DUBAI // An Emirati man was arrested at Bangkok airport yesterday and charged with animal smuggling after officials discovered two suitcases filled with live baby leopards, a monkey, gibbon and bear.
N M, 36, had been waiting to take a first-class Emirates flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Dubai just after midnight on Friday when staff opened his bag to find two sedated leopards hidden in flat cages.
His suitcase contained a black leopard and a spotted leopard. A second bag was found nearby containing two further leopards, a Malayan Sun bear, a gibbon and marmoset.
All the animals were thought to be less than two months old.
N M has only been charged in connection with the two leopards found in his luggage.
Representatives from the UAE embassy in Bangkok accompanied him to the police station, where he was charged with violating the wild animal reservation and preservation act, before being released on bail, said Steve Galster, the director of Freeland, a largely US-funded non-profit organisation that works with local authorities to combat wildlife smuggling.
Animal smuggling is common in Thailand, but this case was exceptional because of the variety of creatures discovered, said Mr Galster.
“We see illegal wildlife shipments going through Thailand all the time. This one is unusual because it is exotic species being smuggled live,” he said.
If found guilty, N M faces up to four years in jail and a fine of 40,000 Thai baht (Dh4,900). However, wildlife traffickers caught in Thailand rarely end up serving time in prison, Mr Galster said.
The UAE embassy in Bangkok and the Thai Nature Crime Police, who oversee animal smuggling, could not be reached yesterday.
N M visited Thailand regularly for business, said Bussara Tirakalyanapan, a senior programmes officer at Freeland, citing a police officer who had questioned the Emirati.
It is thought Nature Crime Police officials had begun monitoring him from the time he purchased the animals. The bear and leopards would have cost about US$4,000 each (Dh14,700), said Mr Galster.
The animals were allegedly delivered to the man after he arrived at the airport. Earlier news reports said there had been two macaque monkeys, rather than a gibbon and a marmoset, but this was not accurate, said Ms Tirakalyanapan.
Police are searching for other suspects in the case, including at least one who may have been at the airport with N M, she added.
Thailand, which has several wildlife zoos, serves as a regional hub for animal smuggling. Many of the creatures sent to Asia, such as turtles and tigers, are killed for food.
Those shipped to the Gulf are often kept alive as pets in homes, private zoos or bred for profit.
Wild and exotic animals brought to the UAE have also come from as far as South America and northern Europe, said Neal Menzies, a volunteer for the Dubai Animal Rescue Centre, which takes in such creatures that have been abandoned.
The centre, which is located in the Al Barsha villa of its founder, Ayesha Kelaif, houses about 160 mostly exotic animals, including alpacas from Peru, African oryx, Shetland ponies, monkeys, ferrets, snakes, iguanas and tortoises.
A good number of these animals are imported as gifts, some of them so large that the centre cannot take them in, said MrMenzies. So many such creatures are found that Ms Kelaif is petitioning the Government for land in the desert where they could be kept.
Last December, a cheetah was caught running loose in a mosque in Sharjah after possibly jumping off a boat from the nearby wharf. It was sent to the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah.
The centre had taken in about 65 cheetahs from airports and seaports over the past decade, though only two in recent years, said operations manager Paul Vercammen. Most of them had been shipped from eastern Africa.