Cheetahs to chimps: Trafficked wildlife is a growing ‘status symbol’ in the GCC, experts say

According to experts, the trend of keeping endangered lions, chimpanzees, cheetahs and other primates and displaying them on social media as a “status symbol” is fueling a growth in illegal animal trafficking in the GCC.

Anthropologist Dr Daniel Stiles, an independent consultant on illegal wildlife trade who has worked with the UN, spoke to Al Arabiya English about the prevalence of animal trafficking in the Gulf.

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“The GCC is one of the most active sub-regions in the world when it comes to trafficking in endangered animals,” he said. “The combination of huge amounts of disposable income and a predilection for gaining social prestige by owning and displaying exotic animals on social media creates huge demand.”

According to Stiles, many people are even creating private zoos in the region.

“Some are becoming commercial companies registered with the authorities and open to the public,” he added.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which was introduced in 1973 and came into force in 1975, prohibits international trade in endangered species.

Details of his list included hundreds of big cats, primates, reptiles and birds, many of which continue to be smuggled across borders into the GCC each year despite strict policies in place throughout the region.

The strict laws of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on animal welfare

The United Arab Emirates, for example, passed a law in 2016 that prohibits the ownership of dangerous, wild or exotic animals, except in zoos, wildlife parks, circuses, and authorized breeding and research centers. It also revoked the permits granted to other authorities to import said animals.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, social media influencers continue to share posts, seen by Al Arabiya English, showing wild animals in their homes, in defiance of the Kingdom’s strict laws on animal welfare. The Saudi government has for years banned illegal practices to protect endangered wildlife, including hunting and keeping wild animals as pets.

However, many continue to flout the rules, with a consistent trend of breeding wild animals such as lions and panthers in captivity, including in private residences across the Kingdom.

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Some social media posts include cheetahs behind cages or looking out a residence window and tigers behind barbed wire in a private enclosure or on a leash.

Some social media posts include cheetahs behind cages or looking out of a residence window and tigers behind barbed wire in a private enclosure or on a leash.  (instagram)

Some social media posts include cheetahs behind cages or looking out of a residence window and tigers behind barbed wire in a private enclosure or on a leash. (instagram)

Other posts from prominent Instagram accounts, some with millions of followers, show residents of GCC countries hugging lions at home or baby panthers in their arms as they drive.

The posts have garnered millions of likes online.

Stiles said that when it comes to the most wild animals in demand for private and illegal captivity, big cats, including lions, tigers and cheetahs, are “top of the list.”

However, “everything” is being negotiated, according to the expert. Primates take second place as children love to play with young chimpanzees, orangutans and monkeys.

“Colorful birds and weird-looking reptiles are also popular, while the really rich ones have elephants,” Stiles added.

He also said wildlife traffickers are “exploiting loopholes” in laws passed in Gulf countries to protect endangered animals.

“Many countries have passed laws in recent years that restrict property and trade, but there are loopholes,” he said. “The main one is that all these laws say that no one can possess a dangerous animal unless they have the proper facilities to keep it safe and it is registered with the authorities.”

Existing laws are “primarily public safety laws, not animal welfare or conservation laws,” Stiles said.

Great ape trafficking

Great apes have formed a major segment of the exotic animal trade to and through the UAE from Africa and Asia.

Stiles identified trafficking trends with the Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS).

PEGAS documented 47 illegal online buyers or sellers of great apes based in the United Arab Emirates.

Two female chimpanzees Judy (L) and Gena are seen in a cage at the GAP (Great Ape Project) Parana Sanctuary in Curitiba on February 16, 2012. The chimpanzees were living in poor conditions in a small cage at a private zoo in Israel, according to GAP, and will now receive proper care and treatment at the sanctuary.  (File photo: Reuters)

Two female chimpanzees Judy (L) and Gena are seen in a cage at the GAP (Great Ape Project) Parana Sanctuary in Curitiba on February 16, 2012. The chimpanzees were living in poor conditions in a small cage at a private zoo in Israel, according to GAP, and will now receive proper care and treatment at the sanctuary. (File photo: Reuters)

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At least 200 different social media accounts were identified through posted photos and videos of great apes for sale, including at least 133 chimpanzees, 55 orangutans, a bonobo and two gorillas.

