Dubai: Think you'd feel comfortable with a lion next door? Could you tell if your neighbour had a baboon? Would you let your child play with a baby crocodile?

The fascination with exotic — and illegal — pets could put you in danger as they can turn on you in a second.

After two consecutive trips to the Sharjah Animal and Birds Market, I had Harry in the bag. My pet crocodile, that is. Officially not on display because commercial trading of the species in the UAE can result in six months in jail or a maximum fine of Dh50,000, a plastic box with three juvenile crocodiles was whipped out from under a desk at my request for something "exotic".

Word is that you can get anything you want at the Sharjah animal market. While an exotic pet is far from my personal choice, I decided to test the theory. With alarming results.

While peering at the purple coloured budgies and tapping the side of aquariums in one such fish shop, the salesman told me bluntly I could get a python in 15 days, or, as I was after something ‘really special' I could get a crocodile in 24 hours.

Without much prompting, he told me a 15cm baby crocodile would set me back by just Dh450. His willingness to supply me with a baby Nile crocodile was surprising. We verbally agreed I would come back the next day by which time he would have checked the "warehouse" for stock.

On day two, my man finds me glancing into shop windows in the passageway and beckons me to his shop. "You want crocodile? Close the door."

UAE law on trade in endangered animals

The small shop is suddenly quiet. Some young boys stay and look on. On the table a plastic tank is placed with three small crocodiles clambering over each other, snouts in the air, tiny little teeth barely visible. One would fit in the palm of your hand if it would only stay still.

I question him on what I might need for my new pet. He fetches a plastic tank and takes one of the crocs by the neck and places him inside. "I'll give you the big one". Is it male or female? "I don't know." Is it healthy? "If you have problems you call me anytime." Can I get a receipt? "Ah madam bill is problem, crocodile is not allowed here." However, he claims to sell three to four a day. I decide to call the little one Harry.

On leaving the shop after taking his business card, he tells me if I want anything else, I can just call. "Big big cats is no problem." He means cheetahs, leopards and lions and shows me a photo on his mobile phone to prove it. A three-month baby lion will cost me around Dh45,000.

Timeline: Illegal trade of wild, endangered animals

  • 01/12/2009 Immigration inspectors at the Ras Al Darah Border checkpoint foil an attempt to smuggle 16 Houbara Bustards into the UAE
  • 10/08/2009 Dubai Municipality confiscates piranhas being sold illegally in Dubai pet shops
  • 1/08/2009 A 30cm-long baby crocodile spreads panic among passengers on board an EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Abu Dhabi
  • 15/10/2008 Kangaroos and other endangered animals are found on sale at the Sharjah Bird and Animal Market
  • 17/1/2007 Crocodiles measuring 30-50cm long can be easily purchased in Ras Al Khaimah pet shops, Gulf News reports
  • 26/08/2006 Hyena cubs are found being traded illegally at the Sharjah animal market
  • 10/08/2006 A Gulf News investigation finds 5 lion cubs and a cheetah being kept in a family flat in the northern emirates
  • 16/11/2005 A former Dubai resident spots a tiger looking out of a Land Rover near Mall of the Emirates while holidaying in the city
  • 14/06/2005 A woman is attacked by a four feet long python while watching a movie at a cinema in Dubai. She is rescued by another movie-goer who calmly unwraps the snake from her leg and takes it out of the cinema. Police hand over the snake to Dubai Municipality.
  • 14/03/2004 A number of endangered wild animals are confiscated, which are illegally on sale from pet shops at Mina Zayed's Animal Souq, Abu Dhabi
  • 25/09/2002 Six animals of an endangered species are confiscated at Dubai International Airport by authorities enforcing CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)
  • 30/04/2001 Kestrels and other endangered animals, which had been illegally brought into Dubai from Pakistan, are confiscated from smugglers at Dubai International Airport
  • 31/03/2001 Visitors to the Global Village express anger and disappointment after witnessing the illegal sale of endangered animal skins, teeth and claws at the Sudanese Pavilion

A few days later I call. "What do you want?" A lion. "We have two right now, a grey and a white." Of course it could all be an act of bravado, and he tells me on another phone call that he is ‘out of stock' and more will be arriving in 12 days.
In the meantime I could buy a baboon, or a milk snake of which he sends photos to my mobile.

An actual transaction was never made for a lion or anything else, however the order-on-demand attitude makes me think somebody else will be purchasing the lion cub.

Watch video: What IFAW has to say about illegal animal trade

The Sharjah animal market is made up of three areas. Mainly the goat and sheep section outside, and pet shop-lined corridor to one side that branches off to a mixture of veterinary service and poultry preparation set-ups.

The din of birds is deafening outside the pet shops which display fish, falcons, tortoises, multicoloured frogs (from Hong Kong, I was told). Other shops only have rabbits or even Persian-looking cats with huge posters of tigers and cheetahs looming overhead.