A two-year-old lion, emaciated and barely breathing, is found in a tiny cage off a Beirut highway. Monkeys are hauled through the dark tunnels of Gaza, bound for private zoos. Rare prize falcons are kept in desert encampments by wealthy Arab sheiks.
The trade in endangered animals is flourishing in the Middle East, fueled by corruption, ineffective legislation and lax law enforcement.
"It's a problem in the Arab world that we can no longer ignore," said Marguerite Shaarawi, co-founder of the animal rights group Animals Lebanon.
The group is pushing for Lebanon to join the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, whose signatories are meeting this month in Qatar. It is the first time the 175-nation convention is meeting in an Arab country.
Lebanon and Bahrain are the only Arab countries yet to sign the convention.
Delegates at the UN conference are considering nearly four dozen proposals on a range of endangered species from rhinos to polar bears.
John Sellar, chief enforcement officer for CITES, said it is difficult to estimate the extent of the illegal trade in the Arab world, but Animals Lebanon estimates that it is the third largest illegal trade in the region, after weapons and drugs.
"Much of the illegal trade that takes place here is of a specialized nature," Sellar said, citing the example of prize falcons, kept by many Arab sheiks in desert encampments, particularly in the United Arab Emirates.
"We've also seen some smuggling of very exotic species ... like very rare parrots, young chimpanzees, gorillas and leopards that seem to be for the private collections of some of the rich individuals in the Gulf area," he said.
Several recent incidents have underscored the plight of animals in Lebanon, a country where the only law that refers to animal rights stipulates that anyone who purposely harms an animal has to pay a fine of up to $15.
Willem Wijnstekers, the secretary-general of CITES, said countries must have strong laws in place to discourage animal smuggling. Otherwise, he said, smugglers will simply see the penalties as part of the cost of doing business, and not a deterrent.
In December 2009, Animals Lebanon began a campaign against Egypt's Monte Carlo Circus after it received a tip that the circus animals - six lions and three tigers - did not have proper certificates and had not received water or food during the six-day trip from Egypt to Lebanon.
'Everything in here is legal'
The group sent several activists and a veterinarian to the circus grounds to investigate, and they reported the animals were malnourished and that one cub had been de-clawed.
The circus was declared illegal in January after Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan sent the ministry's own experts to investigate, but the circus has appealed. While the case continues, the circus is still giving daily performances attended by small crowds.
"The case of the circus, and the trade of the lions and tigers, highlighted the urgent need to have Lebanon join CITES and protect these endangered species," Hajj Hassan said.
A circus employee at a recent performance denied the animals were treated badly.
"They say we are not feeding them. Look at them, do they look hungry to you?" the employee asked the audience as lions and tigers dutifully performed acrobatics around a caged tent near a highway just north of Beirut.
There was no official comment from the circus.
The animals looked healthy at the performance, weeks after the allegations were made.
In February 2009, Animals Lebanon managed to close down a zoo and rescue its 42 neglected and dying animals that had become a health hazard to its neighbors.
The starving animals languishing in dirty, rusty cages included bears, jackals, a chimpanzee, monkeys and a vulture that had apparently spent years tied by a chain that prevented it from flying or moving out of its cage, which measured just 20 square feet (2 square meters).
"The lion and chimpanzee died, but we flew the monkeys to a sanctuary in Wales and two bears to a sanctuary in Turkey," Shaarawi said. "I cannot describe the happiness I feel when we are able to rescue abused animals and find new homes for them."
In September, a 2-year-old lion cub was rescued by members of another local animal welfare organization after he was apparently abandoned off the main road in Beirut by the owner of the pet shop that imported him.
The severely dehydrated "King of the Jungle" was emaciated and malnourished with open sores on his body, according to Beta, the organization that rescued him. Beta tried to save the animal - which the group named Adam - but it died shortly after it was found.
There are similar problems across the region.
In Egypt, a gateway from Africa to the Middle East, there is a flourishing chimpanzee trade and exotic animals are frequently smuggled in and out. The owners are believed to bribe airport officials to look away.
Last year, panic broke out on a flight from the United Arab Emirates to Egypt when a foot-long baby crocodile wriggled out of a passenger's hand luggage.
In blockaded Gaza, residents smuggle animals through tunnels that link the territory to Egypt to supply their private zoos. Smugglers proudly speak of hauling lions, monkeys and exotic birds through the underground passageways, making deals with animal smugglers in Egypt.
Most animals are drugged first, but in a particularly cruel practice, zoo owners usually rip out the teeth of lions to ensure they don't bite visitors.
Activists say many of the pet shops in Lebanon are unlicensed and keep the animals in appalling conditions without proper health care.
One pet shop owner who identified himself only by his first name, Elie, to avoid "trouble" from activists, scoffed at the allegations.
"Everything in here is legal," he says of the dogs, cats, parrots and rabbits he sells. Asked whether it was fair to keep a puppy locked up in a cage the size of a bird cage, he shrugged: "They are fine. It is only until I sell them."