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Leopards and lions are dying as Yemen burns

A worker holds lion cubs outside their cage at a zoo in Yemen's southwestern city of Taiz on Feb. 23. (Anees Mahyoub/Reuters)

Of all the miserable, deadly conflicts hollowing out the Middle East, the war in Yemen is perhaps the least discussed. Battles between a constellation of militias, including Houthi rebels linked to Iran and forces supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have plunged an already impoverished nation into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

Earlier this month, the United Nations' World Food Program warned that the city of Taiz, in the war-ravaged south of the country, faced imminent famine. The Taiz governorate is one of 10 -- roughly half of the country -- in "the grip of severe food insecurity," the U.N. organization said. This is, in part, a consequence of months of Saudi blockades and bombardments in the country.

Yemen is turning into Saudi Arabia's Vietnam

In Taiz, a Saudi-led coalition force and militia affiliated with al-Qaeda are battling the Houthis, who have been accused of indiscriminately shelling civilian areas in the city. The Saudis, too, have been relentlessly pounding Houthi positions.

The human toll is immense and staggering. But there are other innocent victims, too.

Earlier this week, news reports documented the plight of dozens of animals housed in Taiz's zoo. The facility, home to about 280 creatures, has been crippled by shortages in food and medicine. This has led to sickness and death, including among the zoo's Arabian leopards, a critically endangered species indigenous to Yemen's highlands. A garish set of pictures posted on social media earlier this month showed one starving leopard eating another.

According to a Reuters report, 11 lions and six leopards have died. "Those which survive pace in anguish in their cages and animals are at turns sullen and anxious," it states.

A "fact-finding" report by a local doctor found the zoo's animals in a woeful state, listless, malnourished, surrounded by filth, and suffering from numerous ailments and skin conditions. A fund-raising effort, sparked by an animal lover in Sweden, raised $33,000 online in two weeks. The money, according to Reuters, will go to paying the zoo staff, as well as for surgery for a wounded lion and food for some of the zoo's larger animals.

"People caused this conflict," Chantal Jonkergouw, the Swedish donor, told Reuters by phone. "Of course there are innocent people in trouble as well, but humans can often flee or develop some kind of alternatives. It's never the animals having this choice. It's not fair, and we have an obligation to help them."

According to local officials, about 70 percent of the population of Taiz and its surrounding areas have fled. Nearly 40 hospitals and clinics have been forced to shut down because of shortages of medical supplies and fuel, which is needed to power generators.

The civilian death toll of the conflict in Yemen stands close to 9,000 since March 2015, according to the U.N.

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