Illegal wildlife trade 'funnelled back to organised crime in the region'

Legitimate shops in Dubai found selling smuggled exotic pets on social media for tens of thousands of dirhams

June 13, 2010/ Al Ain/ The Al Ain Zoo has received a few cheetah cubs that somebody was trying to smuggle into Dubai. Out of the 15 cheetahs smuggled in 10 have died June 13, 2010. (Sammy Dallal / The National)
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Like many modern markets, the pet trade has migrated from traditional shopfronts to an online world that is becoming increasingly difficult to police.

Exotic and endangered species were once sold from the Sharjah Bird and Animal market but a recent check shows it has cleaned up its act.

At the Dubai Municipality’s Warsan pet market, many independent traders operate small shops selling mostly domestic animals.

“Not allowed,” was the response to inquiries about buying more exotic pets.

One Pakistani shop worker, who had a parrot on his shoulder, pointed to his Instagram page where more animals were available. He insisted none were for sale at Warsan.

But online, tigers, lions, cheetahs and a huge variety of monkeys can be bought with a few taps on a smartphone. Prices range from about Dh4,000 for a two-month-old baboon to more than Dh40,000 for a cheetah or tiger.

Many Warsan pet shops advertise Instagram or Facebook sites on doors and windows.


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Experts working on the global wildlife trafficking trade say cash generated by the illegal trade in rare and endangered species is funnelled back to support organised crime and terrorism across the region.

“The relationship between the illicit trade and organised crime is nothing new,” said Dr Annette Idler, director of studies at the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford.

“That is what is happening in Syria to Lebanon, Turkey and the rest of the world. We have seen how regional forces like ISIS have grown to operate transnationally and how they are using global illicit trade markets to fund their operations.

“Groups need to pay their soldiers and to buy their weapons. They are thriving in a war economy.”

The variety of animals sold from social media accounts affiliated to Warsan pet shops is huge.

Monkeys wearing children’s clothes and smaller cute-looking primates like the slow moving lorises are being illegally sold online.

The lorises are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the nocturnal animals are unsuitable as pets because they are sensitive to light.

Former US government official David Luna spent 20 years specialising in corruption, terrorism and national security issues. He is now president of Luna Global Networks and says the Gulf is central to the international illegal wildlife trade.

“There has been an increase in international co-operation in illegal wildlife trafficking, but challenges remain,” Mr Luna said. “The wildlife trade is helping fund other illegal markets like human trafficking, drugs and arms.

“When you look at the converging issue of the unholy trinity of corruption, crime and terrorism then it starts to manifest itself by creating more instability.

“This creates a bigger illegal economy, that destabilises legitimate markets and political institutions and becomes a greater threat to the global community.”

A detailed review of wildlife trafficking focusing on air transport found the UAE had the third-highest number of smuggling cases worldwide between 2009 and last year.

In that time, 387 trafficking cases were recorded at airports in China, followed by 150 in Thailand and 117 in the UAE.

“Pressure needs to be applied to some of the source markets in south-east Asia and Africa for elephants, chimpanzees and big cats that people want in their private zoos,” Mr Luna said. “We are seeing an increase in seizures at transit hubs like Dubai airport because of that international pressure.

“Strengthening enforcement is important but Dubai Airport is hugely busy, and many flights are connecting so it is not easy. The consequences become greater, so we should now be highlighting how this is feeding a global economy that has dangerous consequences for the UAE.”