Concern for circus lion cubs brings action in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Dubai
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2010:
BEIRUT–Concern over the plight of a circus lion cub,
rallied by Animals Lebanon, has persuaded Lebanon to ratify the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The global conservation community had failed for 27 years to
persuade a succession of Lebanese governments to endorse CITES,
brokered by the United Nations in 1973. But Animals Lebanon, a
two-year-old animal rights group, succeeded in less than 90 days,
by showing the Lebanese public, initially skeptical mass media, and
senior officials that inability to enforce CITES rules is a
significant cause of animal suffering.
Along the way, the suffering of the lion cub also helped to
prompt Jordan to adopt a national animal welfare law, taking effect
on April 2, 2010, and led to Egypt introducing a requirement that
henceforth circus animals may be transported out of the country only
Animals Lebanon president Lana El-Khalil and cofounders Jason
Mier and Marguerite Sharawi joined a delegation invited by Lebanese
agriculture minister Hussein Al-Hajj Hassan to attend an early March
2010 meeting in Qatar held to discuss the details of Lebanon becoming
a CITES member.
Hussein Al-Hajj Hassan made clear to CITES secretary general
Willem Wijnstekers “that he has every intention of having Lebanon
join CITES within one year, and that he is pleased to have groups
such as Animals Lebanon help accelerate the process,” said El-Khalil.
The Lebanese decision to join CITES came too late for Lebanon
to participate as an active member at the 15th triennial Conference
of the Parties of CITES, held in Doha, Qatar from March 13 to March
25. Approximately 175 nations attended the CITES triennial, held
for the first time in the Middle East. After Lebanon completes the
requirements for CITES membership, Bahrain will be the last Arab
state to remain a non-member.
“The case of the circus, and the trade of lions and tigers,”
exposed by Animals Lebanon since Christmas 2009, “highlighted the
urgent need to have Lebanon join CITES and protect these endangered
species,” Hussein Al-Hajj Hassen acknowledged in a media statement.
El-Khalil heralded the Lebanese decision to join CITES as
having “the potential to change the course of animal welfare in
But the Animals Lebanon achievement and any use of enabling
legislation to advance animal welfare goals were decried by Soumar
Dakdouk, 25, who styles herself senior campaigner, deputy
executive director, and CITES campaign regional coordinator at
IndyACT, a multi-issue Lebanese activist web site hosted by the
League of Independent Activists.
Dakdouk, a past representative of the Society for the
Protection of Nature in Lebanon and presenter at the annual
conference of the Society for Conservation Biology, was among the
four co-authors of “Building Capacity for Sustainable Hunting of
Migratory Birds in Mediterranean Third Countries,” a 2005 report
funded by the European Union.
The report documented the ongoing destruction of birds by
Lebanese hunters in defiance of an unenforced 1994 ban on bird
hunting. It recommended not that the ban be enforced, but rather
that it should be repealed and replaced by the sale of hunting
The cover carried the logos of the Society for the Protection
of Nature in Lebanon, BirdLife International, and the Association
Les Amis des Oiseaux.
“After Lebanon joins CITES,” Dakdouk wrote, ” a new law
must be put in place to implement the Convention. This law must not
be confused with a law for the ethical treatment of animals. The two
are completely different matters.”
Responded Mier, “CITES is a convention about trade first and
foremost. But CITES makes clear that animals cannot be traded
without their welfare being protected during trade, and without
ensuring that they are going to a facility that can ensure their
welfare, and has provisions to protect the welfare of animals who
The sequence of events leading Lebanon into CITES started,
recalled Animals Lebanon cofunder Marguerite Sharawi, when on
Christmas morning she received an e-mail from Princess Alia
Foundation managing director Sarra Ghazi, forwarded by ANIMAL
PEOPLE, “alerting us to the imminent arrival of a cargo of lions and
tigers from Egypt,” via Jordan and Syria. The Jordan-based Princess
Alia Foundation “had already intercepted the lorry at the border
between Egypt and Jordan,” Sharawi continued. “The Princess Alia
Foundation found out that the animals hadn’t been let out of the
lorry for 10 days and hadn’t eaten for three days. They were in a
bad way. The driver said that the owner of the animals hadn’t given
him any money to feed the animals. So the Princess Alia Foundation
gave them food and water, treated their wounds, and escorted them
to the Syrian border.”
