File: Donkeys waiting to carry tourists. eNCA/Estelle Bronkhorst
PETRA - Herds of hard-working donkeys once carried hordes of tourists on the rocky paths of Jordan's Petra, but visitor numbers crashed amid the pandemic and the loyal animals are left without a job.
"Before coronavirus, we all had work," said Abdulrahman Ali, a 15-year-old donkey owner at the ancient rock-carved desert city, where the sure-footed animals carry tourists up steep paths in the blazing sun.
"The Bedouins of Petra made a living and fed their animals," he said, sitting waiting for a handout of fodder from a charity, explaining that many owners today are struggling to meet the cost of feeding them.
In 2019, the number of visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage site topped a million for the first time.
But in March 2020, the famous tourist destination was closed, and the crucial income from the tourists dried up.
"When tourism stopped, nobody could buy fodder or medicine anymore," said Ali, who could earn as much as $280 on a good day, supporting his mother and two brothers.
"Anyone who has a little amount of money now spends it on his own food, not his animal."
Since Petra reopened in May, tourist numbers have been slow to rebound.
Only some 200 visitors a day come to Petra, compared to more than 3,000 before the pandemic hit, said Suleiman Farajat, heading the Petra Development and Tourism Regional Authority.
The economic ripple effect of tourism was widespread.
Many donkey owners are turning to a clinic supported by the animal rights group PETA, where vets treat maltreated and malnourished donkeys for free.
Egyptian vet Hassan Shatta, an equine surgery specialist who runs the PETA clinic, said he launched a donkey-feeding programme late last year.
"During the Covid-19 lockdown, and with the lack of tourism, people could not afford to feed their animals anymore," Shatta said.
"Some of them ended up starving and we picked them up brought them here," he added, noting some 250 animals had been treated, with some 10-15 cases arriving a day.