Al Ma’wa: A shelter for smuggled, abused wild animals
Amman - Nestled in a natural forest in northern Jordan, Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife and the people who work there have a mission: to rescue and protect wildlife, especially endangered species.
As visitors walk along a gravel path with trees and shrubs covering a steep hill, the roars of lions and tigers can be heard, overshadowed by the maniacal giggle of a hyena sheltering from the scorching heat behind a dead tree trunk.
Arabic for “shelter”, Al Ma’wa was established in 2009 as a joint initiative between the Princess Alia Foundation, a non-profit organisation named after and run by the eldest half-sister of Jordanian King Abdullah II, and Vier-Pfoten International, an animal welfare institution based in Austria.
Al Ma’wa Executive Director Mahdi Quatrameez said Jordan’s rich biodiversity and its location at the crossroads in the Middle East makes it a target for illegal wild animals smuggling.
“Jordan is a vital transit bridge for transporting wildlife both legally and illegally between sources and markets,” Quatrameez explained. “Our role is to protect wildlife and endangered species and to preserve the forest and all flora and fauna on site, allowing for the preservation and conservation of the biodiversity of the area.
“This is not an easy job at all as we encountered many cases where we had to intervene to rescue wild animals from abuse or smuggling in and through the kingdom.”
He noted that rescued animals are housed in Al Ma’wa in specific enclosures, where they are rehabilitated, with some released into the wild.
Wild animals are smuggled into Jordan from Africa on their way to Gulf Arab states. There, some rich families raise tigers, leopards, lions and even hyenas at farms or even their homes in residential areas.
Cheetahs top the list as the animal most wanted as pets or exotic additions to the lives of the rich who exchange the wild animals as precious gifts. Some use them in hunting.
Cheetahs, which can run as fast as 120 kilometres per hour, faster than any other land animal, are smuggled to the Gulf states by boat out of Somali regions to Yemen and across Yemeni borders by vehicle, according to a 2014 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The convention is an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not imperil their survival.
From 1998-2002, 39 young cheetahs, identified primarily as originating from Somalia, were confiscated by customs officials at the UAE’s Sharjah International Airport, according to the report. In 2014, Dubai Customs confiscated seven young cheetahs and transferred them to wildlife facilities.
Environmental protection agencies and wildlife charities estimate that up to 350 million specimens are illegally bought and sold on the global black market each year.
According to the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, a US-based voluntary public-private coalition, wildlife trafficking — the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products — is a soaring black market worth an estimated $10 billion a year.
Quatrameez said the number of animal smuggling cases varied from one year to another in Jordan.
“Sometimes, there are four to six cases within a few months only,” he said. “Most of the animals caught in smuggling are big cats and reptiles such as lions and tigers, snakes and tortoises and, in certain cases, different bird species.”
Few Jordanians know that Al Ma’wa shelters wild animals, which currently include 19 lions, two tigers, a bear, four hyenas, ten wolves, 12 vervet monkeys, a jackal, three foxes, a python and two crocodiles, Quatrameez said.
“Not many know that we’re part of saving the wild animals from smuggling or even death,” he said.
Al Ma’wa has two sanctuaries: New Hope Centre, established in 2012 and has the confiscated animals, and Al Ma’wa Wildlife Sanctuary on the outskirts of the Roman ruin city of Jerash, 40 kilometres north of Amman.
Al Ma’wa depends on donations and sponsorships to feed and tend to the animals, Quatrameez said, noting that it recently cooperated with authorities in caring for four lion cubs offered for sale on social media. A team of veterinaries and volunteers work tirelessly to care for the animals, he added.
“We have a group of dedicated individuals who work around the clock to make sure everything is fine, as we have also visitors — mainly some students from time to time — for education and awareness purposes,” Quatrameez said.
“We have big plans to support the animals and at the same time act as an educational institution for students who are interested in knowing more about the wildlife.”