Birdlife International designates Rashaya and the Lebanese side of Mount Hermon as an Important Bird Area

SPNL is excited to share a significant development in our Important Bird Areas (IBA) program related to the Rashaya and the Lebanese side of Mount Hermon.

Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) are sites of international significance for the conservation of the world’s birds and other biodiversity. They also provide essential benefits to people, such as food, materials, water, climate regulation and flood protection, as well as opportunities for recreation and spiritual fulfilment.

IBA criteria met: A4, B3a, B3c (2023)
Area: 54,238 ha

Site summary
Rashaya District, located in southern Lebanon’s Beqaa Governorate, spans 54,238 ha. Situated around 1,350 meters above sea level on Mount Hermon’s slopes, it experiences an average annual temperature of 15°C. Rainfall ranges from 650 mm to 750 mm yearly, with most occurring between November and March. The area boasts three distinct vegetation belts: Evergreen Mediterranean Maquis, Xero-Montane Open Forest, and Subalpine Mountain Steppe. Protected Pine forests offer habitat and culinary resources, while grasslands and rocky areas support grazing and hiking trails. Rashaya’s economy thrives on traditional activities, including herb harvesting, crop cultivation (cherries, olives, etc.), and goat husbandry for Labneh production.
Populations meeting IBA criteria (‘trigger species’):
Site location and context

Rashaya is a District in the south of the Beqaa Governorate of Lebanon and extends over 54,238 ha. Its central coordinates are: Latitude 33°32’56.06″N, and Longitude 35°51’55.46″E and it is situated at around 1,350 metres above sea level, on the western slopes of Mount Hermon (a mountain cluster constituting the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range). The lowest altitude of the site is 798 meters and, its summit straddles the border between Syria and Lebanon to culminate at 2,772 m above sea level on the Lebanese site. To the East Rashaya District is adjacent to Syria Hermon IBA, to the west it is also adjacent to the Lake Qaraoun IBA.
Rashaya District receives between 650 mm and 750 mm of rainfall each year with around two fifths of this amount falling between November and March. The rain reaches 500 mm in northeastern parts to above 1,000 mm in the highlands of Mount Hermon which is snow covered for over 6 months of the year. The site has an average annual temperature of 15 °C, varying between 35 °C in the summer season down to −5 °C in winter. The dominant wind direction is east to west from which the town is somewhat sheltered by the mountains.
Rashaya District, is of Mediterranean type. The parent rock material consists of homogeneous, hard Jurassic limestone, dolomites and occasional broken veins of basalt. Rashaya District has steep slopes and rocky sharp clefts with active weathering processes resulting from snow at higher altitude. The vegetation is composed of a climax community of oak woodland and plenty of shrubs and deciduous trees accompanied by a rich herbaceous vegetation (Abou Zakhem1989; Danin 1992).
Three main vegetation belts have been distinguished in the District (Zohary 1973): Evergreen Mediterranean Maquis (800 -1300 m), Xero-Montane Open Forest (1300-1900 m) and Subalpine Mountain Steppe or Tragacanth Belt (1900-2800 m).

Key biodiversity

Between the years 2019 and 2020, bird expert Ramadan-Jaradi conducted sixteen ornithological site visits where the birds at the level of the Rashaya district were studied with Point Count method for the passerines, and Vantage Points method for the soaring birds. During these visits, a total of 114 bird species were recorded.
Of these bird species, nine are globally threatened:

  • Common Pochard (VU): 1 individual recorded, rare passage migrant and winterer,
  • Egyptian Vulture (EN): 3 individuals recorded, scarce passage migrant,
  • Greater Spotted Eagle (VU): 1 individual recorded, rare passage migrant,
  • Steppe Eagle (EN): 7 individuals recorded, uncommon passage migrant,
  • Imperial Eagle (VU): 3 individuals recorded, scarce passage migrant,
  • MacQueen’s Bustard (VU): 1 individual recorded, vagrant,
  • Sociable Lapwing (CR): 3 individuals recorded, rare passage migrant and winterer,
  • Turtle Dove (VU): 8 individuals recorded, scarce summer breeder and uncommon passage migrant,
  • Syrian Serin (VU): 29 individuals recorded, fairly common summer breeder, scarce passage migrant and possible winterer.

