DUBAI // The UAE is playing a key role in containing the flow of illegally traded wildlife from war-torn Somalia, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw).
Since the start of the civil war in 1991, there has been no effective government across much of the Horn of Africa state. The resulting chaos and violence has left the way clear for traffickers to smuggle out rare and endangered animals, such as lion and cheetah cubs.
Many of the animals are brought to the Middle East, where they are sold to collectors or as pets.
"Somalia is, for us, a chronic case," said Dr Elsayyed Mohamed, the programme manager at Ifaw's Dubai office, which covers the Middle East and North Africa.
"There is no government to halt illegal activities, you can't do any kind of training, so you hope to stop the trade from Somalia here in the UAE. "You cannot hope that Somalia customs will stop any wildlife; they have their own major problems.
"We have seen many confiscations of consignments from Somalia in the UAE. Customs officers become suspicious when they see something coming from there."
One of the largest consignments from Somalia to be intercepted in Dubai in the past year consisted of 15 cheetah cubs, only four of which survived.
"This is a big number," Dr Mohamed said. "Most of them died because they are very delicate animals and need a certain degree of care. Cheetah cub sells in the UAE for between Dh30,000 and Dh50,000 each; there is a black market. They are smuggled through other countries in the Horn of Africa, including Djibouti and Ethiopia."
Dr Mohamed added that the Gulf area, GCC states, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria were destinations favoured by smugglers.
In a rare success earlier this year, the authorities in Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, seized two lion cubs en route to Dubai. Dr Mohamed said other consignments of two or three lion and cheetah cubs at a time had been intercepted in Dubai.
"Dubai is a transit centre for this trade, but it is not the only one. Bahrain is another, as are the seaports on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast. Part of this trade's final destination is the UAE and the Middle East, but we believe the majority is in transit.
"Customs here in Dubai are confiscating illegal wildlife items on a daily basis. And as you confiscate illegal items you know a percentage of smuggling attempts are successful, as no one can succeed 100 per cent," Dr Mohamed said.
The trade in threatened species comes in many shapes and sizes. Over the past year, two large consignments of red sandalwood timber - one weighing 20 tonnes - have been intercepted at Jebel Ali port. The tree is native to India, which forbids its export. Its timber has been prized for centuries, particularly in China.
At the other end of the scale, many trinkets, beads and ornaments made from ivory have been seized in Dubai. They are mainly carried by Chinese tourists who have bought the items in Africa and are on their way home. All ivory trading is illegal.
"Ivory is a continuous problem, it will never stop. But these days, it is usually for personal use, not big shipments," Dr Mohamed added.
One bizarre object found by Ifaw in a shop in Dubai was a bottle of ginseng shampoo containing the root of a protected species of the plant.
Ifaw has a collection of illegal animal products that have been seized by UAE authorities and are used during the training sessions it runs for government officials.
"There are exercises to identify some of the products commonly traded here, like items made from crocodile skin and snake skins, the fur of big cats and ivory," Dr Mohamed said. "In the UAE we have trained 150 officials in co-operation with the Ministry of Environment and Dubai Customs. We are planning to hold another workshop in Abu Dhabi in September."
Dr Mohamed praised the efforts made by the UAE authorities to combat the illegal trade, pointing out that the country was the first in the GCC to introduce legislation covering the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and animal welfare.
But, he added: "There is still more and more work needed to be done - this is a continuous battle."