Border officials in the UAE are seizing more exotic animals in their battle against traffickers using Dubai as a transit point, a new report suggests.
A detailed review focusing on air transport found the UAE had the third-highest number of smuggling cases worldwide between 2009 and last year.
This included seizures of animals and animal products at Dubai airports, or at hauls further down the line, mainly in Asia. Some of those overseas hauls were the result of international efforts involving Dubai Customs and police.
China and Thailand topped the list with the most cases of smuggling in the data released by the US Agency for International Development.
As a key transit route, border authorities in Dubai continue to face a battle to stop the trafficking of illegal animals, particularly of birds.
Kinda Jabi, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Dubai, said major transit centres such as Dubai International Airport are popular with smugglers.
“About 90 million passengers pass through Dubai airport every year, so it’s expected that wildlife traders would use Dubai as a transit point on their way from Africa to Asia,” Ms Jabi said.
The fund has a partnership with Dubai Customs to train inspectors on the best way to tackle and prevent smuggling.
In May, a spokesman for Dubai Customs said officers continued “to raise awareness around the importance of protecting these endangered species and abiding by international agreements and treaties in this field”.
Etihad Airways and Emirates have pledged support for anti-trafficking campaigns and sought to highlight the misery the trade brings to animals and the criminal networks it supports.
“More information and intelligence about seizures or possible smuggling attempts needs to be exchanged so authorities can take action,” Ms Jabi said.
The new report, called In Plane Sight, found that between 2009 and last year 387 trafficking cases were recorded at airports in China, followed by 150 in Thailand and 117 in the UAE.
The report says Kenya and the UAE are primary transit centres for wildlife moving between and Africa and Asia. Birds were the most commonly seized wildlife contraband, followed by reptiles and then ivory.
But research also suggests the seizures represent only a small portion of the wildlife traffic moving through Dubai.
“Having worked for 13 years on the illegal cheetah trade along with other species, this study confirms my data in that many animals introduced into the Gulf arrive by air,” said Patricia Tricorache, of the International Cheetah Conservation Fund.
“Many primates are arriving from Asia, including orangutans, slow loris and gibbons, and then primates from Africa such as chimpanzees, as well as birds and reptiles.
“The Gulf seems to be a favoured transit route for wildlife products but mostly as a final destination for live animals.”
Daniel Stiles, an expert in the illegal wildlife trade, has been collecting data on seizures in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
“It certainly seems seizures are up, especially of rhino horn, in airports,” said Mr Stiles, who is based in Kenya.
“The fact that so many wildlife products get through without being seized indicates either security personnel are not doing their job, or corruption is at work.
“It’s known that high-level wildlife traffickers use airlines and airports, where paid facilitators ensure that baggage with illicit products will get through.
“The trend in increased wildlife seizures in airports is a reflection of increased wildlife trafficking and better detection.”
Wildlife trafficking is an issue tied to international safety, health and security concerns, and the fate of some species.
The report provides more than a dozen recommendations for airlines, airports and enforcement personnel to help stop it.
Compiled under the USAid’s Reducing Opportunities for Unlawful Transport of Endangered Species partnership, it has revealed that wildlife is trafficked in 136 countries, with airport wildlife seizures quadrupling since 2009.
Last year, wildlife smuggling hauls increased by 40 per cent, with recoveries of rhino horn increasing by a startling 193 per cent.
Pangolin, a scaly anteater considered a delicacy in Asia, and ivory feature highly in seizures from flights from Africa, usually through the Middle East and Europe.
Under a Federal Law from 2016, owners of exotic pets in the UAE can face fines worth tens of thousands of dirhams.
The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment is investigating a restaurant in Al Wasl, Dubai, after videos were posted on social media of a live cheetah roaming free on its premises.
Big cats and primates represent 51 per cent of all mammals trafficked, the report said, and for many animals the final destination is the Gulf region’s illegal pet trade.
Despite this, airports in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman are not mentioned in the USAid report.
A Country Enforcement Index measures the recovery success rate for countries registering at least one seizure of illicit wildlife products.
The UK scored 92 per cent followed by the US with 85 per cent. Malawi is joint third with China at 82 per cent, but the UAE scores 52 per cent, while Qatar’s index rating is just 10 per cent.
Common transit countries are more likely to have low enforcement ratios, as they are often unable to screen high numbers of passengers, luggage, and shipments between connecting flights.
The UAE also ranks fifth on a list of recorded ivory trafficking cases between 2009 and last year, with 38 recoveries. China again tops the list with 154 recorded ivory cases.
“I have information that Muscat airport is used as a transit route for animals from Asia into the GCC,” Ms Tricorache said.
“There is a dearth of live animal seizures in the region, despite the well-known practice in certain Middle East countries of keeping exotic pets as status symbols.
“This may suggest Middle East air seizures of mammals are not publicly released.”