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Kent conservationist improving chances for striped hyaena in war-torn Lebanon

University of Kent conservationist Mounir Abi-Said is the first Lebanese to complete his PhD on native wildlife in his home country. This has led to widespread recognition of his efforts to change public perceptions of striped hyaenas, which have long been reviled as grave robbers.

Until Mounir began his research at Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), striped hyaenas living in the human-dominated landscapes of Lebanon were subject to hatred and superstition. This resulted in their ongoing persecution, and has caused them to become near threatened throughout their range.

Mounir has shown that the striped hyaena – the largest species of carnivore remaining in Lebanon – prevents the spread of contagious diseases by scavenging on dead and infested animals. Equally, striped hyaenas can easily adapt their lifestyle to co-exist with people. However, before people and striped hyaenas can happily co-exist, it is essential that the old superstitions and prejudices about striped hyaenas are shown to be unfounded.

‘For example,’ Mounir said, ‘over 64% of the people I surveyed believe that hyaenas ‘mesmerise’ people with their eyes, and 36% believe that the hyaena uses supernatural powers to hypnotise people. Also, village and town elders related some 14 different themes of traditional and mythical stories about the striped hyaena, 11 of which portrayed the species in a negative light. These stories are still widely known among local people, and largely underpin the negative attitudes that 82% of local people hold towards striped hyaenas. Thus, 28% of respondents claimed to know of reported attacks by striped hyaenas on people, but such reports only arose because the bad reputation of striped hyaenas remains enshrined in stories told by elders.’

Consequently, Mounir – who is also director and owner of The Animal Encounter, an educational centre for wildlife conservation in Aley, Lebanon – established an awareness programme that comprised a seminar and an information leaflet, and which afforded local people the chance to interact with conservationists or guides. So far, this programme has proved successful in changing the views of more than 80% of zoo visitors towards striped hyaenas. Consequently, Mounir expects that ongoing conservation education will further reduce the poor perceptions that people hold of striped hyaenas.

Mounir’s research and work have been recognised and supported by the Gerald Durrell Memorial Fund, UNESCO-MAB, Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants, Idea Wild, Wildlife Trust and Quebec Labrador Foundation, the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research and the Karim Rida Said Foundation.

Now that Mounir has completed his PhD research, he hopes that the experience he has gained from DICE will enable him to continue conserving Lebanese wildlife. This will require reintroducing what has been lost and disseminating the knowledge and experience he has gained to local institutions and other researchers, both in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.

Professor Nigel Leader-Williams, Director of DICE and Mounir’s PhD supervisor said, ‘Mounir has broken new ground in Lebanon with his approach of integrating ecology and conservation education. It is a testament to his determination that he has seen his research through to its conclusion in such troubled circumstances. I expect Mounir to become a beacon for much needed conservation efforts in the Middle East.’

Gary Hughes | alfa
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