Cedars of Lebanon Biosphere Reserve in the Line of Fire

BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 31, 2006 (ENS) - A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that has sheltered some of the few remaining specimens of the famous cedars of Lebanon and the only ones in the southern part of the country is at risk from the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

The 29,540 acre Shouf Biosphere Reserve covers about five percent of the overall area of Lebanon and extends along the ridge of the western chain of Mount Lebanon from Dahr-el Baidar in the north to Jezzine in the south and overlooks both the Bekaa valley to the east and the Shouf valley to the west.

The mostly treeless summit of the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve, the country's largest natural reserve, forms the skyline of a large part of southern Lebanon. The core area runs along the long and narrow crest of the Lebanon mountain chain.

The world renowned cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) reach their southernmost limit in this area. The reserve contains 25 percent of the Cedrus libani forests that remain in Lebanon, where once cedar forests covered large areas of the mountains.

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One of the cedars of Lebanon in the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve. (Photo courtesy Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve)
At the local level several of the cedar stands are recognized as outstanding scenic landscapes, the larger cedars contributing in a most distinctive way to the landscape. The western slope of the mountain, with the different patches of cedar forests gives way to the surrounding villages.

The area encompasses one of the few remaining natural landscapes of Mount Lebanon that were described in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament as well as in countless documents throughout written history.

Hala Kilani of the IUCN-World Conservation Union wrote Friday of Nizar Hani, scientific coordinator of Al Shouf Cedar Biosphere Reserve, who says the reserve has been bombed.

"It was bombed three times," Hani said, "and the continuous shelling targeting the highways linking Lebanon to Syria is only 100 meters away from the reserve.”

Desperate refugees fleeing the fighting could overrun the reserve, said Hani, who worries that the gate will not be able to keep them out of the previously protected area.

The Shouf Biosphere Reserve has special significance for the protection of wildlife, representing the best prospect for the long-term conservation of the larger mammal species such as wolf, wild cat and striped hyena, according to UNESCO, the United Nations agency which designated the biosphere reserve in 2005.

There are 32 species of wild mammals in the reserve, 12 of which are globally threatened, says the IUCN, which keeps the Red Data List of the world's most threatened species. There are 200 species of birds in the reserve, and 400 species of plants, 30 of which are medicinal and 48 of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

A pond has been established on the upper slopes, to provide a source of drinking water for animals and to encourage them to stay within the reserve. But now the wildlife is stressed from the noise and air pollution of the exploding munitions and the drone of military aircraft, Hani says.

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Sign donated by the Rotary Club points the way to the reserve for English-speaking visitors to the area. (Photo courtesy Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve)
There are 28 villages in the transition area surrounding the reserve, where the main economic activities include agriculture and pastoralism, with the recent addition of tourism. The Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve and the Ammiq Wetland, which is also in the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, were becoming a major natural attraction for thousands of visitors to Lebanon and the region.

“We were expecting the number of visitors this summer to break the record of all previous years,” Hani said. “Everything was indicating to this, including the number of people who arrived in June and the reservations of July and August. We were going to reap the fruits of what we sowed over so many years.”

But those hopes have now become a memory.

IUCN President Valli Moosa says IUCN member organizations have expressed "great concern over the number of protected areas - such as the Shouf Cedar Biosphere Reserve - and World Heritage sites that have come under attack during recent days."

"This has undermined the considerable progress achieved and investments made over the past 10 years in re-building Lebanon’s natural and cultural heritage," said Moosa.

Formerly South African Environment Minister, Moosa is no stranger to conflict. He says a sustainable future in the region requires "a robust economy, social equity and justice, and sound management of the natural resources."

"None of these goals can be advanced in time of armed conflict," Moosa said. "Bringing about peace, security and stability must be the priority - they are preconditions for sustainable development."