Among all the other tragedies of Syria, spare a thought for the poor people trying to save its environment and wildlife. When they admit to working for environmental NGOs they draw sarcastic comments: ‘Are you serious?’
But even now there are projects ongoing to save what remains of Syria’s flora and fauna. Most are conducted on a regional basis and are of course apolitical, staffed by people who happen to care deeply about the country’s environmental health and heritage, with an eye to the future for their children. The reality of working on such projects inevitably means involvement by government ministries – most commonly Environment and Agriculture – and this brings more sarcastic comments about being in cahoots with the regime and bringing it legitimacy.
The damage so far has been massive. Take the case of the Talila Reserve 35km southeast of Palmyra (Tadmur) on the road to Deir Ez-Zour. Opened in 1992 and financed jointly by the Italian government, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture, it was the first such project in Syria, protecting the endangered gazelle and oryx of Syria’s badia or desert steppelands. Apart from the animals themselves there is also a collection of wooden chalets housing an excellent explanation of the reserve’s ethos, its purpose, even incorporating Bedouin poetry and wisdom reflecting the Bedouin approach to nature and life generally. All have now been looted, seen as fair game because the reserve is a ‘regime place.’ Gazelle and oryx have been barbecued in the desert, not because people are starving, but because they have no understanding of the preciousness of the country’s wildlife, of the damaging effects of overgrazing by sheep and goats, nor of the attempts to reverse this process for the sake of future generations.
In Syria’s beautiful forests near the border with Turkey around Kassab, regime aerial bombardment of rebel emplacements has caused widespread devastation, often triggering fires which then rage as out of control as everything else in the country.
Only birdlife may be a beneficiary of the revolution, as ammunition has become too precious to waste on hunting birds for sport. Another of Syria’s many ironies.