War: “a state of armed conflict between societies. It is generally characterized by extreme aggression, destruction, and mortality, using regular or irregular military forces”. It is the wrath of human being terrorizing lands with fire and destruction. The devastating effect of the war is usually found in the media through the anguish of people. Yet this inferno not only destroys human lives, but every living being in nature. Just like in Aleppo, where the catastrophes caused by the conflicts affects the lives of all beings of the region.
Situated at the outskirt of Aleppo, lays a former zoo, Magic World, now home to animals that has been left to die as traumatized victims from Syria’s six-year civil war. The final group of the remaining survivors includes three lions, two bears, two hyenas, two tigers and two dogs.
People had to flee the horrifying conditions to save their own lives yet caged ones didn’t have that chance. Until kind and courageous ones decided to change this…
Among the terrible battle scenes in Syria, there was a bitter story that only a few animal activists knew about; the abandoned animals of the Aleppo zoo. They were trying to survive in the midst of heavy fighting and were left to die under terrible circumstances. Aleppo has seen some of the worst fighting since the civil war broke out in 2011. Years of conflicts and heavy fights left Aleppo with continuous airstrikes that even included chemical weapons. Magic World is situated in an area that was under control of rebels. The total number of the animals was around 300 when the war broke out... Since then, many have died in bombings, got sick or starved to death or have been sold on the black market. By early 2017 the number of the remaining population came down to 50. Whenever fighting broke out, the animals were trapped without food or water in their rusting, filthy enclosures, amid machine gun fire and explosions. Meanwhile more animals like monkeys and leopards have disappeared and only 13 animals remained.
Fortunately, there were some “Crazy Turks” as the press called them later, who couldn’t stand to watch the suffering of the abandoned animals. When news came out to Wild@Life end of March 2017, the group decided to do whatever in their hands, and minds, to lift these animals to safety. Asli Han Gedik, Conservationist and Founder of Wild@Life, stepped in with her team, to save Magic World’s last 13 survivors. For many years she has run missions to save lions in Zimbabwe and Zambia, elephants in Malawi and Zambia, primates in Kenya and Indonesia as well as animals from vivisection and fur trade. Intense planning and negotiations took weeks. It was basically a military operation for animals. The war has broken Syria into zones controlled by opposing groups: government forces under President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian Kurds, ISIS and several opposing Islamist factions. Going to war zone was not an easy task. Months of planning had to be done. Finally the NGO joined forces with the the Republic or Turkey. This was going to lead to something that has never been done before: helping the animals from the state of war and give them refugee asylum in Turkey, already home to a 3 million Syrian Refugees. “This is the real life story of people with incredible courage and enormous heart” said a senior level Turkish State Spokesperson.
Wild@Life goal sounded crazy, even impossible for many: Going to the most dangerous zone on Earth, rescuing these animals and taking them back to safety in Turkey.Teams on the ground needed to negotiate support to move the animals safely from a road trip from Aleppo Governate, passing through the active war zone to the border crossing and into Turkey. Risks were imminent and the vehicle could have been bombed by Syrian, Russian, American, or Turkish warplanes. Snipers along the road might open fire. People or animals could be kidnapped. Some foreign organizations who were aware of the situation also stepped in to this mission, but no institution or person wanted to enter the fire line. It is at this moment that Wild@Life Founder and Chairman Aslihan Gedik and Turkey Representative Okan Oflaz created a true miracle. They went to the government and the authorities to get official support to enter the war zone and guarantee the safety of the operation as much as possible. The Government granted them more than they have asked for. Veysel Eroğlu, The Minister of Forestry and Water of Turkey and a Member of Parliament, signed a document which would be the first in history: Animals got refugee status just like humans. Mr. Eroğlu personally prepared and signed the document of asylum for to Syrian animals and allowed them to be brought to Turkey by granting a special authority to the rescue team. Meanwhile five country borders (amongst them Cobanbey) were specially opened only for this rescue mission and were going to remain opened for the NGO until all animals would have been saved from the war. Turkey became the first and the only country accepting these animals as War Refugees, which made this rescue operation possible.
In July, time has arrived for the team to travel to Southern border of Turkey in order to prepare the rescue’s final details. The team, to name a few, Asli, Okan, Neslihan Gedik - Contractor for major construction companies, a warzone specialist as well as animal right activist- left for Kilis, a city near Gaziantep, close to Syrian border. The team went to the Syrian border officials to make negotiations, to secure a safe passage for the animals and themselves, conclude the paperwork with the Ministry of Customs, Ministry of Forestry, General Directorate of Nature Conservation and National Park and Ministry of Agriculture, as well as on ground assistance from Turkish Army. Wild@Life and their NGO logistic partners, after three months of intensive work, were finally at Cobanbey border to bring the animals safely to Turkey. But war was intensifying, the team was under bombs and crossing would not be possible the first few days. In July’s 21st, a Friday, hoping things would go quitter as it is a holy day, amidst the deteriorating situation, the mission was launched and our little Noah’s Ark was going to meet us on the way. The Turkish Custom Police in Cobanbey border provided the safest possible conditions beyond the border in Syria by allocating additional troops for the security of the team and making the necessary partnerships with the Free Syrian Army.
