Issued on: 06.10.2021 – 04:38

Petra (Jordan) (AFP)

Herds of industrious donkeys once carried hordes of tourists on the rocky trails of Jordan’s Petra, but visitor numbers plummeted amid the pandemic and the loyal animals are unemployed.

“Before the coronavirus, we all had work,” said Abdulrahman Ali, a 15-year-old donkey owner in the old, rock-cut desert town, where the sure-footed animals carry tourists up steep paths in the blazing sun.

“Petra’s Bedouins made a living and fed their animals,” he said, waiting for food to be handed out by a charity, explaining that many owners today struggle to pay the cost of feeding.

In 2019, the number of visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage exceeded the million mark for the first time.

But in March 2020 the famous tourist destination was closed and the crucial income for tourists dried up.

– Depending on tourism –

“When tourism stopped, nobody could buy food or medicine,” said Ali, who could earn up to $ 280 on a good day and support his mother and two brothers.

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“If you have a little money, you can now spend it on your own food, not on your animal.”

Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for more than a tenth of Jordan’s GDP, but revenue plummeted from $ 5.8 billion in 2019 to $ 1 billion last year, according to government figures.

Tourist numbers have been slowly recovering since Petra reopened in May.

Only about 200 visitors a day come to Petra, compared to more than 3,000 before the pandemic broke out, said Suleiman Farajat, head of Petra’s regional development and tourism agency.

Farajat said about 200 guides used up to 800 animals – including horses, camels, and mules, and donkeys – for tourist drives across the desert.

The economic effects of tourism were widespread.

“Before the crisis, 80 percent of the region’s residents were directly or indirectly dependent on tourism,” said Farajat.

“Not only livestock owners were affected by the pandemic, but also hotels, restaurants, those with souvenir shops or shops and hundreds of employees have lost their jobs.”

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Many donkey owners turn to a clinic supported by the animal rights organization PETA, where veterinarians treat abused and malnourished donkeys free of charge.

“Before the coronavirus, my family and I owned seven donkeys that were working in Petra,” said Mohammad al-Badoul, 23, as he waited with four other donkey owners to fill a sack with animal feed.

“We had to sell them for lack of income. Now we only have one and I can barely feed it.”

– ‘To starve’ –

Egyptian veterinarian Hassan Shatta, an equine surgery specialist who runs the PETA clinic, said he started a donkey feeding program late last year.

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“During the lockdown of Covid-19 and the lack of tourism, people could no longer afford to feed their animals,” said Shatta.

“Some of them starved to death and we picked them up and brought them here,” he added, noting that around 250 animals were treated, with around 10-15 cases a day.

PETA has historically treated animals with deep cuts by beating or mistreating them, but Farajat of Petra’s Tourism Bureau says the donkey’s working conditions are “not so bad” now.

But there are plans to replace some of the traditional donkeys with a new system of 20 electric cars that will be introduced by the tourist board next month.

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The cars are “driven by the animal owners,” Farajat said.

Farajat hopes that the switch to electric cars will put an end to criticism of the mistreatment of animals.