Twenty-nine migratory soaring bird species were recorded in the Rashaya District. These include the four globally threatened raptors mentioned above, alongside seven IBA trigger migratory soaring species responding to criterion A4iv. These seven species are: Great White Pelican, White Stork, Black Stork, Honey Buzzard, Levant Sparrowhawk, Lesser Spotted Eagle, and Common Crane. The remaining eighteen migratory soaring bird species are: Black Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Griffon Vulture, Short-toed Eagle (breeding), Marsh Harrier, Hen Harrier, Montagu’s Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Long-legged Buzzard (breeding), Steppe Buzzard, Golden Eagle (possibly resident), Bonelli’s Eagle (breeding), Booted Eagle (breeding), Kestrel (resident breeding), Eleonora’s Falcon, Lanner Falcon and Peregrine Falcon.
The 114 recorded species also include sixteen breeding biome restricted species responding to criterion A3: Cream-colored Courser, Tawny Owl, White-throated Robin, Black Redstart, Black-eared Wheatear, Finsch’s Wheatear, Scrub Warbler, Upcher’s Warbler, Sardinian Warbler, Somber Tit, Western Rock Nuthatch, Masked Shrike, Pale Rockfinch, Crimson-winged Finch, Cretzschmar’s Bunting, and Black-headed Bunting.
Despite the generally recognized role of Mt Hermon as a key area of biodiversity, there is still a lack of sufficient data on the vascular flora of the Lebanese side of the mountain. To fill this gap a list of 221 phanerogams, collected during 2011-2014 at altitudes of 1100 to 2800 m, is presented including information on the eco-geographical traits of the taxa (N. Arnold, S. Baydoun, L. Chalak & Th. Raus. 2015). Ethnobotanical knowledge of identified species was gathered through interviews and focus group meetings with herbalists, folk medicine healers, bee keepers and knowledgeable elderly people of the local Lebanese community. Among the 53 ascertained plant families Asteraceae (32 spp.), Lamiaceae (25 spp.), Apiaceae (17 spp.), Fabaceae (14 spp.) and Rosaceae (14 spp.) form the major shares. Among the observed 221 taxa, 24 endemics (Lebanon and Syria) are recorded and 115 taxa are detected in the mountain ecosystem for the first time. The Mount Hermon is declared an Important Plant Area (Radford, E.A., Catullo, G. and Montmollin, B. 2011), and a Key Biodiversity Area BirdLife International 2020).
Interviewing and questioning of the inhabitants and stakeholders of the Rashaya district has shown that 12 mammal species occur in the area. The most threatened and rare of these species are: Canis lupus pallipes (Internationally LC and Nationally VU), Felis sylvestris tristrami (Internationally LC and Nationally NT), Hyaena hyaena syriaca (Internationally NT and Nationally EN), and several bat species (Myotis blythi omari, Pipistrellus kuhli ikhawanius, Pipistrellus pipistrellus pipipstrellus, Rhinolphus ferrumequinum ferrumequinum, and Rhinolophus hipposideros minimus) all of which are Internationally LC and Nationally NT. At the national level, it appears that most of the mentioned mammals of the study area are ranging from vulnerable to critically endangered.
Herpetofauna research in Rashaya is extremely rare, but field research undertaken by Souad Hraoui Bloquet and Ryad Sadek (2002) and interviews with elderly people or environmentalists, have resulted in the following list:

  • Salamandra inframmaculata inframmaculata (NT) endemic to the middle east,
  • Cyrtopodion (Mediodactylus) kotschiyi orientalis (LC) endemic to Jordan and Lebanon,
  • Ptyodactylus puisseuxi (LC) endemic to the middle east,
  • Acantodactylus schreiberi syriaca (EN) endemic to the middle east,
  • Parvilacerta fraasii (EN) endemic to western Asia,
  • Phoenicolacerta kulzeri kulzeri (EN) endemic to western Asia,
  • MesaIina brevirostris cf. microlepis (LC),
  • Chalcides ocelIatus ocellatus (NT).
Habitat and land use

