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It's a bird! It's a plane! Therein lies the problem at Lebanon's international airport

It's a bird! It's a plane! Therein lies the problem at Lebanon's international airport
Hunters shoot at seagulls in the landfill at the Costa Brava dump, near Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut on Jan. 15, 2017. (Wael Hamzeh / European Pressphoto Agency)

The bird hunters stepped nonchalantly over plastic bottles, wrappers and other detritus, unconcerned by the noise they made as they patrolled this shabby-looking section of Lebanon's coastline.

But, save for the occasional passenger jet lumbering out of Beirut's international airport a mere 500 feet away, the sky above the Costa Brava landfill was empty.

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"Not a bird … not a single one," boasted one hunter.

His words marked the end of the third workday for Lebanon's state-appointed "bird repellers" -- the government's answer to a months-long trash crisis in this capital by the sea.

The problem came to a head this month when local media outlet LBC reported a passenger plane from Lebanon's national carrier, Middle East Airlines, had almost slammed into a flock of seagulls seconds after it landed on  Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport's west runway.

"Today we face an emergency, there is a danger posed to civil aviation movement by the birds," Lebanon Transport Minister Yousef Fenianos said in a press briefing. "Thank God, up until now, the flights have not encountered any real danger."

The birds have been gathering in steadily increasing numbers since March,  when authorities opened a controversial landfill in the Costa Brava, despite warnings by civil society groups, environmentalists and the local pilots' union of the dangers of establishing such a site so close to the airport. A number of international civil aviation organizations stipulate dumps should be placed more than five miles away from runways.

A general view shows a flock of birds (foreground) near the runway as a Middle-East airlines plane taxis at Beirut International airport in the Lebanese capital on Jan. 12, 2017.
A general view shows a flock of birds (foreground) near the runway as a Middle-East airlines plane taxis at Beirut International airport in the Lebanese capital on Jan. 12, 2017. (Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images)

The city has experienced garbage woes tied to the mid-2015 closure of Beirut's main dump following 17 years of operation. Mountains of rubbish appear on the street.

A processing facility that was expected for Costa Brava within months of its opening remains nowhere in sight. The trash has piled up 30 feet high at times, presenting an irresistible feeding area for birds.

The smell also provides a pungent welcome for new arrivals to the country. One blogger likened the stench to that "of a million rotten eggs."

"The birds were like a cloud over here a few days ago. Hundreds of them. More like thousands," a soldier patrolling the area said recently. He declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The government this month sought to enact a series of measures to improve safety for flights. Among the measures that got underway was the installation of devices that emit the sounds of birds of prey and are supposed to keep away seagulls. Another tactic, the bird hunters, were brought in to obtain more immediate results.

Men equipped with shotguns and a seemingly endless supply of Rio, Prima and Foxy 12-gauge birdshot shells began to show up at Costa Brava, engaging in a culling which environmentalists condemned as a massacre — and a violation of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, which the government signed in 2002.

Many people took to social media to upload jarring images of dead birds collected in a bloody heap on the sand, or of hunters marveling at the wing span of a seagull they had shot down.

"This time of the year, it's not just the local seabirds and seagulls that congregate, but also migratory birds that come from Europe and Asia to the Mediterranean and especially to Lebanon," said Asaad Serhal, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, which runs a campaign to save seagulls in the country.

"In pictures we've seen ... the shooters have killed Dalmatian pelicans, comorants, terns and sandpipers," said Serhal, who called it unacceptable for authorities and others to sanction the killing of birds. "They're asking people to break the law and start shooting…. And they're sitting near the airport and a highway, shooting at every bird that flies."

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On social media, some people have taken a more lighthearted approach to the problem, uploading images of runways with scarecrows. One person suggested broadcasting Lebanese politicians' speeches via loudspeakers, which, he said, would "scare the birds to emigrate from Lebanon and never return."

Middle East Airlines Chairman Mohammad Hout asked people to choose between seagulls and "the birds of MEA," according to local media outlets, while touting the company's environmental bona fides and insisting that passenger safety comes first.

Meanwhile, the country's environment minister, Tarek Khatib, challenged the public to come up with a "more appropriate solution and scientific alternative."

Many activists and observers said a shooting spree against the country's avian population was a bad idea.

"We can't call the improvisatory measures by the government to be solutions, because solutions have clear guidelines according to airport safety parameters," said Bassam Kantar, managing editor of Green Area, an environmental media organization.

"Unfortunately, the government was satisfied with sending unlicensed hunters to shoot seagulls without a preset plan to specify what they're shooting and why."

Elie Fares, creator of the State of Mind 13 blog, wrote that killing birds was unlikely to help solve the problem.

"To put it bluntly, how ridiculous, shortsighted and utterly silly is our government to think that killing the birds is a fix to the problem?" he wrote. "The thing about those birds is that they will keep coming, no matter how many of them you kill, because of that landfill whose existence you're trying to ignore."

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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