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Don't look away, there's a crocodile in that Beirut river

The Lebanese are used to being up to their necks in alligators, however a crocodile has now succeeded in enthralling them. Bradley Hope reports from Beirut
"The mix of waste is like a salad bar for the crocodile," says Jason Mier, the executive director of Animals Lebanon, a privately funded animal support group. Bryan Denton / The National
"The mix of waste is like a salad bar for the crocodile," says Jason Mier, the executive director of Animals Lebanon, a privately funded animal support group. Bryan Denton / The National

BEIRUT // With their country often an arena for more powerful neighbours to play out their politics, often violently, the people of Lebanon are used to being up to their necks in alligators.

A crocodile, however, has succeeded in enthralling them.

Workers spotted the 1.5-metre reptile in the Beirut River two weeks ago, and since then police, military officers, environmentalists and other Beirutis by the hundreds, as well as tourists, have come to the waterway to catch a glimpse of it.

Beirut's newspapers update their readers daily on efforts to trap the crocodile, and the television station MTV has broadcast live from a lookout above the river, its cameras scanning the waters below.

It is not a bucolic sight.

The Beirut River, which flows through the city's Metn district before emptying into the Mediterranean, is best described as a trickle of pollution. It emanates a putrid bouquet of the chemicals discharged by factories, refuse-disposal companies, an abbatoir and a fish-processing plant.

For the crocodile, though, that is the equivalent of a seven-course banquet, complicating attempts to lure him away.

"The mix of waste is like a salad bar for the crocodile," says Jason Mier, the executive director of Animals Lebanon, a privately funded animal support group. "We've tried traps with chicken and a bag of entrails. He just doesn't appear very hungry."

Mr Mier, 34, a long-haired American dressed in shorts and sandals, is leading a 20-man operation to capture the crocodile, an army that includes civil defence officers, the military and representatives of the ministry of agriculture. If successful, they plan to transport the animal to a nature preserve in Lebanon before sending it to a sanctuary abroad.

The story of the crocodile, which has yet to be named or its sex determined, has drawn nearly as much notoriety as some of Lebanon's other sensational animal tales.

Three years ago, a 12-year-old chimpanzee in a zoo near the border with Israel gained fame when it was discovered that he lit up cigarettes to entertain visitors. Mr Mier's group rescued what became known as the "smoking chimpanzee".

Then there was the lion cub found living on a Beirut balcony in 2011. After it was rescued, the cub lived in Mr Mier's office for several weeks. Both the chimp and the cub were eventually sent to wildlife sanctuaries abroad.

Even by Lebanese standards, though, the latest animal story has garnered special attention, according to Mr Mier, who has lived in Lebanon for six years.

"I have had calls from fancy people asking if they can spend the day at the river so they can see the crocodile," he says. "The attention is making the challenge of catching it even more difficult. Whenever he appears, people throw rocks so now it has become very shy."

How the crocodle came to live in this toxic soup and how long it has been there are still a mystery.

The working theory, Mr Mier says, is that the crocodile was purchased as a pet but abandoned in the river after it grew too large to keep in someone's home. Nile crocodiles, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa, can be bought illegally from some pet shops in Beirut, he said.

Last Thursday, the crocodile emerged briefly. The murky waters bubbled, creating a white trail of foam before the crocodile's snout peaked above the surface. But as soon as civil defence officers arrived to trap it, the snout disappeared without a trace.

Not long after, Ghazi Aridi, Lebanon's minister of public works and transportation, arrived to try his luck at catching a glimpse of the croc. Was it merely a coincidence that he was wearing a red Lacoste shirt featuring the brand's crocodile logo?

"Did you see him?" he asked the rescue team, who nodded. Five minutes later he left.

The stream of dignitaries making their way to the river thrills 15-year-old Basil Khadour, who lives nearby and, in his own estimation, has become a veteran crocodile spotter. He says the arrival of Lebanon's "first crocodile" the most exciting thing he can remember.

Attempts to trap the crocodile have taken their toll for Mr Mier and his team, physically and financially.

Mr Mier, whose group is bearing part of the cost of the crocodile hunt, was taken to the emergency room this week after the river's irritating fumes caused his eyes to swell shut. Volunteers have been working around the clock, pushing the cost of the operation higher by the day.

"We never expected this to take so long," he says.

Gazing into the bubbling tributary, Mr Mier speaks passionately about the efforts by Animals Lebanon to rescue abused or illegally acquired animals.

"This is no place for a wild animal," he says. "Everyone is obsessed with the crocodile, but no one is paying attention to the fact that crocodiles are being sold illegally in pet shops or that this river is completely polluted. It's just another media sensation."

bhope@thenational.ae

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Updated: August 5, 2013 04:00 AM

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