Sunday, August 14, 2011

Endangered exotic animals are not your pets

The following first appeared in The National on June 4, 2011.

Sean McLain and Tahira Yaqoob

Lions and tigers and bears. Snakes on a plane. A barrel full of monkeys. Newspaper headlines for the recent spate of smuggling cases involving exotic and endangered animals nearly write themselves.

While the headlines may be amusing, the facts of the illicit trade in wild animals are from a laughing matter. Most people will have fumed in anger at the Emirati man who is alleged to have tried to leave Bangkok with a suitcase stuffed with four leopard cubs, a Malayan sun bear and a red-cheek marmoset, all endangered species. And they will no doubt have felt a sense of impotent indignation at the news on Tuesday that he got on a plane and fled the country, thereby escaping justice.

The heart-wrenching story of the two young lions recently rescued in Abu Dhabi will have induced even deeper outrage. The ends of their paws had been amputated to remove their claws and their canine teeth had been filed down until the roots were exposed. The cruelty shown by their owners is contemptible. Sadly, it is not unique.

On Sunday, a cheetah was spotted limping through the streets of Karama in the capital. Malnourished, the eight-month-old animal broke its chain presumably out of hunger and leapt from a rooftop, breaking a foreleg.

Reports have trickled in over the years showing a slow, but steady trade in exotic species, often endangered, often imported in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) and UAE law. The National has reported on tiger cubs being sold openly in the markets of the Emirates.

Under the law, potential owners of exotic and dangerous animals such as lions and tigers must apply for a permit with the Ministry of Environment and Water, which monitors the origin and care of these animals. This process is necessarily onerous and time-consuming to protect both the animals and the public, however many people simply choose to bypass this process, encouraging a thriving global black market for rare and endangered species.

The effects of the trade in animals goes far beyond the sad cases we read about. Most of the traded animals are captured in the wild, often when very young and often illegally; their mothers are frequently killed in the process. So two generations of an already dwindling species are removed from the wild population, with little prospect of the young being able to be reintroduced when they are adult. Human-reared animals are rarely capable of fending from themselves in the wild.

Luckily, there are organisations and private citizens across the UAE that take in these animals. They give them homes, ensure that they are properly cared for and - where appropriate - introduce them into breeding programmes. You can see the fruits of their labour the next time you visit a zoo.

Zoo is next-best thing for some

Arshad Toosy is not your average veterinarian. When the call came from the Fujairah municipality that two baboons were "running around the city", Dr Toosy and his crack team were called in to capture them.

"We have a team of four vets who are trained in remote capturing, armed with dart guns and nets," said the manager of veterinary operations at the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort. "The drugs are quite dangerous so only the vets are allowed to use them." He likens the vets to a sort of Swat team. "We get a lot of requests from other emirates when an animal escapes or they need veterinary assistance."

Dr Toosy has had to deal with a lot of baboon-related cases in the past months. "We received 20 baboons from the Ministry of Environment and Water last year; they were seized at the border with Saudi Arabia." He says the increase in the number of baboons being caught is a sign of the increasing popularity of primates as pets.

The Hamadryas, or sacred, baboon is indigenous to the region, found in Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia. Kevin Budd, an assistant operations manager at the Arabian wildlife centre in Sharjah, agrees that baboons are increasingly sought by lovers of exotic pets.

"The baboons are clearly coming through in the pet trade right now," he said. "The baboons aren't endangered. They are probably one of the few [in the exotic pet market] that aren't." His centre helps care for such indigenous species as the baboon. "Since the beginning of the year, I think we've received seven baboons. Some of them are in such a bad condition that there's nothing we can do."

The Al Ain Wildlife Park contains one of the world's largest exhibits of big cats, partly because of their popularity as pets in this region. One in five of the lions it has on display was either someone's pet or was rescued after being smuggled into the country.

Two lions rescued this month ended up at the park, and Dr Toosy hopes to eventually introduce them into the existing population of 34 lions.

The exhibit also includes white lions and white tigers, genetic mutations that are rarely found in the wild. Their colouring makes them prime targets for poachers. As a result the zoo in Al Ain, which rescues the rareties, is one of the few places in the world you can see these beasts.

