One photo shows a young man sticking his head inside his pet lion’s mouth. Another one shows two young men taking their cheetah with them on a speedboat. Other men are shown riding their lion’s back or wrestling with the beast in their backyard.
It seems that for many youngpeople in the UAE and in other Gulf countries, posting pictures of their fancy cars online is no longer enough to show off their wealth or to seem “cool”.
Many pictures of young men with their big cats have been posted on Instagram, a social media website, in recent months. There are also videos of these men with their cheetah, lion and tiger pets, taken inside their homes or cars and even at swimming pools.
This Instagram trend has shed light on an important issue: the apparently increasingly popular practice of keeping exotic pets in households in the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar.
The question is not just how many of these pets are legal, it is also why having such animals can be permitted, despite all the potentially negative consequences for both the animals and their owners.
Experts warn that the practice affects the well-being and conservation of wild animals and it poses health risks to their owners. These powerful animals can cause serious injuries and also transmit some diseases.
Despite this, the ownership of exotic animals is growing in popularity in the UAE, according to an article in the Abu Dhabi Police’s 999 Magazine, which recently highlighted the issue. The magazine’s cover story gave details about various wild animals, the threats they pose to the public and the ways in which these animals are acquired and kept as pets.
Most people who buy such animals have no idea how to take care of them, the report stated. Many of these animals do not even have medical records, suggesting that they were initially taken from their mothers and sold on the black market.
The article said that endangered and wild animals are easily available for purchase in the UAE for between Dh15,000 and Dh50,000. Local and international websites advertise many kinds of exotic animals, including cheetahs, cougars, jaguars, leopards, black panthers, lions and yellow and white tiger cubs.
A quick search on Google confirms this is the case.
Many advertisers do not offer official papers. A recent survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), conducted over four weeks, found about 800 exotic-pet advertisements posted on 11 websites. None of those advertisements involved proof of the animals’ legality, and only one in five of them mentioned that the necessary documents were available.
In the UAE, it is legal to own exotic animals if you hold a licence to do so, and there are legal ways of bringing them into the country. But a specialist in wildlife and zoo management at Dubai Municipality’s Public Parks and Horticulture Department, Dr Reza Khan, was quoted in the article as saying that owners often bypassed the law and kept dangerous animals to show off that “they can have such a pet without a legal permit”.
Authorities have been warning against questionable pet ownership in recent years. In 2010, more than 200 illegal animals were confiscated in the UAE, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites), which the UAE signed in 1990.
The Cites treaty prohibits endangered animals from being exported from their native countries unless it is for scientific or conservation purposes. The UAE has enacted a law to regulate the animal trade and tasked its enforcement to the Federal Environment Agency for Abu Dhabi Emirate and the Ministry of Environment and Water for the Northern Emirates.
Since last year, another draft law has been in the works, setting fines of as much as Dh50,000 and imprisonment of up to six months for illegal traders, whether they are sellers or buyers.
The Ministry of Environment’s rules prohibit individuals and commercial dealers from importing big cats. This is only permitted for breeding centres, universities, zoos and authorities licensed by the ministry, and then only when certain other requirements are met. However, these rules are often broken.
Stricter laws could be underway. Last year, legislators in Abu Dhabi said they were weighing up a further law to make endangered exotic pet ownership illegal. The issue came up for discussion at the Ministerial Council for Services’s meeting, which has given directives to the Ministry of Environment to draft necessary laws to prevent this practice.
These rules should be implemented and strictly enforced by authorities to tackle the capture and sale of wild animals as pets. It is also time for people to realise that having a big cat in their household does not make them “cool”. Rather, they risk being called animal abusers and are putting their own lives at risk.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui