local police and the national Internal Security Force, as Maroun and a fellow APU team member jump in a car and speed down a dirt track. After travelling some distance, they stop the vehicle, jump out, and run up a hill, where they’d seen the buzzards fall. They find them: One of the birds is hung up in a pine tree, dead, the other fallen to the ground, wounded but alive.
A group of kids have gathered around the buzzard on the ground. They want to keep the bird, but CABS’ policy here is “leave no bird behind,” so Maroun wrests the bird away from the crowd, and heads back to the car, its blood dripping down his arm. A woman, standing staunchly in a field next to her house, yells out to Maroun: “God sent this bird to be killed. It is halal.” It is permitted by God.
ALTHOUGH LEBANON HAS a strong anti-poaching law, which details the birds that are allowed to be hunted, in which season, and in what numbers, the law is rarely enforced. For the last two years, hunting season has been closed in Lebanon. The Ministry of Interior cannot afford to enforce an open season. “By banning it, they are saving money,” says Samer Halwany, treasurer and spokesman for the Association for Bird Conservation in Lebanon. “The police don’t have to go out on the ground and ensure that the law is applied.” But that has not stopped armed hunters from leaving home on seasonal forays.
To fill in the enforcement gaps, CABS, accompanied by local partners like the APU, travels to areas like this one, where birds (and poachers) concentrate. Here, they hope to educate hunters and help enforce the law. It is not an easy job. The bond between fathers and their children in rural parts of Lebanon is often built during time spent in nature, usually hunting birds. “[Traditionally] everyone would go and hunt, especially in the villages where they didn’t have much to do in their life,” Shirine says. “They cultivate their gardens, and then they hunt.”
Shirine, who is 28, and Maroun, 30, know how to talk to poachers. Both grew up hunting. As a young girl, Shirine was saddened when her father and four brothers would go on hunting trips without her. From the age of 10, she was invited to join them, not yet carrying a gun but happy to be part of the ritual. “Every time, I waited for this trip, not only to shoot and hit the target, but to spend time with my father and my brothers,” she says. “As they taught me, our bond grew stronger.”
She began shooting at the age of 18. On one hunting trip, Shirine shot a large bird, a species she didn’t know at the time, and the experience changed her outlook. “I saw it suffering in front of me,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh my God it’s very big, what should I do?’” Shirine recognized the bird was in pain, and she began to cry. When her father saw the bird, he told her she shouldn’t shoot this type, because it eats the rats and mice on their cultivated land. This kind of thinking was uncommon in Beqaa, east Lebanon, where most people poach without caution.
“They don’t really know the law or responsible hunting, so they pass the bad hobby of poaching to their children,” Shirine says, adding the young generation can’t be blamed for lack of awareness.
Lebanon underwent a protracted civil war, from 1975 to 1990, pitting Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities against each other. What emerged was a country with little justice or accountability for crimes and killings, but where every household continues to own a gun.
“After surviving a civil war, you feel like you are still threatened at any time,” Shirine says. “You don’t know when it will go ‘boom,’ and, with different religious sects populating villages next to each other, you never know when you will be attacked by your neighbors. So everyone owns a gun for their own protection.”
Since volunteering with the Middle East Sustainable Hunting Center and working with CABS, Shirine has given up hunting. She has seen too many injured birds. But her experience as a hunter, as with others in her unit, helps de-escalate situations with poachers in the field.
“By saying we’re hunters, it breaks the ice,” she says. “If you present yourself as environmentalists, they will shoot [at you] … because the hunters in Lebanon hate the environmentalists, and the environmentalists hate the hunters. It’s a war between them.”
AT THE SITE in Akkar al Attiqa, the police finally arrive, and the anti-poaching team guides them to the man who shot the endangered buzzards. Three small children start crying at the presence of the officers. As the police confiscate his guns, the man tries to call someone higher up in the police force, in hopes of escaping charges. Shirine is one step ahead of him, though, and has already notified the commander.
