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

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The trend of owning lions, chimps, cheetahs, and other endangered primates and showcasing them on social media as a “status symbol” is fueling a growth in the GCC’s illegal animal trafficking trade, according to experts.

Anthropologist Dr. Daniel Stiles, an independent illegal wildlife trade consultant 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 for endangered animal trafficking,” he said. “The combination of enormous 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 being converted to commercial enterprises 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 enforced in 1975, prohibits international trade in endangered species.

Its list details included hundreds of big cats, primates, reptiles and birds, many of which continue to be smuggled across borders in the GCC every year despite strict policies in place across the region.

UAE, Saudi Arabia’s strict laws on animal welfare

The UAE, for example, passed a law in 2016 banning ownership of dangerous, wild or exotic animals except by licensed zoos, wildlife parks, circuses, breeding and research centers. It also revoked permits issued to other authorities to import such animals.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, social media influencers continue to share posts – seen by Al Arabiya English – showcasing wild animals in their homes, defying 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 an ongoing trend of raising and breeding wild animals such as lions and panthers in captivity – including in private residences across the Kingdom.

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

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

Other posts by prominent Instagram accounts, some which have millions of followers, show residents in GCC countries cuddling lions in their homes, or baby panthers in their arms while driving.

The posts have garnered millions of ‘likes’ online.

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

However, “everything” is being traded, according to the expert. Primates come in second place as kids love playing with young chimps, orangutans and monkeys.

“Colorful birds and strange-looking reptiles are also popular, while the really wealthy 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 restricting ownership and trading, but there are loopholes,” he said. “The main one is that these laws all say no one can own a dangerous animal unless they have appropriate facilities to keep them safely and that they are registered with the authorities.”

The existing laws are “mainly public safety laws, not animal welfare or conservation ones,” Stiles said.

Great Apes trafficking

Great apes have formed a significant segment of exotic animal traffic 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 online illegal buyers or sellers of great apes based in the UAE.

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

At least 200 different social media accounts were identified via photos and videos posted of great apes for sale, comprising at least 133 chimps, 55 orangutans, one bonobo and two gorillas.

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

Exotic pet ownership rampant in GCC

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

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

This is the case of cheetahs, or great apes like chimpanzees and orangutans, or birds like several species of toucans and hornbills, she said.

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

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

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

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

She also said some people obtained licenses as private zoos when the UAE introduced legislation banning exotic pet ownership 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 in most cases is illegal” in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

“The animals might be purchased legally by private zoos, i.e., with CITES permits, or illegally through dealers,” she added.

Tricorache said, despite the steps GCC governments are taking to stop wildlife trafficking, the practice remains widespread.

She suggested inspections be done to ensure that animals purchased by private zoos remain with them and are not sold to others.

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

“I find posts every day showing people with cheetahs, chimps, tigers, lynxes, orangutans, etc.”

Tricorache also pointed out that “wildlife trafficking is not only detrimental to the conservation of the species,” but it also presents health risks.

She said Trafficked animals don’t undergo routine veterinary inspections like other animals and are likely to carry zoonotic diseases which can be transmitted to humans.

“This is particularly worrisome in the case of birds, reptiles and primates. Additionally, animals like great apes and big cats become dangerous as they grow older and bigger and threaten the safety of people who are allowed to get close to them, whether it is for selfies or play, as in some private zoos,” she 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 into Saudi Arabia, and through Saudi Arabia to other GCC states, according Tricorache.

“Sadly, these animals are usually subjected to maltreatment from the time they are poached until they are sold, with many dying on the way or even with the buyers because of inadequate care, since many owners do not have the knowledge needed to care for their animals,” she said.

‘End buyers’ of endangered animals in all continents

Tricorache’s research into cheetah conservation led her to discover many “end buyers” for the endangered animal live in GCC countries but says exotic pet ownership is widespread in all continents.

She pointed to a recent case where two women were arrested at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and accused of smuggling after 109 live animals were found in their luggage.

The wild animals – including two white porcupines, two armadillos, 35 turtles, 50 lizards and 20 snakes – were discovered in two suitcases following an x-ray inspection.

“Many animals are smuggled out of Latin America, Asia and Africa to supply markets in wealthier countries,” she said.

Read more:

How a Kenyan ape sanctuary is battling illegal Mideast trade

From cheetahs to chinchillas, on the trail of exotic animals in the UAE

Bali’s drugged, smuggled orangutan headed back to the wild

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