PETRA, Jordan (AFP) — On a hot sunny day in Jordan’s Petra, two tourists in the back of a horse-drawn carriage gaze over the picturesque lost city.
The horse is reluctant to move forward — it has been a long and grueling day transporting tourists on tricky, rocky terrain.
The oblivious passengers don’t notice when the frustrated coach driver unleashes a frenzied lashing of his horse.
A short distance away next to the visitor center, dozens of horses, donkeys, mules and camels stand idle under the blistering sun without shade.
They are some of the 1,350 animals put to work ferrying tourists at one of the most famous and beautiful landmarks in the Middle East, renowned worldwide for its unique giant rock-cut architecture.
For years the only professional care for the animals came from a small and ageing veterinary clinic.
But now two charities have joined forces with Jordan’s government to improve the welfare of the animals who walk the trails of a UNESCO World Heritage site that in 2007 was elected one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
“There was no treatment here. A few months ago I had to kill a horse because I couldn’t offer him the appropriate treatment,” said Imad Hlalet, a veterinarian at the Petra clinic, where seven to 15 animals are treated per day.
The animals transport visitors on their backs or in carriages over 10-kilometer (six-mile) treks through the ancient city of the Nabateans, which dates back to 400 BC.
Exhaustion, lameness, colic
The trails through towering canyons once carried frankincense, myrrh, silk and slaves but today the traffic is tourists — more than half a million a year according to the Petra National Trust.
The animals are kept in poor conditions and forced to carry or pull weights that are often far too heavy for their size, activists say.
The working days are far too long and many of the animals also have no shade, insufficient food and water and no quiet places to rest.
With limited access to veterinary care, many suffer from exhaustion, lameness and colic.
Concerned over their treatment, the Four Paws Animal Welfare group and the Princess Alia Foundation are working with the ministry of tourism to usher in a program aimed at halting abuse and improving living conditions.
Vienna-based Four Paws will start providing the clinic with much-needed supplies of drugs and equipment. It will also train local veterinarians, project leader Robert Hengl said.
Stables, rest areas to protect horses from the sun and troughs are also planned before the summer, when temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
“The first advice we give is to avoid overworking animals,” Hengl said, adding that an awareness campaign underway is as important as the treatment.
At the clinic a team from Four Paws is already in action.
Veterinarian Ovidiu Rosu examines the knee on the back leg of a horse who has been suffering from an infection for four months.
Syria war knock-on effect
Abbayah, a mare, is being seen for the first time.
“I cleaned the wound and administered an antibiotic. She must rest for a few weeks and she will be much better,” Rosu tells Abbayah’s owner, Ahmed Mchaalia.
Local guides have welcomed the new initiative, complaining that the current medical center is ill-equipped and cannot cope with the number of animals requiring medical treatment.
Petra’s animals are regularly victims of injury as they work over rough and slippery trails — especially the Siq path, a winding and narrow gorge between sandstone mountains that many of the animals cross several times a day.
Activists and veterinarians say animals drawing carriages are especially vulnerable.
“We have asked the ministry of tourism to ban horse-drawn carriages, but they told us that this method of transport was essential for tourists who can’t handle the long walk,” Hlalet said.
The conflict in Jordan’s neighbor Syria has also had a knock-on effect on the animals.
Guides — often oblivious to their animals’ welfare — are pushing their animals harder to make ends meet due to a significant drop in tourists since the start of Syria’s civil conflict four years ago.
About 975,000 people visited Petra in 2010. Last year the number was about 596,600.
Waiting for clients with his horse at the entrance to Petra, Tarek echoes the complaints of many of his fellow guides.
“Tourism is dead at the moment in Jordan.”