The park maintains breeding programmes for its big cats, hoping to bolster the numbers of endangered species and reintroduce them back to the wild whenever possible. The nature of poaching, however, makes that difficult. "The origin [of an animal] is very important for breeding because there are many subspecies," Dr Toosy said. Unfortunately, animals smuggled into the country do not come with information regarding which population they were taken from. Genetic testing can help determine the place of origin in some cases, but not in all.

Dr Toosy blames the buyers of these animals for the harm inflicted on them. "If there is a demand, there will be a supply," he explained. "The public should understand that these animals are wild and by importing them they are jeopardising their lives."

These animals are also a disease risk. Not only can they introduce harmful diseases to the desert's fragile ecosystem, but they can also transmit diseases such as rabies, hepatitis or tuberculosis to humans.

Some owners do eventually realise the dangers and ask the park to take their pets. The park usually accepts without asking awkward questions, although Dr Toosy has his own hypothesis: "These animals, when they are small, they are cute and cuddly, but when they get older they can be dangerous."

Sadly, her menagerie is growing

There are 232 animals living in Ayesha Kelaif's 12,000-sq-ft villa in the Al Barsha district of Dubai, but among the chinchillas, tortoises and assorted cats and dogs, a few stand out.

Minkey, a Sykes monkey, was found in Jumeirah leaping around a villa. The distressed owner of the villa called Mrs Kelaif, who captured the primate. She is now looking after Minky until he can be placed in a welfare centre.

"He is very tame and friendly, but monkeys live in groups so it's very sad he doesn't have any companions," Mrs Kelaif said. The monkey was malnourished and underweight when found, but "he has been with us for two-and-a-half months and is now much healthier".

Rango, a baby fox, was mistaken at first for a pet chihuahua when he was discovered running around the streets with a leash and collar. He was taken in by Mrs Kelaif three months ago and has been treated by a veterinarian. "He was being kept as a pet and was so distressed, he was chewing his hind leg. He is looking much better now."

Sid, a boa constrictor, was also being kept as a pet in a tiny glass box by his Indian owner and was so emaciated, his bones were sticking out. "We put him in a special enclosure and lined it with a heated blanket. He gets fed live rats and baby mice and has grown by more than one foot in the six months since we took him in. He is now extremely healthy."

Mrs Kelaif's extraordinary menagerie began when she rescued a stray cat, which she named Crystal. Since then, her refusal to turn away any abused or mistreated animal has led to her giving refuge to hundreds of creatures over the years, including alpacas, owls, possums and ferrets.

Every spare inch of her home and garden has been taken over to build huts and kennels for the animals - yet most days see her receiving a phone call or two asking her to take in still more.

She is worried at the increase in the number of exotic animals people attempt to keep as pets. The Emirati mother of three says: "People want to own lions and cheetahs because they are status symbols, like owning a Ferrari.

"They are becoming more easily available because they are bred here. The government is getting tougher on the practice but unfortunately, there is a market here. It worries me because all wildlife should be in its natural habitat. Animals like lions do not belong in this climate, nor should they be kept in cages."

Although she has never taken a big cat into her care, her home is overrun with smaller exotic animals. The unusual creatures are nursed back to health, then given to animal welfare centres in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi; the more domesticated animals find homes with new families.

Mrs Kelaif, 46, says animal cruelty and abuse comes down largely to ignorance. "There are a lot of Emiratis who love animals but generally, there is a lack of awareness about how to look after their pets, and culturally, they are thought of as dirty. The conception is that they are not as important as humans.

"But to us, our animals are part of the family and we are devastated if we lose any of them. I get so much love from them. They are much safer here. When I go to the pet shops in Satwa, I get so depressed at seeing the animals living in tiny cages."

She said the country's animal cruelty laws are rarely enforced.

Mrs Kelaif regularly invites schoolchildren into her home, where she runs Dubai Animal Rescue Centre to teach them the importance of caring for animals.

Her devotion doesn't come cheap: veterinary bills amount to about Dh70,000 a year while the animals gobble up food worth thousands of dirhams every month. Their carer rarely takes a holiday, preferring to spend her money on them.