Exclusive: Overweight and inbred, banned exotic animals are handed over to Dubai Safari under amnesty

Too big for owners to manage and now illegal, declawed lions, exotic birds and more than 20 apes are handed over following the introduction of anti-trafficking laws

The illegal trade in big cats continues to thrive, with animals often offered for sale on social media. Ivan Flores for The National
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Exotic pets including chimps, baboons and lions that were illegally held in homes across the UAE have been handed in to Dubai Safari as part of an amnesty.

It has been 16 months since Federal Law 22 on the trade of wild animals took effect - stating that only zoos, wildlife parks, circuses, breeding and research centres are allowed to keep dangerous, wild or exotic animals.

The law also revoked permits issued to other authorities to import such animals.

It has been a busy first six months for Dubai Safari under the stewardship of its technical director, New Zealander Timothy Husband.


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Now closed for a five-month period for improvements under new operators Meraas, one of the new additions to the park will be an expanded sanctuary for animals handed in under an amnesty.

“We’ve had a lot of monkeys handed in, roughly about 20 – mainly baboons and macaques,” Mr Husband said.

“They were being held in private homes, and were getting too big for people to manage.

“I would have expected these animals to be skinny, when most were overweight, inbred and displaying some sort of stereotypical behavioural problem.

“A lot of exotic birds have been given to us. We had a flood or macaws and toucans that came in at once, there must have been a recent shipment onto the black market.

“People obviously didn’t realise the noise they make and that they bite, so have given them over.”

Since opening in November, the park has averaged around 3,000 visitors a day, according to staff.

Operational control has now been taken over in partnership with Spanish company Parques Reunidos, experienced in running similar public attractions.

It is due to re-open to the public on October 1.

Mr Husband insists a sanctuary for recovered animals remains key to the future of Dubai Safari, with a commitment to changing the culture of buying illegally traded wild animals for private ownership.

At least 70 per cent of the birds brought in to the safari park under the amnesty have chlamydia, with most likely to have come from South America.

Some are very young, so it is unlikely a licensed breeder or trader would have shipped them that age, he said.

In April, almost 400 ornamental birds protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) were seized from a trader in Al Jubail near the Sharjah animal market.

The Ministry of Climate Change and Environment has been notified of 28 similar Cites and environment offences following tip-offs.

“Some of the adult birds have serious health problems,” Mr Husband said.

“Head tossing and thumb sucking by the primates is common, and we’ve had a couple of lions brought in that have been de-clawed.

“We can’t put them in with other lions, it would be like going into a knife fight with a pillow. It wouldn’t be safe for them. You can’t even use these animals for breeding programmes.

“Claws are so important, and they develop problems later in life without them, walking differently and the way they feed.

“Primates have more social problems. One baboon came in wearing a child’s skirt and top. She is slowly being introduced to other baboons, and we’re hoping she is young enough to integrate.”


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Dubai Safari has applied to join EAZA - the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria.

An inspection is due in November with a decision on membership likely within six months or so later.

The affiliation will make it easier for the safari to trade animal and expand its trusted network of reputable suppliers worldwide.

“I’m not surprised by the numbers of illegally kept animals we’ve had, but I’m surprised by how slowly they’ve been coming in,” said Mr Husband.

“My hope is that any that have been freshly caught from the wild can be returned.

“That would be the ideal scenario, and so good for Dubai. For this to happen we would have to find a primate sanctuary that works, for example.”

One of those potential sanctuaries is the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

Animals are rarely rehomed to sanctuaries outside of the UAE, but Daniel Stiles who is based at the conservancy hopes this will change.

Despite law 22, Mr Stiles said chimps and other wild animals remain widely available for sale in the region via social media accounts.

“The main weakness is the lack of a specified system of where to place surrendered animals and how will they be looked after,” he said.

“When the 2014 similar Sharjah law was enacted, the Arabia Wildlife Centre and Al Bustan Zoological Center were flooded with deposited animals, most of which had to be euthanised.”

Through his work with the Project to End Great Ape Slavery, Mr Stiles has been monitoring online social media accounts for over three years, finding wildlife dealers who sell great apes captured in their forest habitats to the highest bidder.

“Some Instagram accounts have gone private and Facebook accounts restrict timeline posts to friends or selected friends,” he said.

“Most have stayed public - which means they do not fear law enforcement.”