This was all that the Princess Alia Foundation could do in
December 2009, but publicity about the poor condition of the lions
and tigers soon helped to change that situation, nearly four years
after a Jordan Times expose of poor conditions at Jordanian zoos
began to draw international attention to lack of a useable Jordanian
animal welfare law. The Jordan Times criticisms were amplified over
the next several years by Asia Animal Protection Network founder John
“The Princess Alia Foundation has been trying to address the
terrible situation in the zoos in Jordan,” explained Ghazi in an
April 3, 2010 e-mail to Wedderburn. “In January of 2010 a number of
animals in desperate need of medical aid were confiscated. This was
the first time that animals were confiscated from Jordanian zoos.
The government is addressing this issue. Until yesterday we had no
legislation in Jordan for animal welfare. Now that we have
legislation, we are hoping that we may be able to address the zoos
While the Jordanian backstory developed, Sharawi and Mier
of Animals Lebanon investigated where the neglected lions and tigers
came from, and where they were going.
“We soon made the link between the delivery of cats and
posters for the Monte Carlo Egyptian Circus that had been put up
everywhere just beforehand,” Sharawi said. “According to the
posters, the shows were supposed to begin on December 23, 2009,”
but the scheduled performances were postponed because the animals did
not actually reach Lebanon until four days later. The animals
arrived with incomplete or erroneous CITES documentation, but
because Lebanon was not a CITES member, they could not be
intercepted or confiscated.
“There were five adult lions, three tigers and a cub whose
feet were bleeding because her claws had been removed so that
children could get close to her,” Sharawi and Mier saw. “The wounds
from the removal of her claws had not had time to heal before the
trip,” Sharawi saw. “We immediately alerted the Ministry of
Agriculture, but when the ministry vets came, they said they didn’t
find anything untoward. The day after they reached Lebanon, the
animals started their daily show. The cub was locked in a cage
covered with a plastic sheet.”
Collecting their own photo and video evidence, Sharawi and
Mier “went directly to see agriculture minister Hussein Hajj Hassan,”
Hussein Hajj Hassan verified the evidence, then ordered that
the animals should be returned to Egypt within 48 hours, which would
have prevented the circus from profitably performing. Months of
legal skirmishing followed. Instead of closing the circus, Mier
told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “They increased the number of performances and
did three shows a day over the weekend, two shows per day during the
But the shows were cancelled by police on January 12, 2010.
The Lebanese promoter sought to discredit Mier on a January 16
television broadcast by “saying I am an ‘American’ and he thinks I am
a Jew,” Mier laughed afterward.
The promoter also accused Mier of soliciting a bribe.
“Luckily I record everything with a voice recorder,” Mier
said, “and there was another person with me at the meeting,” where
the promoter alleged that this happened.
Name-calling failed, but Monte Carlo Egyptian Circus owner
Elsayed Hussein Akef managed to remain in Lebanon, hosting
performances, by contending that he lacked the permits he needed to
take the animals back to Egypt.
Recounted Mier, “Jordan issued a statement saying they had
already given the permission to transit on the way back to Egypt.
Syria also gave permission to transit,” but “stated that the
shipment was not in compliance with CITES when it came through Syria
on the way to Lebanon. Egypt is the only country that did not give
permission,” even after Mier personally visited Egyptian CITES
officer Nabil Sidki in Cairo to ask for a document stating that the
animals could return.
“It is my opinion that the Egyptian authorities did not give
permission so that the circus would not have to leave Lebanon,” Mier
told ANIMAL PEOPLE. Meanwhile, CITES international enforcement
officer John Sellar confirmed at Mier’s reqest that “it is not
necessary to have an import permit for Appendix II animals who are
being re-exported back to their country of origin. CITES has no
problem with the animals being moved from Lebanon whenever its
In the interim Akef won a Lebanese court ruling that, as
Mier summarized, “the harm done by having the circus stopped would
be greater than the harm done by not being in compliance with the
laws.” Lebanese agriculture minister Hussein Hajj Hassan appealed
the ruling, but a verdict is not expected until after the Akef
circus finally moves on.
“Since then,” Mier added on April 4, “Akef has sued the
Lebanese promoter for failing to live up to whatever agreement they
had, asking the government to appoint someone to oversee the circus
Noted Mier, “An Italian circus arrived in Lebanon a few days
ago,” giving Akef some competition for audience share. “They
arrived with a stack of documents 10 inches high. The CITES permits
and documentation were all there. The tigers are 50% bigger than
those of Akef, and exercise enclosures were set up for most of the
animals the day they arrived.”
Around the Gulf
The high-profile Animals Lebanon and Princess Alia Foundation
efforts to aid the Egyptian Monte Carlo Circus animals prompted
closer attention to the conduct of other Egyptian-based circuses
throughout the Middle East–including in Bahrain, the last non-CITES
nation in the region.
