x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Thoughts on wholesale slaughter - at a hunting exhibition

How can anyone say hunting is a fun sport? Climate change and habitat destruction are doing enough to damage wildlife. Humans should holster their guns.

The scene where Bambi's mother gets shot by a hunter in the 1942 Disney film succeeded where hundreds of public awareness campaigns against hunting could not. Called the "Bambi effect", it inspired generations of animal rights activist. Celebrities like Paul McCartney credited the film for their enthusiastic support of animal rights and, well, less famously, it left quite a mark on me.

While covering a recent hunting exhibition, I finally came face to face with Bambi's mother.

I cringed as I stood near a stuffed deer with its glassy soulless eyes. It was on display among 30 other animals - lions, tigers and foxes - at an exhibition. Hunting is still a part of Gulf culture, although it is banned in the UAE, and the country is a pioneer in animal conservation campaigns, now including the nature reserve at Sir Bani Yas.

That reserve was the initiative of Sheikh Zayed. I always fondly remember that one of the founding father's favourite TV shows was Animal Planet. It is also one of mine.

At this exhibition, I didn't even bother to hide my anger when I asked the Tanzanian hunter if he had sold any of the animals he shot. He just shook his head no.

"So, you just wasted these souls, eh?" I said. He replied: "No money made, yes, but it was fun sport."

I don't want to understand how hunting could ever be a "fun" sport. It was only because I had to work that I faced my fears - and the horns, teeth and pelts on display.

At another stand, a man was showing off horns he had collected over the years, ram and moose antlers among them. Also among his collections were ancient fossils. "At least those died naturally, I hope," I could not resist saying.

Being a vegetarian, and an ardent animal lover, I admit I am biased. I have a different view on life to begin with and never can connect with people who don't value animal life on the same level as I do. I thank my parents for naming me Rym Ghazal, which translates to "Deer Deer".

Slowly over the years, my family has turned "green", but I'm not sure if it was my influence or their own experiences that changed them.

My father has a horrible story of a hunting trip, which he was forced to go on with some high-level officials, and how watching the deer they shot in the desert suffer for hours as it bled to death turned him away from meat forever.

In every country and culture there is some form of hunting tradition. In Lebanon, despite it being illegal, you often hear the echoes of shots in the mountains as bird hunters shoot anything that flies. In the Gulf, I have heard of cases of people hunting desert creatures like monitor lizards and jerboa. Once a source even showed me a little stuffed jerboa that he had killed.

Falconry is one of the traditional sports, and I am glad about the international fund started four years ago for houbara conservation, the main quarry in the sport. The houbara bustard is endangered due to unregulated hunting and smuggling, but then again, so many animals are these days.

In the past few decades, many species have been disappearing. Along with climate change and habitat destruction, poaching is one of the fastest killers. Rhinoceros, elephants and other big game species are threatened by hunting.

It seems humans have a particular thing for hunting down the big cats. The Arabian leopard is extinct in the UAE except for the handful bred in conservation centres. Members of tribes in the Northern Emirates have told me that they used to hunt them regularly, and that killing one "was a mark of bravery". Now leopards can't be killed without consequences.

At the exhibition I watched a small boy of six or seven wander off to that display of stuffed carcasses. It looked like he was about to touch the lion, then he hesitated and moved on to the smaller brown gazelle near it. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I could have sworn I saw him frown before he ran away back to the zoo display. Maybe he also has seen Bambi.