An animal rights group in Lebanon is caring for three dehydrated, maggot-infested Siberian tiger cubs that were rescued on their way to a zoo in neighboring war-ravaged Syria.
Animals Lebanon said Saturday that its members rescued the cubs earlier this week after they had spent more than a week cooped up inside a cramped crate in "unacceptable" conditions at the Beirut airport.
The cubs flew into Lebanon from Ukraine on March 7 and were supposed to travel on to a zoo in Syria.
Instead, due to apparent confusion about their travel arrangements, they spent a week inside the wooden crate at the Beirut airport, said Animals Lebanon's Vice President Maggie Shaarawi.
"Everything was wrong. There was no tray in the crate for when they urinate. They were swimming in their faeces and urine. There was no bowl for water," Shaarawi told AFP.
Images published by Animals Lebanon show the weak cubs, covered in maggots and faeces, squirming in the small crate as volunteers from the group work to crack open the box.
The crate is screwed together, with just small holes for ventilation. Its volume is barely a third of a cubic meter (11 cubic feet), according to the NGO.
When the group heard about the shipment, they began petitioning the Ministry of Agriculture to investigate the conditions and apply relevant international and Lebanese conventions.
In July, Lebanon's Agriculture Ministry issued a decree to stop the trafficking of big cats — like lions, tigers, and pumas — and force zoos to register formally.
Lebanon has also been a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates the trade of exotic animals, since 2013.
After a week at the airport, Judge Hasan Hamdan ordered the cubs to be released to Animals Lebanon "because of significant concerns for their health and welfare", the group said.
"It took the combined efforts of the ministry of agriculture, customs, and a judge to stop this shipment," said Animals Lebanon president Lana el-Khalil.
"It is completely unacceptable that these animals have been trapped for seven days in a cage which is soaked in faeces and urine, too small for them to stand, and infested with maggots."
AFP obtained a copy of the CITES permit licensing a "private entrepreneur" in Ukraine with the export of the cubs to the "Samer Alehsenawi Zoo" outside Damascus.
The permit says it "is only valid if the transport conditions conform to the CITES guidelines," which Animals Lebanon says was not the case.
Shaarawi would not specify where the cubs were located, but said they would remain in the NGO's care until a court decides "on whether they are returned to the owner".
The trade of big cats is big business in Lebanon, where the animals are often locked in cramped cages, forced to perform in local circuses, and paraded by wealthy individuals as status symbols.