Five lions and two tigers were reportedly stranded at the
Ahli Club in Zinj, Bahrain, for five days in January 2010 after a
company called Frsan International Management was unable to find an
airline to fly them back to Egypt in compliance with the new Egyptian
circus animal transport regulation. Frsan managing director Fadhel
Albado told Aniqa Haider of Gulf News that the circus eventually had
to charter a cargo plane to come from Egypt.
In mid-March 2010 Gulf News staff reporter Abbas Al Lawati
alleged that Egyptian-European Circus owner Mamdouh Al Helou (the
Arabic surname is also commonly transliterated as Helw) had offered
to sell two lion cubs to a pair of undercover journalists in Abu
Dhabi without the required permits. “If selling cubs is illegal, I
will not sell them,” Al Helou said when confronted by Al Lawati.
“Al Helou said he did not know that selling the two cubs is
illegal in the UAE,” Al Lawati wrote. “He admitted, however, that
he was aware that the CITES permit that he obtained to bring the
circus animals to Abu Dhabi required him to exit with all the animals
“Arrangements can be made [to bypass that requirement],” Al
Helou told Al Lawati. “We can get a death certificate, for
example,” Al Helou said.
Gulf News staff reporters Emman-uelle Landais and Mohammed N.
Al Khan revealed further details of the proposed clandestine
transaction two days later, adding that the lion cubs were “crippled
by a calcium deficiency,” which left them unable to walk.
Eventually the Dubai government confiscated both cubs.
“The Al Helou family is very well known in Egypt with regard
to lions and tigers,” Mamdouh Al Helou told Landais. “The trade has
been passed from father to son. My son Mohammad is a fifth
generation lion trainer.”
“It is believed that Mamdouh Al Helou and the Akef family
work together,” wrote Landais.
The Akef circus lion trainer is Mohamed Helou–but he is not
Mamdouh Al Helou’s son Mohammad.
Like the Egyptian-European Circus, the Akef family circus
has been suspected of wildlife trafficking.
“Even for a circus, the Akef carvan is a bit bizarre,”
observed Donald G. McNeil Jr. on page one of The New York Times on
November 28, 1995. “Most circuses hustle from town to town to sell
as many tickets as possible. But the Akef circus moves desultorily.
It arrived in Zimbabwe in May, gave sparsely attended performances
in July and August, and left in early November. The route of the
circus took it through Dijbouti, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and
Malawi–dirt-poor countries where few people can afford circus
tickets, but rich in animals and scarce in sophisticated policing
“Akef arrived in Uganda with five pythons,” then-Zimbabwe
SPCA officer Meryl Harrison told McNeil. “Then he had two. He
arrived in Kenya with seven, and in Zambia with six, then had two.
He entered Zimbabwe with four.”
Continued McNeil, “The number of lions in the circus has
been as high as 10 and as low as six; endangered African gray
parrots have gone from nine to zero. Akef Circus left Egypt with two
chimpanzees. Six were seized en route.”
Eventually Harrison confronted Elsayed Hussein Akef, McNeil
reported. Akef “showed her bills of sale for babies bought from a
known Zairean smuggler.”
The Helou and Akef circus issues took a theatrical twist on
March 1, 2010 when Middle East Network for Animal Welfare wildlife
panel organizer Dina Zulfikar persuaded Mouhamed El Helw and
Egyptian-Russian Circus lion trainer Faten el Helw to briefly address
the MENAW conference and take questions from the floor. Jason Mier
was in the front row with a laptop video presentation detailing the
Akef circus tour of southern Africa in 1995 and the Akef circus
debacle in Lebanon and Jordan, featuring Mohamed Helou.
Faten el Helw claimed to have no knowledge of either Akef or
Mohamed Helou. “Who is this man?” she asked, as Mier projected
Mohamed Helou’s photo on a large screen between them.
Faten el Helw next performed in Abu Dhabi. Reported Landais
of Gulf News on April 4, 2010, “The Egyptian-Russian-European
circus opened yesterday and was keen to disassociate itself from two
lion cubs who suffered severe animal cruelty at the hands of their
owner, the namesake of the circus’ biggest act-Faten Al Helw.
Mamdouh Al Helou and Faten Al Helw, an Egyptian lion trainer working
with Sky Entertainment, the company behind the
Egyptian-Russian-European circus, are ‘not directly related,’
according to Chadi Bassar, marketing manager for Sky Entertainment.
“Ticket sales for the circus were stopped in some outlets as
a result of mistaken identity between the two Egyptian performers,”
Bassar told Landais.