As surreal as the idea of a cheetah trotting down an Abu Dhabi high street might be, it’s a sinister indication of the recent increase in animal trafficking through the UAE’s borders. Said cheetah was found wandering the capital’s streets only two months ago after being abandoned by its owner.
‘There are a rising number of reports of wildlife trafficking where the UAE is said to be a destination or transit point,’ says Richard Thomas of global animal trade monitoring group Traffic. ‘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.’ While Traffic doesn’t yet have an office in the UAE, it has liaised with local authorities that are attempting to clamp down on the illegal trade.
So what kind of animals are smuggled here? ‘Historically, the country has been a significant player in the falcon trade,’ continues Thomas. ‘There have been a number of cases of wild falcons illegally imported en route to or at the border with UAE.’ He refers to a case last year when notorious animal smuggler Jeffrey Lendrum was caught in the VIP lounge at Birmingham airport in the UK, en route to Dubai, with 14 rare peregrine falcon eggs strapped to his body.
However, it seems that some affluent Dubaians have acquired a taste for exotic, often dangerous animals, and are paying large sums of money to acquire them from the black market. In more recent months, there have been a number of reports of other forms of wildlife being intercepted: a man was detained in Bangkok airport en route to the UAE smuggling leopards and bears in his suitcase, and a Saudi national was arrested in the UAE carrying snakes and parrots aboard a plane from Indonesia. The cheetah found in Abu Dhabi may well have been smuggled out of north-east Africa (Somalia or Somaliland, according to Thomas). ‘The increase in trade of dangerous animals probably stems from the certain level of kudos of owning such an animal,’ says Thomas.
With the help of independent organisations such as Traffic, the government appears to be taking action to curb animal trafficking, which, after the arms and the drugs trade, is the biggest illegal industry in the world (said to be worth up to Dhs72 billion a year). Since 1990, the UAE has been a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international convention that regulates trade in threatened species of animals and plants. There is national legislation that prohibits anyone from importing dangerous animals and, while it’s thought animal trafficking is on the rise, the fact that these cases are being reported suggests the authorities are having more success in catching the perpetrators.
Yet it’s not only endangered animals that are being smuggled into the UAE. The illegal trade in rare plant life is also big business, and Dubai is emerging as a significant destination for Red Sanders, a protected tree species endemic to South India, according to Thomas.
So what does the future hold for the fight against animal trafficking in the UAE? Thomas is realistic, but hopeful. ‘As ever with illicit activities, it’s almost impossible to stop them entirely. But provided there’s adequate political will and resources to address the issue of wildlife trafficking, there’s certainly no reason why it can’t be adequately controlled.’ To find out more about the work of Traffic, see www.traffic.org. For work being done in UAE, see www.cites.org.