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Gulf cheetah panic spotlights illegal animal trade

By Barry Neild for CNN
Cheetahs were traditionally trained as hunting animals in some Middle Eastern countries.
Cheetahs were traditionally trained as hunting animals in some Middle Eastern countries.
  • Gulf states have historically been a trading hub for exotic animals
  • Cheetahs, falcons, primates among creatures sought by collectors
  • Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon only Middle East countries yet to sign up to CITES

(CNN) -- When a cheetah went walkabout in Sharjah earlier this month it caused widespread panic, reportedly surprising worshippers at a mosque before it was "arrested" and placed in an animal sanctuary.

The alarm caused by the beast wasn't confined to the streets of the United Arab Emirate city.

With local media blaming its presence on a thriving market for exotic pets, the cheetah incident has thrown new light on centuries-old practices that fuel illegal trade and threaten animals and humans.

Cheetahs -- listed as "vulnerable" by the United Nation's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (also known as CITES) -- are only the tip of the iceberg, say experts.

"Some active local markets are selling all kinds of wild animals," said Mohamed Elsayed, Middle East program officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

On offer, he said, are species including chimpanzees, green velvet monkeys, bush babies, bears, pythons, tortoises, birds of prey and cheetahs -- which, he said, mostly originate in Somalia.

"These markets are supplying exotic pets, not only to the U.A.E. but to neighboring countries," Elsayed said, adding that these create not only animal welfare concerns but also put humans at risk from animal-borne disease.

There is a lack of awareness among the region's public that wild animals need to stay in the wild.
--Mohamed Elsayed, IFAW program officer

Behind the trade, according to John Sellar -- a Scottish former police officer who is now chief of enforcement for the U.N.'s CITES body -- are several factors, not least the region's rich traditions.

"There is a problem globally with illegal animal trade," he said. "We certainly wouldn't highlight the Middle East with any other parts of the world, but there are some aspects of illegal trade that are particular or peculiar to the region."

As a historic commerce hub, the Gulf states have always been on key animal trade routes, which continue to operate despite international bans, Sellar said.

As well as cheetahs -- easy to domesticate and traditionally owned as hunting pets -- the Middle East is the world's "premier destination" for illegally-traded birds of prey, he said.

A proudly-upheld pastime in many Arabic cultures, falconry once relied on birds captured in the wild, trained for a season, then returned to their habitats.

But, said Sellar, falling bird numbers and rising wealth levels in many oil-rich Arab states have helped create a lucrative black market with individual falcons changing hands for up to $200,000.

"In a very short space of time a number of individuals did become extremely wealthy and some very silly prices were paid. That scenario was very much exploited in the illegal trade with falcons."

According to Sellar, while there are no statistics on illegal trade, the situation is improving despite exotic pet collectors of "high social status" who he says consider themselves "above the law."

Across the Middle East, all but three countries have signed up to CITES. Of these, Bahrain is expected to join within 12 months, leaving only Iraq and Lebanon.

But, says IFAW's Elsayed, the United Arab Emirates -- scene of the recent cheetah escape and home to at least one market accused of allowing illegal trade -- is the only country to have created an animal welfare law.

"It is not implemented in a good way, but it is better to have a law than nothing at all," he said.

A spokesman for the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Environment and Water, which is responsible for monitoring animal commerce, described illegal trade as "one of its most important subjects," but did not respond further to questions.

"The trouble is people who have no knowledge about the proper care of animals put the animals at risk and create the real possibility of transmitting disease from exotic pets to humans," added Elsayed.

"The situation has slowly improved, but still there is a lack of awareness among the region's public that wild animals need to stay in the wild."