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A rescued baby crocodile at the Gulf News office in Dubai in 2013. Image Credit: Javed Nawab/Gulf News archives

DUBAI : In the two years since the UAE’s law banning the ownership of dangerous animals such as cheetahs and lions came into force, scores have been seized by the authorities and taken to rescue shelters.

Border agencies and airlines have stepped up their actions against smugglers bringing animals into the country illegally, and the government has launched a number of awareness campaigns about the risks of keeping dangerous animals in domestic settings and the impact their capture has on the future survival of species.

But despite this very public crackdown, an investigation has found local dealers are continuing to sell banned and endangered animals via social media platforms such as Instagram and Whatsapp.

We have seen adverts for a wide-range of animals including: cheetahs, tiger cubs, lion cubs, snakes, crocodiles, monkeys, baboons, slow lorises, spiders, large lizards, tortoises, meerkats, hyenas and servals.

Price range

Prices vary depending on species and the seller. The most expensive pets are the big cats. Adult cheetahs, for example, are being advertised for between Dh35,000 and Dh50,000, while lion and tiger cubs go for around Dh30,000.

Monkeys and baboons can fetch between Dh3,000 and Dh7,000, depending on their age and size, while snakes sell for around Dh1,800 and slow lorises are typically advertised at Dh3,000.

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Lion cubs being sold illegally in the UAE. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News archives

Some of the animals are bred domestically, but according to Dr Al Syed Mohammad, regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), most primates and big cats being sold in the UAE are wild caught and trafficked into the country by land, sea and air.

Hiba Al Shehi, acting director of Biodiversity Department at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE), told Gulf News: “The UAE has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal wildlife trafficking and is taking a firm stand to expose and dismantle any so-called wildlife criminal syndicates.”

“MOCCAE, in cooperation with local authorities, is currently developing an integrated system for reporting and tracing wildlife violation cases,” she said. “Those who participate in wildlife crimes will face the consequences of their actions.”

However, despite the get-tough stance from the government, endangered and vulnerable animals continue to be trafficked into the UAE and sold to the highest bidder via a network of online traders.

Using social media

In the past, classified websites were popular places to buy and sell so-called exotic and luxury pets, but since the introduction of Federal Law No. (22) in January 2017, site moderators appear to have shut down this practice and some pages now carry warnings about the legislation.

However, with these stricter controls on classified sites, traders have moved to social media platforms, often inside private groups away from the view of the authorities. The majority appear to use Instagram for their advertisements, sharing photographs, videos and stories with their followers, depicting the animals in back gardens or living rooms, occasionally with children, and frequently in cars.

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Hyena cubs being lllegally sold at the Sharjah Animal Market Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Some monkeys and baboons are shown in cages, or chained up, but many are roaming freely, dressed in children’s clothing and diapers and seen drinking milk from bottles or snacking on potato chips.

WhatsApp — where messages are security encrypted — is another popular trading platform with pop-up groups attracting hundreds of buyers and sellers in just a few hours.

Although these online dealers rarely use their full names, many of the sellers and their accounts are linked to licensed pet stores located within the UAE. Some even show animals such as lizards, snakes, squirrels, raccoons and slow lorises being handled on the premises of shops by staff in branded uniforms.

A number of the species we saw for sale are listed as endangered by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red list, the globally-recognised conservation inventory, and nearly all require special certification under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This means many of the sales are in contravention of international rules as well as being in violation of UAE’s Federal Law No. (22) and most likely Federal Law No. (11) of 2002 which prohibits the import and trade of CITES listed birds and animals without documentation.

Hiba acknowledged that despite legislative efforts, endangered animals were still being sold online and she said the ministry was working with the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) to monitor posts offering wild species and wildlife products for sale. She added that “most of the ads offering endangered species for sale are posted by fake channels outside the country” and that 60 per cent of the content had been removed.

In addition to clamping down on online trading, the UAE government has instigated a series of awareness-raising events in shopping malls, schools, airport and universities, targeting nationals, expatriates and tourists.

‘Beautiful in the Wild’, for example, which has been running since 2015 with the Emirates Wildlife Society in association with World Wildlife Fund (EWS-WWF), stresses the importance of keeping wild animals in their natural habitat via virtual reality videos that take participants into wild settings.

Threats to the survival of endangered species due to the illicit wildlife trade was a central theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day activities, with a range of government and NGO events taking place in schools and zoos alongside a high-profile social media campaign.

“We are confident that once people have a clearer picture of the adverse effects of illegal wildlife trading, they will play a vital role in helping to protect animals from being exploited,” noted Hiba.

Strict controls

Back on the enforcement side, the UAE has been strengthening security on its land, sea and air borders in a bid to stop traffickers from getting animals into the country.

This has included specialist training and providing state-of-the art detection equipment to custom officials and security teams at ports, airports and land crossings, as well as forming awareness partnerships with NGOs like IFAW and global bodies such as CITES.