“These parents are stupid,” she says. “They are ignorant to put their children in such situation. My heart melts, and I feel so sorry for these kids. It’s not normal to teach kids to kill from this young age.”
The video footage will be sent to the police, who will pass it to an environmental crimes judge, who will need to sign off on the case and guide the actions taken against the poacher. Generally, the suspect is fined, has their gun confiscated, and is made to sign a pledge saying they won’t shoot protected birds again.
The wounded bird will eventually be taken to a vet, but the chances of recovery are slim. Less than 10 percent of rescued birds can be rehabilitated, most often due to broken wings, according to CABS spokesperson Axel Hirschfeld. “Birds are very, very fragile creatures,” he says. “They have hollow bones, so most of the birds don’t make it. It’s a sad fact.” The birds are not suitable for domestication, and Lebanon lacks larger centers for rehabilitation. If they are unable to fly, they have to be put down. All of which makes the work feel even more urgent.
The anti-poaching team — which includes Shirine, Maroun, Hirschfeld, and Alexander Heyd, the CEO of CABS — moves to a new location in Lebanon’s north and continues patrolling. They make their way through the brush, clambering over rocks. Eventually they reach a point where a man is sitting, camouflaged, under a tree. To his side, a massacre: piles of bloody wings, feathers scattered everywhere. The team counts the wings of 28 honey buzzards, eight Levantine sparrow hawks, and one kestrel.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg of this location,” Heyd says. It would seem that every poacher from miles around comes to this vantage point, where they have a clear shot at the passing birds, which often drop, wastefully, into the deep valley below. The killing of raptors in Lebanon is particularly wanton, as religious tradition discourages eating them. The team estimates that only one out of 10 birds shot will be collected.
Maroun leaves the site and makes his way down the mountain, hoping to find the rest of the poachers, or evidence of any fresh kills. Shirine stays, trying to explain to this man that it’s haram — forbidden — to shoot the birds that have been flying overhead this morning, many of which were lesser spotted eagles.
The poacher, who only gives his first name, Kameel, is a 55-year-old butcher from a village across the valley. He says he takes Mondays off to enjoy time with his two sons and a friend, an older man. They camp out overnight, cooking over a fire and drinking whiskey, knowing the birds are easier targets in the morning, flying low as they leave their overnight roosts.
“These birds are being protected in Germany and other European countries with a lot of effort, a lot of taxpayers’ money,” Hirschfeld explains, as Shirine translates. “And your government has signed an international conservation treaty to protect them. But this is all for the bin if they don’t come back and get killed on their migration route.”
Kameel swears on his honor that he won’t shoot them again.
By now, Maroun has returned with Kameel’s two sons and older hunting partner. This man appears intoxicated; his breath reeks of alcohol. As a retired police officer, he says he lives on a pension of $110 a month, a paltry amount in a country with skyrocketing inflation and plummeting currency value. Still, these men have found the money to purchase whiskey, as well as ammunition — a box of which can cost from $7 to $10. Shirine explains later: “They escape their life and suffering by shooting at these birds. They may not be able to eat tonight, but they will shoot.”
The team sends the poachers away, and once they are gone, Hirschfeld sets up a hidden camera at the site, hoping to collect more evidence of poaching over the next few days.
“We only have 100 breeding pairs left in Germany of the lesser spotted eagle,” he says later. “It’s a species of conservation concern. There are many NGOs working to protect them in their breeding habitat,” Hirschfeld says. This eagle has a low reproduction rate — females often lay two eggs, but only one chick survives per year — and adults reach maturity after three or four years. “That means if one pair of adult lesser spotted eagles want to replace themselves for the next generation, it has to cross Lebanon four times in spring and four times in September, until breeding maturity, then they have to produce enough young to replace themselves.”
In a country with a history of conflict and an economy in freefall, educating citizens about poaching is a challenge.
In other words, the pair must survive passing through Lebanon 10 to 12 times just to break even. These are not good odds.
