UT (AFP) - Lebanon, one of the world's key migratory bird corridors, has turned into a death trap for the avian population due to illegal hunting of increasingly rare species. Environmentalists cry massacre every hunting season, which typically lasts from October to December, when poachers kill birds by the thousands in the mountains and the eastern Bekaa region despite a 1995 hunting ban. "The more poaching increases, the more migratory birds will lack safe areas and will not return," warned Nizar Hani, scientific coordinator of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, east of Beirut. "The country is also a bottleneck where birds from Africa congregate en route to Europe," he added. Some 390 bird species, including 260 migratory species, were identified in Lebanon in a 1992 study by Ghassan Jaradi, a Lebanese University ecology and taxonomy professor who updated his research this year.
"Millions of birds from Europe and Asia stop by Lebanon each year," some of them to reproduce, said Bassima al-Khatib of the Sociey for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL).
The country offers a variety of different habitats: the Bekaa valley, the mountains, semi-arid regions, rivers and the Mediterranean coast.
Some 20 areas, including the cedar forests of the Shouf, Palm Islands Nature Reserve in the north and a sandy beach in the southern city of Tyre have been designated as protected areas.
But environmentalists say these regions have been declared "safe areas" and yet are flooded with hunters.
"Some hunters kill migratory birds, mistakenly thinking that this does not affect the local environment," Khatib said. "But what they don't understand is these birds belong to the world and their disappearance affects the ecosystem."
A study carried out by SPNL between 2004 and 2007 found that only 18 percent of hunters were able to distinguish between resident and migratory birds. The majority could not identify a rare species.
" 'You can't call this a sport anymore' "
Nature lovers crying foul over the killing of the migratory population also warn that local species face similar dangers.
"In the space of five years, the number of common birds decreased by 18 percent according to a study that we conducted from 2002 to 2007, whereas the figure was previously at nine percent" over a similar period, Jaradi said.
Hunting methods are considered scandalous, as several poachers use deception to trap birds.
"They install an artificial chirping device on a tree or shrub at night," said Jaradi. "Attracted to the sound, birds gather in the morning when the hunters arrive by the dozens and kill them all."
To make matters worse, an increasing number of amateur hunters are using automatic weapons to mow down their prey. "You can't call this a sport anymore," Khatib said. "It's cruel."
Abdo el-Kareh, 48, has been hunting since he was nine. For him, killing birds in large quantities is justifiable "because there are thousands of them".
"I find hunting to be a relaxing sport that allows me to be in touch with nature," Kareh told AFP.
But Jaradi said such comments reflected people's ignorance.
"Hunters do not understand that killing many common birds will make them uncommon, rare " and then endangered," he said.
About 16 species of birds, including the pygmy cormorant and the imperial eagle, are threatened with extinction in Lebanon and the Near East, partly because of global warming and deforestation.
"The problem is that not only do these birds face extinction but you have people hunting them even in the spring when they reproduce," Khatib said. "This is catastrophic."
Quails, calandra larks, woodcocks and turtle doves are among the few species that can be hunted because of high numbers, experts say, urging the authorities to regulate the activity rather than simply impose an outright ban.
"We must specify the species and quantity of birds that can be hunted and must licence and train park rangers," said Khatib.
Kareh for his part is more concerned about the threat posed to humans by inexperienced and trigger-happy hunters.
"We are also threatened," he said. "Many people are killed each year by stray bullets."