The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is famous for the rock city of Petra (one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and UNESCO World Heritage Site), the breath-taking Wadi Rum desert (known for its connection with British officer ‘Lawrence of Arabia’), the Dead Sea (the Kingdom lies on its eastern shore) and one of the most renowned ancient Roman cities, Jerash. While taking in these and other wonders with my family, I visited the animal welfare wonder that the country has to offer, ‘Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife’. This newly established sanctuary receives rescued or abused wildlife from Jordan and neighbouring countries.
Al Ma’wa is perched on the hills outside Jerash in one of the few forested areas in the country, an hour north of the capital, Amman. The centre is supported by the Princess Alia Foundation and Four Paws. Diana Bernas, Head of the Animals Care Unit, gave us a very warm welcome and took us on a tour of the facilities. Originally from Canada, Diana is the only non-Jordanian and only woman among the 20 or so staff.
Diana explained that the sanctuary covers 140 hectares, 75 of which are used for enclosures for large animals, the first of which arrived in Autumn 2016. Al Ma’wa currently provides shelter and care for 17 African lions, 2 Bengali tigers, 2 Syrian brown bears and 2 Asian black bears.
Located between three continents and surrounded by areas of geopolitical tension, Jordan is a crossroads for illegal wildlife trafficking. The country has enacted legislation to protect wildlife and is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Al Ma’wa was created to provide much needed facilities to support the New Hope Treatment Center in Amman that has provided medical care for rescued and seized animals since 2010 and is also run by the Princess Alia Foundation with the support of Four Paws. New Hope currently has over 60 animals including 20 pythons, 2 crocodiles, wolves, hyenas and baboons. It will soon receive more animals from centres in Lebanon that do not have adequate facilities or the funding to provide adequate care.
The Princess Alia Foundation / Four Paws duo also run a clinic in Petra for the horses and donkeys frantically carrying thousands of tourists every day around the enormous site, up and down the steep slippery paths cut into the rock faces, in sweltering temperatures in summer. When visitors arrive it’s a gentle down-hill stroll past the amazing ruins. Then at the end of the day with aching feet, you face the slog back up to your hotel that by now is 5km away it’s easy to see why many accept the offer of a lift. The clinic provides much needed care for the horses and donkeys that endure merciless whipping from the people working them, often boys under 10 years of age. Signs at the entrance encourage tourists to report any mistreatment they witness, so it will be interesting to see in time if this kind of ‘consumer’ pressure will improve the lot of the animals.
Back to Al Ma’wa. The broader objectives of the project are to build higher level of understanding through education and awareness of the importance and value for the conservation of large wild animals. It puts emphasis on involving local communities and developing specialised training programmes for veterinary students and wildlife researchers. In support of these aims, it also receives support from the UNDP Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme.
In order to fulfil these goals, the facilities include a visitor’s centre with a breath-taking view over the valley below. When fully complete it will be able to host groups of up to 150 people from local communities and schools. 12 chalets are also complete and will soon open to the public for a ‘get-away with a difference’ when the suppliers that will manage the accommodation and catering have been contracted. This will provide an additional revenue stream supporting the long-term sustainability of the project.
Diana explained that one of the challenges is recruiting and keeping staff at the sanctuary: “There’s simply no understanding of animal protection and care here. For the average Jordanian looking after animals at Al Ma’wa would be light-years from their daily reality,” she explained. “We have also seen this with local visitors, banging the enclosure fencing expecting to be entertained by the animals.”
I could easily appreciate this even having been in the country for just a week. One of the first things we as any other tourists were struck by is the rubbish that seems to litter every corner of the Kingdom. Plastic is everywhere, at picnic sites, on road sides, in the streets of the towns we passed through and to our amazement in the middle of the Wadi Rum desert. Hence the importance of projects such as Al Ma’wa that ultimately aim at re-connecting people to the natural world.
The source of the animals amazed me. Diana explained that in 2013 they bought four lion cubs that someone in Syria was selling on Facebook. Others come from private collectors who can’t cope with a fully grown wild ‘pet’. Two other lions came from horrendous conditions at a war-torn zoo in Gaza. The tigers came to the sanctuary after being seized at the border in an attempt of illegal smuggling, while the black bears are from a Four Paws rescue in Syria.
Most of the animals will be given a permanent home at Al Ma’wa. This is the case of the brother and sister lions, Max and Muna, that have an enclosure of just over 15,000 square metres. Successful rehabilitation can also lead to relocation. Earlier this year ‘war lions’ Simba and Saeed were relocated to their permanent home in LIONSROCK, a Four Paws’ sanctuary in South Africa, where they will have the opportunity to be socialised into prides. Both born in captivity, Four Paws had rescued Simba from a zoo in war-torn Mosul, Iraq, while they saved Saeed from the neglected Magic World amusement park near Aleppo, Syria. After 6 months care at Al Ma’wa both are now right at well to their new home in the African bush. Coincidentally, LIONSROCK is next to the town of Bethlehem; they spent their time in Jordan a hundred kilometres from the original one.
In April 2018 HRH Princess Alia was keynote speaker at the excellent first International Animal Welfare Summit in Vienna that Four Paws organised to mark its 30th anniversary. Regarding the current challenges for animal welfare in Jordan she explained her frustration at the frequent use of the excuse that animal welfare is not part of Jordanian culture and so no action can be expected: “If you go back to traditional teachings and the ways of our grandparents it’s clear that Jordanian’s used not to mistreat animals in the way they do now. Current attitudes are recent – an interim-culture.” However, she remains optimistic and is encouraged by the very positive reactions from Jordanians that hear about projects such as the ones run by her Foundation and Four Paws. Princess Alia hopes for strong action on animal welfare issues by European governments as she confirms that this has great impact on countries such as Jordan that follow their lead.
A sincere ‘shukran’ to Diana as well as Ahmed and Nour for helping arrange my visit. And special thanks also to Heli Dungler, Four Paws, for having told me about Al Ma’wa in the first place. I look forward to hearing news from Al Ma’wa and the other inspiring projects Four Paws supports in Jordan.
(Photos: Eurogroup for Animals unless otherwise stated)
Tim Robinson, Senior Programme Leader