The practice of keeping wild animals as pets has become a menace in the UAE, according to the May issue of 999 English, the official monthly magazine of the Ministry of Interior.
The magazine's cover story details wild animal sightings in the UAE, how they are acquired, the threat to the public, the opinion of wildlife experts on the matter, its legality, and also interviews with two private zoo owners, one of whom rescues wild animals that are abandoned by their owners once they have outlived their utility as status symbols.
The report highlights that these wild animals are bought solely for showing off and most owners have no idea how to care for them. Veterinarian and volunteer Dr Marissa Akram, quoted in the report, said: “Most of the exotic pets here are declawed, with their sharp teeth filed down and are found malnourished. Medical records are usually non-existent and those handling such animals fail to realise they are exposing themselves and the society to various illnesses.”
Another expert pointed that though there were legal ways to bring an animal into the UAE, owners of exotic pets often took pride in bypassing the law. Dr Reza Khan, a specialist in wildlife and zoo management at Dubai Municipality’s Public Parks and Horticulture Department, said, “People keep dangerous animals to impress friends and colleagues that they can have such a pet without a legal permit.”
The animals traded most often are cubs of big cats like lion, leopard and tiger, followed by endangered tortoise, terrapin, iguana, ball python, non-venomous snakes, crocodile, parrot, macaw, cockatoo, baboon and, occasionally, chimpanzee. Cubs of the three big cats have been seen around the city, usually in the backseat of an SUV, sometimes poking their heads out of a window.
In the article, a resident says, “Our neighbourhood is turning into a mini safari. The only difference is that the residents are the ones roaming the concrete jungle while the wild animals cruise in air conditioned cars.”
As part of the reportage, ‘999’ magazine sent its writer to find a cheetah cub for sale. The reporter found one in just 18 minutes, offered by a person selling parakeets in a souq. The price for a three-month-old cub was brought down from Dh50,000 in cash to Dh15,000 and a date was set to pick up the “package”. The dealer told the reporter – thinking him to be the representative of a buyer – that there were several back channels helping him to get the cub, with a local breeding farm fronting as the main supplier.
The ‘999’ report says the network of this illegal wildlife trade is vast. Local and international websites advertise sale of cubs of lions, cheetahs and even the white (albino) tiger. Prices range from Dh15,000 to Dh50,000.
The 999 report puts the spotlight on a four-week survey on the UAE trade in wild animals done by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The survey found a total of 796 live animal advertisements on 11 websites, according to results published in February 2013. None of the ads presented any documentary proof of a legitimate sale, and only 20.7 per cent of the ads claimed that such documents were available.
One ad on a UAE classified site said: “We are a breeder of a wide variety of exotic animals such as cheetahs, cougars, jaguars, leopards, black panthers, lions, yellow and white Siberian tigers and Bengal tigers. We offer mostly the tamed babies of four to 16 weeks (sic) from our collection. We consistently offer high-quality and well-trained exotic pets for low prices.”
The high demand for big cat cubs means that their mothers are often killed in the jungle and the orphan cub is then captured and smuggled out. The exotic pet trend threatens humans in urban areas. These wild animals cannot really be tamed and if they get out of their enclosures, that means danger for the people on the streets. The animals usually escape when the owners leave them to starve or keep them in such confined spaces that the animal becomes depressed.
The 999 report cites a number of escapes. In May 2011, a 10-month-old cheetah was discovered roaming the streets of Al Karamah in Abu Dhabi. It was injured and malnourished and had a chain around its neck. The animal was captured by the authorities and handed over to the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre. A few months earlier, a full-grown cheetah swam ashore from Khalid Port in Sharjah, and hid in a nearby mosque. This one too was captured and sent to the Sharjah Desert Park.
These wild escapees are fearful of humans but could get aggressive if they feel cornered. Dr Khan said, “The truth is you can never predict a wild animal’s behaviour. If someone gets too close, the animal could feel threatened and react in defence against a passer-by. With lives at stake, it is everyone’s civic duty to bring such incidences to the attention of the authorities.”
As the UAE is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), those who illegally trade in endangered animals in the country, whether as buyer or seller, face a fine up to Dh50,000 and a prison term for up to six months. These penalties have been publicised by the UAE government in August 2011, and since 2012, a draft law has been in the works for stricter curbs on this trade.
Dr Khan said that the owner of an exotic animal had primary accountability for ensuring that the sale was legal. “The owner is the first party held responsible for failing to have proper CITES permit or a permit from the Ministry of Water and Environment (which enforces the law in the UAE). Those who sell these endangered species must also be punished if they fail to produce a proper import-export permit.”
Lt. Colonel Awadh Saleh Al Kindi, Editor-in-Chief of 999, said: “Wild animals belong in the wild. They do not belong in an SUV cruising down city roads; they do not belong in a confined space where they become depressed and aggressive; and they certainly do not belong on the streets, where they could end up if their owners leave them to starve. Unfortunately, they serve as status symbols for some people. These exotic pet owners do not realise that they are putting city residents in danger and also contributing to the illegal trade in wildlife. We encourage everyone to report wild animal sightings in UAE cities so that we can all help to put an end to this social menace.”
The 999 English Magazine is a part of the plan of the Ministry of Interior to provide media coverage for the activities of the Ministry and Abu Dhabi Police. It also aims to encourage the public to contribute reduce crime and enhance safety in the UAE.