ABU DHABI // The illegal trade in endangered and exotic animals is so lucrative that traffickers use smuggling methods that risk the animals' lives, experts said yesterday.
Smugglers commonly sedate young animals and carry them on board planes in hand luggage, said Dr Elsayyed Mohamed, the programme manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
"Usually, the animals die, but because of the large profits, smugglers will take a chance in case one of them survives," said Dr Mohamed, whose organisation runs training seminars on how to combat wildlife smuggling.
However, alert customs officers can snare the most ingenious animal traffickers, said Mahdi Quatrameez, the head of wildlife enforcement at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan.
He gave the example of a smuggler who tried to bring rare birds into the United States tied to his shins, but was given away by the bird droppings on his shoes.
The two experts were speaking at the start of a five-day workshop in the capital for 60 police officers and municipal and customs officials at the forefront of efforts to curb the illegal trade.
Training enforcing officials is seen as key to tackling the issue.
"Most smugglers take the risk that they will not be inspected or the customs officer will not know about this," Dr Mohamed said.
The trade in rare animals and plants is regulated by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites).
Enforcing the convention is complex. It requires officers to recognise vulnerable species or groups of species, and there are different procedures depending on the degree of endangerment of an animal or plant.
Some animals may be traded across borders if their handlers have a Cites permit issued by the country of origin; others should not cross international borders unless they are to be used for scientific purposes.
Cheetahs and lion cubs, baboons, rare ornamental birds, houbara bustards and falcons are the species most frequently smuggled into the UAE.
The caviar of rare fish, reptile skins and items made of ivory are also traded here. Some of the smugglers find a market in the UAE with people keeping exotic pets at home and in private zoos; others re-export the rare creatures.
"The UAE is a centre for general trade and it offers infrastructure to promote trade. Naturally, they will attract a part of wildlife trade and part of it will be illegal," Dr Mohamed said. "We recommend more supervision and more inspectors to control this trade."
As part of their training at the workshop - organised by the Emirates Dog Breeders Society and supported by Abu Dhabi Police - officers are being taught to divide animals into groups. Primates and falcons, for example, cannot be carried through an international border without a Cites permit. The workshop will also teach participants how to validate permits, and introduce them to techniques that smugglers use.
"Smugglers always invent new things that make the life of a customs officer difficult," Mr Quatrameez said.
Law 11 of 2002 allows for the prosecution of wildlife smugglers and gives the Ministry of Environment and Water the responsibility of deciding which cases should be referred to court.
Dr Mohamed called on the ministry to do so more often. "Usually the items are confiscated, and that is it," he said.
Muna Al Shamsi, who works at the Cites unit of the ministry, said offenders were referred to the courts and there had been three or four cases this year.
NM, 36, an Emirati, was arrested at a Bangkok airport in May on suspicion of trying to smuggle baby leopards, a monkey, a gibbon and a Malayan sun bear in two of his suitcases.
At the time of his arrest, NM was accompanied by six men also suspected of animal trafficking, who boarded the first-class area of a flight to Dubai.
He left Thailand before a court hearing scheduled for May 30.