Rashaya district is covered by the following main habitats: Forest, Shrubland, Grassland, Rocky land, Agricultural land, and Urban land.
The Pine forests in Rashaya are classified as protected areas, and pine nuts from the local conifer trees are used in traditional cooking and sold at 50$/kg. Besides providing habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, forests of pine, cypress and cedar also offer recreational areas for the locals of Rashaya and their guests.
Grasslands and rocky lands are where grazing and irresponsible hunting take place in Rashaya as municipalities in the district have prohibited any hunting or grazing in newly forested areas. Grasslands and rocky areas are also where hiking trails start in Rashaya which flanks Mount Hermon, passing interesting rock formations and a pine forest before reaching Hasbaya in the south. These areas are important economically as tourists can visit the Citadel of Independence, old churches, traditional markets, and bike trails.
In both forests and grasslands, the harvest of medicinal and edible plants such as herbs used for “Mouneh” (meaning ‘to store’, a traditional way of food storing essential to the Lebnaese people throughout history including methods of pickling, preserving, brining, drying…) and medicinal purposes is a traditional activity for the Rashaya communities.
In agricultural lands, commonly grown crops include cherries, olives, apricots, grapes and apples. Locals produce jams and oils from their fruit for home-use and market sales. Some wild cucumbers are also grown; however, vegetables are less frequent in the area due to low rainfall. Animal husbandry is also practiced, mainly with goats, from which Labneh is produced constituting a popular staple food for locals.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity

C: critical level threats are the excessive or irresponsible hunting recognized from spent cartridges on the ground, as well as the deliberate persecution of birds, particularly raptors and more precisely the Honey Buzzard, probably to save bee hives belonging to farmers. It is clear that there is considerable hunting activity during migration season, since soaring birds fly low between valleys across part of this area making them easy targets. Spring migrants are mostly unaffected, as snow renders access difficult.
M: major level threats are toxic pollution, debris/ garbage, as well as excessive disturbance to birds.
L: local level threats there are overgrazing/over browsing, irrigation, hiking, development and construction of a proposed tourism ski resort in the near future.

Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity

Between the years 2001 and 2010, the UNDP supported a project under the title “UNDP Art Gold-Bekaa” in different areas of the West Beqaa and Anti-Lebanon regions, including Kfarmishki of the Rachaya district, in the improvement of the conservation and management of water through establishment and increase in the capacity of one catchment pond. The project successfully increased the capacity of water catchment from 15,000 m3 to 25,000 m3, expanding the irrigated area and thus, increasing the production of grass and vegetables by 60%, benefiting more than 300 local farmers. This project also provided agricultural equipment for the agriculture cooperative in Rashaya.
In 2016, The UNDP Sustainable Land Management in the Quaraoun Catchment (SLMQ) Project prepared management plans to cover a total of 20,000 ha of rangelands (outside forests) in the districts of Rashaya and West Beqaa addressing the main rangeland types (Grassland, shrubland/scrubland).
In 2018, Hage Hassan, H., L. Charbel & L. Touchart, conducted a study on Modelling and Mapping of Erosion risk in Rashaya.
In 2019, a Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF)-funded project entitled “Maintaining the Traditional Land-Use Practices Necessary for Conservation of Olive Associated Biodiversity in Mount Hermon, Lebanon” started and is currently enabling research to be conducted in Rashaya by The Environment for Life Association (EFL).
In 2020, The Union of Rashaya municipalities made the decision to establish an agricultural lake and is waiting for a Decree from the Council of Ministers to be issued for this pond’s establishment.
Recently, the Union of Rashaya municipalities signed an agreement with an international organization called “V-Cobiration” to try, as much as possible, banning all herbicides harmful to the environment. In addition, the Union informed the organization about its willingness to monitor any mis-use or selling of harmful products. The villages of the Union do not depend highly on herbicides because they depend on natural and traditional farming techniques instead.

Protected areas

Early in the year 2020, Rashaya was approved as a Nature Reserve (type of official Protected Area as per the Lebanese Law 130/2019 for protected areas) by the Ministerial Cabinet. The file of Rashaya as a Protected Area was submitted to the Parliament for its very possible ratification.
There are no protected areas overlapping with the site. The nearest protected area is the Al Chouf Cedar Forest Nature Reserve (and Biosphere Reserve) with an average distance of 12 km from Rashaya. The shortest distance between Rashaya and the Al Chouf Cedar Forest Nature Reserve is 8 km.
The Lake Qaraoun IBA is adjacent to Rashaya with the shortest distance between them reaching 0.5 km at the southern corner of the Lake. Moreover, the Hermon-Syria IBA that occupies the eastern slopes of the Mount Hermon is adjacent to the Rashaya-Hermon proposed IBA but not overlapping.