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A cheetah found at a mosque near Radisson SAS Hotel in Sharjah. Image Credit: Atiq-ur-Rehman/Gulf News

The UAE’s airlines, Emirates and Etihad, have stepped up their own efforts to stop wildlife being smuggled into and through the country, running their own training and awareness-raising projects.

According to MOCCAE, between 2013 and 2017, border officials confiscated 21 big cats (including 11 cheetahs and one Siberian tiger), 27 primates, 249 falcons, 85 reptiles and 36 parrots.

Data for 2018 was not provided by MOCCAE, but regular seizures continue. In September, for example, Gulf News was told that border officials found a crate inside a car coming into the country from Oman that contained 16 baby baboons.

Believed to be barely two weeks old, six died in transit to Dubai Safari Park, where the remaining ones are now being cared for in a special quarantine zone.

“They were very small and have a few emotional problems,” explained Tim Husband, director of life sciences at Dubai Safari Park. “For babies to be taken so young, they have probably had to shoot the mother and they will have to get over that experience and the separation. They are still clinging to each other. We have specialists working with them.”

Dubai Safari Park’s quarantine section is currently home to more than 300 animals of all shapes and sizes, including lions, tigers and cheetahs, along with various different primates, rare birds and reptiles.

Some were voluntarily handed in during a short amnesty period when Federal Law 22 first came into force. The majority however have been confiscated from private owners or seized, like the baby baboons, by customs officials at the UAE’s land, sea and air borders.

“We’re getting full,” explained Husband, who is seeking additional funding to create a long-term sanctuary for the rescued animals within the park.

According to Husband, many of the rescued animals arrive at the quarantine zone with significant mental and physical health problems.

The larger animals, like primates and big cats, are often malnourished and stunted due to having been fed an incorrect diet. One lioness, who has been at the park for two years, had been declawed, he said, and would therefore always have to be kept in solitary confinement because the risk of mixing with other clawed lions would be too great.

“Most of them I would class as severely screwed in the head,” he said. “They are no good for breeding programmes, or to go back into the wild. Some are so habituated to living with humans, or so traumatised they can’t mix back with other animals.”

Husband welcomed the moves by the government to discourage ownership of luxury pets like big cats and said the law was an important deterrent but it would take time to influence cultural norms.

Hiba said: “The desire of some people to own an exotic pet stems from the historic and cultural practice to ascribe a perceived high social status to those who keep wild animals in their homes.

“These people fail to realise that such animals are not meant to be pets, and while they are cute and cuddly when young, they prove challenging to handle once they grow up.”

This story was produced by Gulf News, written as part of the ‘Reporting the Online Trade in Illegal Wildlife’ programme. This is a joint project of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The Global Initiative Against Organized Crime funded by the Government of Norway. More information at http://globalinitiative.net/initiatives/digital-dangers. The content is the sole responsibility of the author and the publisher.

A trade that is worth Dh73.b billion annually

The use of online platforms to facilitate illegal wildlife trade — now regarded to be the fourth largest illicit transnational activity in the world worth an estimated $20 billion (Dh73.4) annually — is not a problem unique to the UAE.

In recognition of the role the internet plays in facilitating the movement and sale of endangered and vulnerable species across borders, in March 2018, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC launched the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online.

This collaboration with 21 of the world’s leading e-commerce, technology and social media companies (including Google, Facebook and Instagram) aims to reduce wildlife trafficking across platforms by 80 per cent by 2020 by installing programmes to detect trading of live animals and their products.

In an emailed statement, Instagram (whose parent group is Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp) told Gulf News: “Our community standards do not allow for poaching or the sale of endangered species or their parts, and we remove this material as soon as we are aware of it … We have systems in place to prevent the sale of illegal goods, and do not allow ads around the sale of endangered animals.”

The photo-sharing site has also created a new pop-up content advisory warning triggered by hashtags associated with the sale of endangered animals and animal abuse. However, it does not yet recognise Arabic language posts, and in two months’ monitoring of UAE-based Instagram accounts, which are mostly in Arabic, Gulf News saw no such advisories. There is also no option to report posts specifically for their animal-related content.

What the law says:

Federal No. (22) of 2016 prohibits the owning, possessing, trading or breeding of dangerous animals. Included in this ban are: all big cats, primates, certain other mammals such as raccoons and slow lorises, and all types of reptiles (including crocodiles, lizards, snakes, spiders and scorpions).

Possession of these proscribed animals or their use to instill terror into people carries prison terms and financial penalties of up to Dh500,000.

The UAE has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal wildlife trafficking and is taking a firm stand to expose and dismantle any so-called wildlife criminal syndicates.

- Hiba Al Shehi| Acting director of Biodiversity Department at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE)

Federal Law No. (11) of 2002 prohibits the trade of birds and animals listed by the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) without permits. It carries fines of up to Dh50,000.