Many migratory soaring birds journey between Europe, Western and Central Asia and Africa. They face unsustainable levels of hunting in many countries along their route, including Syria and Lebanon. Tackling hunting is one element of the Migratory Soaring Birds (MSB) Project, which addresses a range of threats to these birds from economic sectors along the Red Sea/Rift Valley Flyway. The aim is to promote the principles of responsible hunting, including within legislation, in order to minimize impacts on populations of migratory soaring birds. In Syria and Lebanon, implementation on the ground is held back by regional instability, but legal reforms provide a basis to integrate conservation into hunting. BirdLife International initiated the MSB Project in 2008, with support from GEF and UNDP. In both Syria and Lebanon, national governments, ministries and Higher Councils for Hunting (HCH) play critical roles. MSB Project in Lebanon is hosted by the Ministry of Environment, with technical support from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL, a national BirdLife Partner), and there is a similar arrangement in Syria, also supported by the national BirdLife Partner, the Syrian Society for Conservation of Wildlife (SSCW). Positive changes seems to have initiated: political support demonstrated, new legislation in place and hunters aware of the problem, engaging in finding alternative solutions.
Lebanon’s Fifth National Report to the CBD in 2015 sets out the achievements of the HCH, including summarizing the hunting laws, related procedures and decrees. The document reports on training for the implementation of the legislation, and publications supported by the MSB Project, such as a Field Guide to Soaring Birds and Manual for Hunters. The NBSAPs of Syria and Lebanon could relate efforts to mainstream biodiversity into the hunting sector to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Not only does the MSB project focus on improving the conservation status of threatened species, in line with Target 12, but it also supports Target by raising awareness of the values of biodiversity and the steps that responsible hunters can take; and Target 4, as the new hunting legislation aims to keep the use of natural resources within safe ecological limits. NBSAPs have been adopted as a national planning tool for the Convention on Migratory Species member States. In 2014 and 2015, both Syria and Lebanon signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Birds of Prey in Africa and Eurasia (the Raptors MOU); Lebanon and Syria have also been signatories of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) since 2002 and 2003, respectively.
Widespread and largely indiscriminate hunting is the greatest direct threat to migratory soaring birds using the Red Sea/Rift Valley Flyway. As well as being part of national traditions, with deep cultural roots, hunting provides many families with food and income, and has contributed to the tourism economy. However, unregulated numbers of national and foreign shooters in Syria and Lebanon contributed to severe declines of many globally threatened and vulnerable species. This has led to the likely extinction of the Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita) from the wild in the region, and is of considerable concern for other migratory birds, in particular soaring species, many of which are slow to reproduce, making them more vulnerable to hunting. The MSB Project faces the challenge of a lack of precise quantitative data on the level of hunting and its impacts on bird populations. It is estimated that tens of thousands of migratory birds are shot annually in Lebanon, and more than 100,000 in Syria (prior to the outbreak of hostilities). Far more are hunted across the rest of the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean region.
Both SSCW and SPNL have played key roles in the process, advocating the need for new legislation, including decrees to regulate existing laws. In both countries, the legislative changes included measures that would lead to responsible hunting and reduce illegal killing such as: defined hunting seasons, list of permitted species, licensing and enforcement procedures. Actions included the following:
- Lebanon had updated its hunting law in 2004, and SPNL worked with the HCH to further integrate biodiversity concerns in the hunting practices, and ‘application’ decrees.
- The concept of Responsible Hunting Areas has been promoted, where hunting is permitted under the control of the local municipal authority, in line with these new decrees.
- In 2012, SSCW advocated for the Syrian Government to set up a plan to revise the Syrian Hunting Law under the auspices of HCH. The SSCW helped draft what was the first revision to the hunting law in more than 45 years. This process is now completed and awaiting the official issuing step.
- The SSCW, SPNL and national authorities in both countries work together to monitor hunting violations.
- A Regional Declaration on Responsible Hunting was launched in 2013. Hunters and civil society groups from across the Middle East have signed this, committing to work towards the revival of the region’s traditional heritage in responsible hunting, improve their role in hunting control, and promote responsible hunting principles.
- All signatories to the Declaration accept a Code of Best Practices for Responsible Hunting, which contains principles and practical guidance on responsible and legal hunting. Many of the hunters that signed the Declaration expressed their aspiration to create national responsible hunting groups and clubs, with this Code as their core value.
- A similar Declaration was developed for manufacturers and traders of hunting equipment.
- Communication emphasizes the tradition of hospitality to visiting guests. Tools include meetings with communities in hunting hotspots, workshops, training for hunting clubs and rangers, news articles, social media and bird guidebooks.
- The MSB Project overall provides key inputs, such as the Soaring Bird Sensitivity Map showing critical areas for birds along the flyway. The Regional Flyway Facility (which coordinates the Project) offers technical support and coordination among all Project partners.
- In order to develop the evidence needed to inform decision makers, BirdLife International, national BirdLife Partners and national research institutions assess the status of migratory soaring birds.
The MSB project continues to face misconceptions that, as migratory soaring birds are not resident in Syria and Lebanon, they do not form part of national biodiversity and their conservation is thus a lower priority than resident species. This perception fuelled misunderstandings of the threats to migratory species. The extensive communication work, including the Declaration and Code for Responsible Hunting, has been essential to raise awareness of the impacts of hunting and the global importance of protecting these birds. Scientific evidence of the bird population declines, a map of IBAs and migratory soaring birds bottleneck are some examples of information that were key to inform the higher level discussions and to bring the problem ‘to the table’. Facing the social consequences resulting from regulating the activity has proven to be fundamental. In this regard, the discussions around finding alternative income to hunters that rely on this activity was imperative. The legislative reforms provide a critical framework for moving the hunting sector towards sustainable practices, but success depends on implementation. This will need investment in effective enforcement, and finding ways to change the minds of individual hunters, either by educating them to enjoy birds without hunting them irresponsibly, or providing alternatives to those who depend on hunting activities.
The SSCW and SPNL monitor progress, as members of relevant hunting related committees. Gathering quantitative data on the impacts on bird populations from hunting or of the effects of latest policy changes is, however, at an early stage, and currently difficult. Although regional instability has meant that the legal reforms are yet to be enforced, the results of the MSB Project provide the political foundation for future positive change downstream:
- The decision by both countries to sign the Raptors MOU was a positive achievement
- In Lebanon, in 2015, the Minister of Environment formally called for “all appropriate legal measures” to be taken against hunters photographed posing with hunted pelicans and storks on the outskirts of a protected area. Not only was the hunting season still closed, but these species are protected under Lebanese laws.
- In Syria, SSCW and governmental bodies worked to find alternative means of income for hunters, including training to become wardens and ecotourism bird guides.
- Inevitably the monitoring, implementation and outcomes of the project will be affected by the current conflict in Syria. The approaches adopted with local communities near the Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) of Tadmor (Palmyra) and Lake Jabboul were expected to bring benefits on a national scale, but both regions have changed hands in the ongoing conflict. The final step to bring the Syrian legal changes into force is held up by the instability.