DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Lions, cheetahs, tigers, baboons, and snakes are being kept as pets in the homes of wealthy families in the Middle East, prompting concerns from animal rights activists.
In recent years, there has been a steady increase in the trade of exotic and endangered animals to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Not only is the trade in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but also the domestic laws in the UAE.
Dr. Reza Khan an adviser on animal welfare to Dubai Municipality and a vocal campaigner against the practice said that despite the laws, it was an all too common occurrence in the oil-rich Gulf monarchy.
“Some people get an endangered animal as a pet to show off that they are in possession of something that others do not or cannot have,” he said.
“Wild animals cannot be kept as pets because they are dangerous. Not only that, but there is also a severe depletion of the population of such animals in the wild.
“They must not be taken away from their environment just to please the unusual greed of some odd people in society.”
The practice came to light earlier this year when residents in Abu Dhabi were alarmed after finding a cheetah wandering the streets of the capital city. The animal was apparently being kept as a pet on the roof of a residential building and broke its chain.
However, some residents keep wild animals in their own homes. A series of YouTube videos posted recently shows Emirati teenagers toying with a huge lioness in a living room.
The routes the animals take into the country are often nefarious. In May this year, a UAE national was arrested in Thailand after his suitcases were allegedly found stuffed with drugged baby leopards, panthers, monkeys, and a bear.
The case is all too common. A man was found last year at U.K.’s Birmingham Airport, en route to Dubai, with 14 rare peregrine falcon eggs strapped to his body.
Similarly, local media headlines screamed of “snakes on a plane” last year, when a Saudi man was arrested in transit from Indonesia to Abu Dhabi, after officials found several pythons, a parrot, and a squirrel in his hand luggage.
“There are a rising number of reports of wildlife trafficking where the UAE is said to be a destination or transit point,” Richard Thomas of global animal trade monitoring group Traffic, told Time Out Dubai in a recent interview.
“This is partly because of its geographical location. The Middle East is a hub for international trade, and that includes wildlife trade, an element of which is illegal.”
The UAE is a signatory to CITES laws and all endangered animals kept by private investors need to be registered. Owners must also provide evidence that the animals will be kept in appropriate conditions.
The country imposes hefty fines on violators. However, it is not enough to deter black market trade of the animals, which continues to thrive in the country’s notorious ‘pet souks.’ According to local reports, a cheetah cub there can often sell from upward of 30,000dirham ($8,100).
To illustrate the freedom under which these traders operate, a reporter from local daily Gulf News purchased a baby crocodile from Sharjah’s Animal and Birds Market.
A survey of local pet shops by the Environment Agency—Abu Dhabi in 2007, found that as many as 41 percent of dealers in the capital were selling CITES species.
However owners often do not stay enamored with their novelty pets. Dubai’s aging zoo is filled with endangered animals that were once kept as pets but were cast out after owners realized they were difficult to look after.
Khan, who was a former manager of the zoo, previously said that in one month alone he fielded up to five requests from UAE residents to house their pet lions.
The UAE became a member of CITES in 1990, but was suspended once briefly in 2001 after allegations of complicity in illegal trading.
Following news of the Thailand arrest, officials at CITES asked for assurances from UAE officials that they were doing everything they could to halt the illegal trade.
The UAE published guidelines back in 2008 over what animals were regulated or banned under CITES, however more work needs to be done in raising awareness of what is illegal, says Khan.
“People who want to keep these animals as pets usually do not mean to break the laws on smuggling,” he said. “But they buy just one or two animals and carry them as luggage without knowing the rules in their home country or the country of origin.
“”We do not have proper mechanisms here and the public relations campaigns to make better known the CITES banned or restricted animal species.”However, he said he was hopeful that trends could be reversed if the necessary changes were made.
“Actually if the members of the public are aware of the CITES and UAE regulations they would possibly not buy such smuggled animals,” he said.