Avian predators — like the lesser spotted eagle, sparrowhawk, and kites — have an important role in ecosystems. They help maintain healthy natural habitats by removing old, sick, and weak animals from prey populations, and keep populations of prey species, like rodents and snakes, under control. “Of course, it’s not easy to explain, especially here in Lebanon, where people definitely have problems other than biodiversity,” Hirschfeld says.
Knowing how difficult it is to change tradition, Maroun often shares an example from his village, where protected birds eat rodents in the wheat fields, which means farmers don’t have to use rat poison each year to protect their crops.
This utilitarian view can feel slightly at odds with the German outlook at CABS, which tends toward an intrinsic value. “It’s not a question of how are these animals important for us or for nature, but that they are a value of, and for, themselves,” Heyd says.
No matter the approach or view, the need to protect these birds is dire. To poachers, it may seem like plenty of birds fly through Lebanon in a given season. But they typically know little about where the birds are coming from, or in what predicament their population is. “This could be the last one from the population in the Ural Mountains,” Heyd says, as a honey buzzard flies overhead. “We never know.”
In a country with a history of conflict and an economy in freefall, educating citizens about poaching is a challenge. Still, when she is not in the field, Shirine regularly visits military generals, politicians, and community leaders, hoping to strengthen partnerships. In a world full of problems, it gives her focus. “Everyone has a task in life to do,” she says. “This is our task. I cannot remove the garbage, I cannot protect the trees from being cut, I cannot protect the people. This is my passion in life, to protect the birds. And if everyone does their role, the country will be great.”
WHILE THE ANTI-POACHING team has made some inroads into protecting larger raptors, it has a long way to go when it comes to songbirds. “At the moment people only understand two bird species: big birds and small birds,” Heyd says. “The big birds are starting to be perceived as bad to kill, but small birds, [they think] you can shoot whatever you want.”
While the APU puts most of its effort into raptor work, it remains on the lookout for poaching practices used on smaller birds as well. Lebanon’s anti-poaching law prohibits the use of electronic calls, mist nets, and glue, all of which continue to be used to ensnare songbirds.
Songbirds are most often trapped in coastal villages, or among bushes by the sea, along the main migratory corridor for these birds. During peak migration, a caller and a mist net can trap up to 100 birds. The birds are sold as delicacies, especially the blackcap, which is a protected species. A few years ago, CABS found frozen songbirds in the duty-free shop of Beirut International Airport. Some shops in Lebanon get away with selling songbirds by claiming they are imported, but CABS has managed to convince the largest supermarket chain here, Spinnys, to halt their sale.
Driving along the Lebanon coast one morning, Maroun keeps his ears attuned to the sound of electronic callers, stopping if he hears one to determine which species is being mimicked and whether it’s migratory and illegal to poach. Most of the small birds, such as blackcaps and various warbler species, travel at night, so anti-poaching operations to find and bring down mist nets usually happen before dawn.
Maroun and his team are on a break from monitoring raptor poachers, as the weather isn’t ideal and the larger birds aren’t expected to be flying. In the village of Barja, south of Beirut, he pulls over, having spotted nets spread across the trees of an olive grove.
Nearby, several men spot the car and rush to collect the birds ensnared in the nets. They know they are committing a crime. Maroun watches as they take the birds and get on their phones, likely to notify others in the village that APU and CABS are around. He moves on.
At another large trapping site in the same village, some of the anti-poaching team have called the police. Maroun and his group decide to reinforce them. They drive to the site, but they all must wait to enter private land until they have permission. After calls to various police officials and the ISF over the course of four hours, a local officer finally turns up, enabling the anti-poachers to enter the private land and confiscate the nets.
The owner is away, but a farm hand is here, and he looks on as the team moves in. The mist nets are spread throughout an olive grove, and tangled in one of them is a garden warbler, a perching songbird just passing through. With care, the team cuts the bird loose, untangling its feet and wings from the net. Then they release it. It speeds low through the olive trees, then out of the grove, back on its migration track, winging toward the sea.
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