By Cesilia Faustina
Photography by Cesilia Faustina
I was surrounded by two giant brown bears and on the other side, a fence full of lions; all within the Middle Eastern country of Jordan.
When people talk about animal conservation, the Middle East is not exactly the first country that comes to mind, which is why when I heard there was wildlife reserve not too far from Amman, I was in disbelief.
Al Ma’wa, translated from Arabic means “the shelter,” is a project created by The Princess Alia Foundation and Four Paws that focuses on the biodiversity and conservation of animals within the region. The sanctuary hosts a number of lions, bears and two tigers in a space of 70 hectares within the city of Jerash.
Most of them were saved from war and illegal wildlife trafficking, where the Middle East continues to be a major hub for political uncertainty and the wildlife black market.
As the team and I arrived in Al Ma’wa, I was curious to discover the stories behind these animals and the goal of this sanctuary.
There, we were greeted by one of the animal keepers, Saif.
“After I came here, I didn’t know what type of animals though, I thought maybe a deer or something, but when I came turns out there were lions, tigers and bears, those kinds of animals; if I knew that, I’m sure I wouldn’t have worked here, I’m serious.”
Our guide Saif, a friendly-looking guy who seems legitimately excited to work with wild animals, greeted us in and started introducing us to the animals.
The animal reserve mostly covers carnivorous animals that differ between lions, bears and tigers. Saif explained that most of the animals ended up in Al Ma’wa because they were victims of war.
A lot of the animals came from war-torn countries, such as Syria, and were relocated to Jordan.
“One hundred fifty animals in Aleppo Zoo and 110 died because of the war, due to the starvation. So, when the animals came here, they were stressed out and mentally not well.”
Most of the animals that ended up in Al-Ma’wa suffer from PTSD and took a while to readjust to their surroundings. This though is one of the reasons that made Saif stay on the job; the goal of helping these animals.
“After I came here, I didn’t know what type of animals though, I thought maybe a deer or something, but when I came turns out there were lions, tiger and bears, those kinds of animals; if I knew that, I’m sure I wouldn’t have worked here, I’m serious,” he said.
“I swear, I was thinking should I stay another day? Should I leave now? I thought, maybe there are other animals, so I asked the supervisor and they told me it was mostly carnivorous animals, and I was like ‘OMG.’”
“Then I thought about what Al-Mawa stood for, which is help the animals and it’s not like a zoo and it’s not for the money, so I stayed,” he continued.
Armed conflicts greatly affect institutional and social changes which in turn affects wildlife habitat and populations. This can be seen through examples of countless of wars, such as the Mozambique civil war from 1977 to 1992 that shrank the elephant and giraffe population in Gorongosa national park by more than 90 percent.
“We try to give them everything – toys, food, etc., and especially the most important thing for animals her are the space,” Saif said.
Saif stated how in the beginning the animals went through a hard time adapting due to the trauma, but now, animal keepers and animals have become family, and Saif himself, constantly enjoys being around his furry friends.
Sugar, Almond and the sloth bear
One of the most popular animals that were rescued is the bears, Sukar (meaning “sugar” in Arabic) and Luz (“almond” in Arabic). They were rescued from Aleppo Zoo after the war and have now taken residency in this shelter.
“There’s a huge difference now between when they first came and now,” Saif explained.
“Especially Sukar and Luz when they first came, for three months, every time there was an aeroplane, they kept banging on the door.”
The two bears have been at the shelter for more than a year and fortunately, seem to enjoy it now. There was no doubt that Sukar was the star of the show though, she definitely was not shy as we took a look around her encloser, and made her presence noticed.
The two bears, however, got upstaged by the oldest residence of Al Ma’wa, Baloo (yes, Baloo from The Jungle Book). Unlike Jungle Book’s sloth-like, sleepy character though, this Baloo was ruling the area, constantly on the move and one of the biggest and most noticeable animals there with his white fur.
Baloo was brought over from Ramallah Zoo after a fire burnt down the place. He was the first animal brought into Al Ma’wa and the origin story of this shelter. Saif said he was the most popular attraction at the shelter.
Saif mentioned it was harder to release the bears into their natural habitats, as their natural habitats are in Asia and it is too expensive to transport them there. With the lack of sponsors, the bears are stuck in Jordan for now.
