DUBAI // Thai police are investigating six suspected animal smugglers who were booked into first class on an Emirates Airline flight from Bangkok to Dubai last Friday, after seizing two suitcases at the airport containing four baby leopards, a bear, a monkey and a gibbon.
One of the passengers, an Emirati, was arrested by Thai police just before he boarded the plane.
The group are believed to have smuggled wild and exotic animals several times before, said Col Kittipong Khawsamang, the deputy chief of the natural resources and environmental crime suppression division of Thailand's Central Investigation Bureau (CIB), in an interview with the Bangkok Post. Thailand is considered a hub in Asia for smuggling exotic wildlife.
NM, a 36-year-old Emirati man, remains in the country after being freed on bail last Friday, despite concerns about him being a flight risk.
A political figure had intervened to try to get NM's passport returned, Col Kittipong said. He declined to specify who.
Col Kittipong's division has appealed to the CIB to retain control of the case.
"They said this case will not stop," said Bussara Tirakalyanapan, a senior officer for the Freeland Foundation, a US-funded non-profit organisation that works with Thai police on animal smuggling cases.
An official with the UAE embassy in Bangkok, who declined to be named, said that NM would stay in the country until his court hearing. He referred other questions to the police, citing the ongoing investigation.
The Thai authorities had asked Emirates Airline to provide a list of passengers from the flight in question, Col Kittipong said.
The airline did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the baggage policy posted on its website, Emirates does not allow animals to be carried onto its planes without prior approval.
All animals must be "properly crated", have adequate food and water, and have all necessary paperwork such as vaccine certificates and entry and exit permits, its policy states.
Four leopards, among the animals that were taken to the state-run Wildlife First Aid Centre after being seized at the airport, were transferred yesterday to a government wildlife facility.
When the other animals were ready, they would also be sent to government centres that have bear and primate specialists, said Ms Tirakalyanapan.
Keeping wild animals as pets is popular among some families in the UAE, particularly among the wealthy.
"It's like a status symbol - it's something that not anybody can have," said Ayesha Kelaif, the founder of the Dubai Animal Rescue Centre, which cares for exotic animals that have been abandoned or run away.
The centre currently houses 230 ponies, alpacas, pythons, tortoises, monkeys and other animals, up from 160 three months ago.
Favourite pets in the UAE include big cats like leopards, tigers and cheetahs, and increasingly, monkeys, said Ms Kelaif.
A few UAE residents kept marmosets that had been legally imported from captive private breeding organisations in Europe, said Paul Vercammen, the operations manager of the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, which also takes in wild animals found in urban areas.
Baboons were becoming more common, he said.
One sun bear was found in a small shop in Saudi Arabia last year, but none had been heard of in the UAE.
Because these young and expensive animals required special care, whoever smuggled them must have had caretakers or recipients lined up ahead of time, Mr Vercammen said.
"They are not something you bring in and leave in your garage for three weeks trying to find a buyer," he said.