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of private individuals have big cats and primates at home,” according to Stiles.

Exotic pet ownership is rampant in GCC

Patricia Tricorache, who works for international cheetah conservation charities, also told Al Arabiya English that exotic pet ownership is widespread in the GCC.

“Judging from the direct reports I receive and from all the posts I find on social media (Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat), it is clear that many people continue to keep endangered species as pets in the GCC region; mainly in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait,” he said. “While some of these animals can be bred in captivity, such as tigers and lions, there are many other species that are not easy to breed and are likely to be trafficked.”

This is the case with cheetahs, or great apes such as chimpanzees and orangutans, or birds such as various species of toucans and hornbills, he said.

Omega, a 12-year-old chimpanzee, reacts at a Brazilian sanctuary in Curitiba, in the southern state of Parana, on November 16, 2010. (File photo: Reuters)

Omega, a 12-year-old chimpanzee, reacts at a Brazilian sanctuary in Curitiba, in the southern state of Parana, on November 16, 2010. (File photo: Reuters)

“These are all the species included in the appendices of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora)”.

Tricorache agrees with Stiles that having exotic pets seems to be considered a status symbol in many countries, including the GCC.

“Buyers can be private zoos or individuals,” he said.

He also said that some people were licensed as private zoos when the United Arab Emirates introduced legislation banning the ownership of exotic pets by individuals.

“There are reports that some of these private zoos use their license to buy animals that are then sold to private individuals, which is illegal in most cases” in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Animals can be bought legally by private zoos, that is, with CITES permits, or illegally through traffickers,” he added.

Tricorache said that despite steps being taken by GCC governments to stop wildlife trafficking, the practice remains widespread.

He suggested that inspections be carried out to ensure that animals bought by private zoos stay with them and are not sold to others.

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“Social media is a great source of information for people who own or sell illegal pets,” he added.

“Every day I find posts that show people with cheetahs, chimpanzees, tigers, lynxes, orangutans, etc.”

Tricorache also noted that “wildlife trafficking is not only detrimental to the conservation of the species,” but also poses health risks.

She said the trafficked animals do not undergo routine veterinary inspections like other animals and are likely to carry zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

“This is particularly worrying for birds, reptiles and primates. Also, animals like great apes and big cats become dangerous as they grow and grow and threaten the safety of people who are allowed to get close to them, whether it’s for selfies or playing games, like in some zoos. private,” he said.

Cheetahs, lions, leopards, caracals, as well as reptiles and birds, are being smuggled by boat from Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya into Yemen, from where they are taken to Saudi Arabia and through Saudi Arabia to other GCC states, according to Tricorache.

“Unfortunately, these animals are often mistreated from the moment they are poached until they are sold, many dying along the way or even with buyers due to improper care, since many owners do not have the necessary knowledge to care for their animals. . animals,” he said.

‘Ultimate buyers’ of endangered animals on every continent

Tricorache’s research into cheetah conservation led her to discover that many “end buyers” of this endangered animal live in GCC countries, but she says exotic pet ownership is widespread on every continent.

He pointed to a recent case in which two women were arrested at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport and charged with smuggling after 109 live animals were found in their luggage.

The wild animals, including two white porcupines, two armadillos, 35 tortoises, 50 lizards and 20 snakes, were discovered in two suitcases after an X-ray inspection.

“Many animals are smuggled out of Latin America, Asia and Africa to supply the markets of the richest countries,” he said.

Read more:

How a Kenyan ape sanctuary is fighting illegal trade in the Middle East

From cheetahs to chinchillas, on the trail of exotic animals in the United Arab Emirates

Drugged and smuggled Bali orangutan returns to the wild