Once the heavy gates between Syria and Turkey was open, we have made our way to Syria, a No Man’s Land, a place that now looks like a stage out of movie, devastated by war. Our hearts were pumping, as for many of us; this was a situation that we have never been in. In mid-way, the Noah’s Arks was approaching and lions were roaring. We had not much time; the place could have been bombed any second. Curtains of the truck dropped and our rescues were looking at us: lions, tigers, bears, hyenas, all exhausted, with a lot of scars and signs of being traumatized, but alive! Yes 3 months of work was paying off, they were with us. We just needed to be as quick as possible. And right at that moment soldiers dropped their weapons on the ground, knowing they could be killed for it, and actively helped us moving the animals from a Syrian to a Turkish truck. The happiness of saving the last animals of the Zoo was evident in everyone’s eyes. Rescue has no nationality we all thought. One by one we moved the heavy crates and once all crates were transferred to our truck, we hugged the Syrian soldiers, wished for them to remain alive, knowing we will never meet again, and left for Turkey. The gate on our Turkish side of the border remained opened for us and our truck filled with the animals crossed the border. International security companies told it would be impossible to save the animals. “They called this rebel-controlled area between Aleppo and the Turkish border a ‘no-go,’” they said. But we did not give up easily. The rescue was successful!
After we stop for paperwork, Wild@Life took over the animals papers under the team name, and then moved on to check the well-being of the animals, as now we had the time and security to stop. We had to take care of them. 13 animals were dehydrated and severely malnourished. Their wasted, tick-covered bodies were scarred and matted in filth. Many had open sores. We provided, in a first stage, quick medical care and water. 24 hours’ drive of 1200km to the government-run Karacabey bear sanctuary was waiting for us. Asli Han opted to travel with the lions, in the truck, so she could monitor if there were in good state. It was third day without sleep.
Aslı Han and Okan have gradually rescued those animals from the war area with the help and assistance of the Turkish soldiers.
A week later the second rescue, for the two lions and the two huskies, became urgent as one of the lions was pregnant. On Friday, again a holy day, we were trying to get our remaining animals. It was getting dark and Custom affirmed they would close the borders by 7pm latest. Wild@Life asked the border police to wait and we gained some extra time. We managed to save the second group.
At Karacabey Bear Sanctuary, a rehabilitation area for the War Asylum Wild Animals
The support of Turkey has continued after rescue mission and Wild@Life made sure that animals had their first check up and rest for a week in Bursa Karacabey Widlife Sanctuary (a 1200 road trip away from Syria) and the gate of state-owned and access-prohibited facility were opened. When the team arrived to Karacabey, animals were given blood tests, exams and ultrasounds, checked for parasites, and had been vaccinated. Sultan, a skeletal year-old tiger, was in critical condition and when anesthetized for tests, he flat-lined in cardiac arrest. The scene transformed into an ER, he made it back and started breathing. The male hyena’s vision was clouded by cataracts; the female had severe kidney disease. The three lions and the other tiger were emaciated. The bears had badly damaged teeth, the result of a poor diet—and biting the bars of their cages out of fear or boredom. During this process, good news was made a certainty; one of the lionesses was pregnant and ultrasound showed she was carrying two cubs; she could go into labor at any time. In the light of new developments, Wild@Life accelerated to arrange the health certificates and permits from the Turkish government to move the animals to Jordan, a sanctuary built by the Princess Alia Foundation. Animals in war zones, like people, suffer psychological trauma from the death and destruction and the constant stress of explosions and gunfire. Some will bear those injuries years after the physical wounds have healed. We were optimistic that our rescues will recover from the scars of war.
The Final Step
The Turkish Government assisted in the quick arrangement for papers and documents for their travels and another special permission was given to the team to take care of the animals until the time of loading at the restricted cargo department in Istanbul Atatürk Airport. In August, the team left Karacabey for Istanbul Airport, again with the little Noah’s Ark, traveling Turkey under the surprised looks of the by standers. Wild animals in Istanbul streets were a sight many would remember. Upon arrival to the airport, the entire team, including foreign journalist from BBC, National Geographic and our partner NGO, were not allowed to be present in the Restricted Cargo area. Wild@Life made sure to take the necessary steps and papers to allow everyone to be part of the last leg of the Turkish rescue mission and we could all be present during the loading of the animals. But again we had some setback, our tiger and hyena got in health problem, the animal’s crates were too big and wheels had to be cut. We had to do these ourselves and the scheduled Royal Jordanian Airlines flight of 8pm could only leave with all of us at 11:30 pm. We landed to Amman around 3:30 am, again third day in a row without sleep and the team started the release of each animal.
This international operation, including Turkey, Syria and Jordan, took exactly 5 months. Aslihan Gedik and Okan Oflaz went personally to Kilis, then to Çobanbey, then to Syria and then to the state administrated sanctuary in Karacabey. They did not leave the animals alone in the cargo department at Istanbul Atatürk Airport and they put them on the plane. They also flew to Jordan and personally handed the animals over to the Jordanian Princess Alia.
The day after, when we checked on the lioness, she had given birth, completing the mission with a blessing, a rescue that would have never been done without the joint effort of people and Governments. These 13 survivors are “Animal Ambassadors.” For them “people put down their weapons, a small, dedicated group were able to move wild animals amid all this fighting. “These animals can light a little candle of hope in all this darkness.”
This was the first official Rescue taken under the wings of Wild@Life. Our plans are many, but our group is just only growing. For us to be able to continue these specific and unique rescues, we need from friends like you to believe in us and contribute to our Work. We have decided to remain strong and small, so we can shift all our resources to animals and accomplish projects one by one, with one goal: saving animals and habitat on the ground and investing back all donations to the projects. For this, we need you to believe in our work. For us to do more would you be kind to help us help them and donate to our PayPal account or our Bank account below?
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Asli Han Gedik