DUBAI // Life is about to become tougher for smugglers wanting to bring endangered animals into the country, as the number of customs inspectors trained to catch them will soon be greatly increased.
Dubai Customs officers have for some time been receiving specialised training from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), and about 100 inspectors have completed the course.
But an agreement to increase the programme is about to be signed, leading to another 1,000 officers being trained by the end of the year.
The trade in endangered wildlife and plants, and products made from them, is controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which the UAE has signed.
Animals that have been seized by customs include cheetah cubs, and parrots and other rare birds.
A wide range of products including leather from endangered animals, stuffed pets and birds, horns, tusks and ivory trinkets have also been found.
Inspectors are taught about Cites and how to detect smuggling.
"The main purpose of signing this [memorandum of understanding] is to protect endangered wildlife and plants," said Shaikha Al Ghafri, a senior manager at the Dubai Customs training department.
"If we teach our inspectors about the Cites agreement this will help us to protect wildlife and help us to achieve our strategy in Dubai Customs, which is to protect and support the legal trade all over the world. We are also interested in protecting the environment.
"This training will be focused on inspectors, especially those who work at the airports, and also those who work in the Cargo Village because they may one day see wildlife and they will be aware of how to deal with it.
"It will give them the knowledge and the skills needed to deal with this."
Ms Al Ghafri said Ifaw had developed a training programme designed specifically for inspectors who dealt with airline passengers.
She said she hoped some supervisors at Dubai Customs would be trained by Ifaw so they could become in-house trainers.
Fred O'Regan, the worldwide president and chief executive of Ifaw, said during a recent visit to the UAE: "This is probably the most progressive relationship we've had with a customs authority.
"For them to step this up means they are going to take a more proactive posture. That is what the training is about. It's not just a question of recognising items but knowing where to search.
"They're fairly clever, some of these smugglers, in how they package things and try to hide them. Sometimes they change the scent if there are dogs looking for things - that sort of stuff.
"This is such a major trans-shipment zone. Dubai is a centre for that, so we know there's stuff being traded here that's sensitive. If we can get a good situation here, I think it would help us a lot."
Mr O'Regan said the training scheme would be used as a model for agreements with other countries.
"That's how we try to do things: get in there, learn how to do it, what's working and what's not working, determine best practice and spread that," he said. "We do this training around the world.
"We're trying to act as a catalyst and empower customs officials and NGOs who need this skill base to operate."
Dr Elsayed Mohamed, programme manager at the Ifaw office in Dubai, which covers the Middle East and North Africa, said: "Dubai Customs have been very cooperative. They've supported the training and have done a lot of work to combat the illegal trade.
"There is a lot of work needed to be done because Dubai is a big city. We would like to increase our training campaign to cover all Dubai Customs officers."