“Now we have to place the bears here because nobody will take them, cause their native land is in Asia and it’s too expensive, but we are building a better enclosure. I’ve seen it and it looks really great,” he said.
The staff of Al Ma’wa are trying to make a better living space for the animals, which shows from the way the animals acted now and how Saif described them before. He stated that they were looking to expand the shelter more and gratifyingly expressed that the animals seemed comfortable even in winter.
A centre for black market
On our way looking around the shelter, we were stopped by a man and his crew preparing supplies into a jeep. He embraced Saif warmly, I couldn’t help but wonder who this foreign-looking man was.
For the sake of the man’s privacy, let’s call him Jake. Turns out Jake essentially designed Al Ma’wa and also runs an animal shelter in Amman, the New Hope Centre. Apparently, all animals that come to Al Ma’wa go to the New Hope Foundation first for a check-up and then get transferred to Jerash.
On top of everything, he is also a wildlife investigator.
“A lot of the animals are sold online from Jordan. A lot of the animals were actually bred in Jordan and then sold online. The animals got bought from everywhere, Jordan works as the hub, you get a lot of lions coming from Yemen, you get buyers from Libya,” Jake explained.
I was surprised to hear how often illegal wildlife trade happens through Jordan, I guess it’s easy to forget how strategic Jordan is, located between all the other Middle Eastern countries.
The Middle East is known to be a hub for wildlife trafficking. This is especially the case with the UAE, functioning as the number one hub for wildlife transit. As stated by the regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Mohamed Elsayed, “The Arabian Gulf Countries and Egypt are hotspots for their convenient geographic location and frequent flights.”
“We rescued some lions from Madaba and Irbid, we rescued a wolf near the Airport Road in a house. It became too familiarized with domestic life, so now we have to train it to be wild again,” Jake continued.
“Jordan is the corridor to everywhere, it’s the corridor to Europe, corridor to the Middle East, to get to Africa, it’s a strategic place. In terms of the black market, it’s [one of the] largest in the world.”
According to Canadian Geographic, an estimated of $175 billion make up the wildlife trade market in 2017, making it the fourth-largest criminal enterprise at that time.
Countries like UAE, Egypt and Jordan continue to be a hub for illegal wildlife transit, which is why you get many animals that end up being rescued within the Kingdom.
Jake explained that even after being rescued, it was still a tough process to try and rehabilitate these animals.
“It depends where they come from, it’s either they’re too humanized, to young, too old, they get their fangs cut out, so it’s hard. I mean they can be candidates for release but there is also the political paperwork,” he said.
Some grim facts about the wildlife trade. It was saddening to know that maybe these animals might not even have a chance anymore.
Despite the sad news though, we continued on with the tour only to discover some more gems in the form of lions, tigers and even plants not seen elsewhere.
“[Maxi the lion] is almost six years old and just started roaring a year ago. Sultan the lion is like the sultan of the place, Muna is Maxi’s sister,” Saif explained.
Saif talked about the lions like they were family and mentioned how they get fed tons of meat and were given toys – in the shape of some giant log, however, he also mentioned, how from he started off being afraid, the tigers ended up being his favourite animals in Al Ma’wa.
Looking at Al Ma’wa, I could see it was becoming a new home for the animals and seeing the lions, it was as if you got to bond with them at the same time getting to know their stories. From the lions that became a couple and the one that runs the show (Sultan) to the inseparable lion sisters and one with the coolest hairdo; not to mention coming face-to-face with one of the most majestic animals on earth, the tiger – which was amazing and threatening at the same time (do not make eye contact with a tiger for too long).
You realize that despite the depressing backstory, Al Ma’wa works as a second chance for these animals and the rescuers and caretakers are the ones fighting for that chance.
Animal rescue efforts and conservation are bringing new hope and opportunities for these animals, and as long as they’re around, poachers have another thing coming.
Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife is a wildlife preserve for various wild animals escaping war and the black market, located in Jordan. It was established in order to provide a regional solution for rescued wildlife. There are two entities under this project, namely the New Hope Centre, located in Amman, and the Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve, in Jerash.
The New Hope Centre serves as the main veterinary clinic, quarantine and rehabilitation facility for all confiscated and rescued wildlife, while animals who cannot be sent to their country of origin or released into the wild, they find a permanent home in Al Ma’wa, which is a space of 70 hectares.
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