Dubai: “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 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. “We were afraid of them. 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.
Growing up in the city of Aley in Mount Lebanon, his boyhood was spent soaking in the delights of nature. It set the tone of his love for 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 “live stock, 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 conservation efforts would yield better results if he set up a centre for animals. 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.
Hyenas are so misunderstood
While the 35 species who inhabit the centre are all important to him, he pursues the cause for the hapless hyena with pronounced passion.
“Hyenas are so misunderstood,” he says.
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 the calcium.”
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
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. “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,” he says.
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.”
Back at his house, a three-month-old hyena cub seems to be testing his resolve to remain implacably driven by the scientific temperament towards it species. “Its mother was shot and the four cubs were brought to me,” he explains about the cub’s presence in his house.
In a video that could well be a part of Animal Planet’s Cute Alert animal videos, the cub gambols and grunts, hungrily drinking from a milk bottle as Dr Abi-Said speaks to it. “They are so sensitive, so loving. They bond with you rather than you bond with them,” he says.
His walker - a result of a recent accident that led to a leg fracture - he says is the cub’s object of affection too. “He thinks it is a part of me. As I am walking around with it, he keeps coming round to the walker as he also wants to be a part of it.”
Does the cub have a name? He does but he won’t name it. “We don’t want people to start thinking that they are pets. A wild animal is a wild animal.” When the cub grows up to fend for itself, it will released into the wild, where it belongs.
The centre moved on to a bigger piece of land in 1997 with help from Canadian embassy and other entities. “We don’t bring in animals from the wild. When we get call-ins, we give them shelter and take them back into the wild when it’s time and for those we cannot release into the wild, we keep them with us till their end.”