In Beirut, a rescued pelican becomes symbol of hope in crisis-stricken Lebanon

Restaurant mascot Ovi is a small piece of joy in a city ravaged by economic woes and last month's explosion

Three times a day a large white pelican waddles up to a seaside restaurant on Beirut’s Corniche for a snack of fresh fish, its wellbeing closely guarded by locals and the fishermen who found him dying in the open sea last February.

In a country reeling from multiple crises, the fate of the gentle pelican brings joy and hope to customers who watch him as he is hand-fed several kilograms of fresh fish every day.

“He struts in like a lady and eats and checks everybody out,” laughed Ali Bazzi, 65, a regular at Abou Mounir restaurant. “When he doesn’t like the fish, he throws it to the floor.”

Lebanon has been sinking deeper into its worst economic crisis over the last year and there is no end in sight. The general feeling of despair has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and the explosion in early August of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut port.

At least 190 people died as a result of the blast and the local authorities said that the chemicals had been stored unsafely for seven years. On Thursday, a little more than a month later, a massive fire erupted at the port, stoking fears that hazardous materials were still being stored there without proper security measures. More explosives were later discovered there.

Amid the daily news reports of economic hardship and social unrest, videos of the pelican have gone viral.

"So I was having a bite with a couple of friends by the Corniche when this fella wanders in," tweeted Beirut-based Bloomberg journalist Lin Noueihed on Wednesday. "And for a few minutes, the world was beautiful again. #Beirut".

After the pelican was found last winter, he was nursed back to health by the owners of Abou Mounir restaurant with the help of Lebanese Wildlife, a group that rescues wild animals in Lebanon.

Omar Al Aoud, the 17-year-old son of one of the restaurant’s managers and a passionate advocate of animal rights, nicknamed the pelican Ovi.

“It comes from oviraptor, because birds descend directly from dinosaurs,” he said.

Ovi now lives a few metres away from the restaurant in a fishermen’s bay, and enjoys swimming close to their boats.

“This is the most ideal situation. It would be abusive to put him in a cage,” said Alexandra Youssef of Lebanese Wildlife.

But the pelican’s newfound popularity worries Omar.

“I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t want too many people knowing about him. I don’t want him to get stressed,” he said.

Clients are not allowed to touch Ovi, who likes being scratched on the back and chest by restaurant staff but shies away from people he does not know.

“One client tried to force his beak open to put a fish in it. I kind of had a small problem with that,” said Omar.

The pelican is particularly afraid of children, because they have attacked him in the past with sticks.

But Omar and his father, Ali, 54, feel that his presence is also helping locals better respect wildlife in a country where three million birds are hunted illegally every year.

“We told them not to pat him; he’s not a dog, or cat. They understand. The fishermen love him and feed him too,” said Ali Al Oud. “Everyone here takes care of him. He’s become the symbol of this place.”

“Hopefully, he won’t become domestic and will migrate again. We want him to have a life that a pelican should have,” said Ali.

But Ali’s hopes will probably never materialise, warned Ms Youssef.

Ovi’s flight wings had been clipped when he was found. That means that he was probably captured for sale for up to $300 (Dh1,100) as a pet or for taxidermy on the black market, she said.

A pelican’s wings take six months to a year to regrow. But during this time, Ovi will have become used to humans, meaning that he can never be return to the wild. “He might fall in the wrong hands,” Ms Youssef said.

Hundreds of thousands of birds suffer similar fates to Ovi's and are killed or captured every year as they fly the dangerous route between Europe and Africa.
"Lebanon is the second most important route of bird migration in the world, and one of the worst countries for hunting, along with Italy, Egypt, and Syria," Ms Youssef said.

“A lot of people here treat animals brutally,” Mr Bazzi said.

“Look, we had a war for 15 years,” he continued, referring to the 1975-1990 civil war. “This became a culture for people. And then successive governments didn’t address the problem. Maybe they built real estate, but the people were not taken care of.”

“We are still suffering, but you find good people who love animals, nature and the environment. They want life,” he said.

“But some don’t. They are still in the fabric of war, 15 years of war. Nothing happened to teach them something new."

Quoting a song by famed Syrian-Egyptian singer Farid Al Atrash, Mr Bazzi said that "life is beautiful if we understand it".

"Life is birds, animals, fish, trees, the sea, and the river. That’s life. And we have to understand it to live," he said.