Conservationists fear the country is becoming a gateway for African tusks bound for Asia.
UAE urged to choke off contraband ivory trade
ABU DHABI // Conservationists are pushing the UAE to step up efforts to catch smugglers amid concerns the country is becoming a popular transit point for illegal ivory on its way from Africa to Asia.
As demand increases in certain parts of the world, smugglers continue to take advantage of the UAE's location as a midpoint between the East and the West.
However the conservationists recognise the country has come a long way from the days when it was known as a centre for the processing and trade of raw ivory.
As recently as the 1980s, ivory was sold in Sharjah markets and elephant tusks were processed at carving factories in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman for export to eastern Asia.
After the UAE withdrew in 1987 from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (Cites) - the first country to do so - shops carried bangles, paintings on ivory, figurines and sculptures with little restriction. The same year, Dubai imported more than 40 tonnes of raw ivory to be worked into jewellery and decorative items in its factories.
The country's role in the illegal trade was highlighted by the conservationist Esmond Bradley Martin, who began collecting trade data in the UAE in 1972 and wrote a series of essays over two decades about the large quantities of raw, poached African elephant ivory he saw being brought into Jebel Ali Free Zone, central Dubai and Ajman to be processed into jewellery.
As a representative of the World Wildlife Fund, he then pressed UAE officials - including Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is still the Minister of Finance and Industry - to close the factories and rejoin Cites, which it did in 1990.
"After first Dubai and then Sharjah were exposed, the leaders saw it as bad publicity and closed them all down," Mr Martin said in a recent interview.
In an article he wrote in the East African Wildlife Society's Swara magazine in 1992, Mr Martin noted that the Government had recently incinerated 12 tonnes of confiscated ivory. And while he did find ivory pieces available in some souqs, mainly for tourists, "only a limited amount of items are available," he said. He added that the Emirates "were never a major consumer of ivory".
While experts agree that is still the case, the country has again found itself in a pivotal position. A surge in demand from China has driven large volumes through UAE transit hubs.
"There's a huge discrepancy between what's being locally detected and what's moving through the UAE without being detected," said Tom Milliken, an elephant expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic which compiles trade data for Cites.
Traffic is able to track trade chains from seizures further along the transit routes. Last year alone, 6,681kg of ivory seized elsewhere had passed through the UAE. In that period, the UAE itself seized nothing.
Since then, the UAE has only recovered 40kg, in three seizures - against 7 to 8 tonnes that Mr Milliken estimates has moved through the country.
By comparison, China is making about two ivory seizures a day.
The number of seizures that have implicated the UAE as a point of transit has also surged. Until three years ago, there was about one a year. That jumped to 10 in 2008, to 55 in 2009 and to 69 in 2010.
Abdul Al Hamiri, the Cites official with the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi, said the UAE's regulations are strong and its penalties harsh. Traffickers face fines of up to Dh50,000 dirhams and up to six months in jail.
"That has caused a big drop in the movement of those endangered animal species," he said.
Dr Elsayed Al Ahmed, the Dubai-based regional director of International Funds for Animal Welfare for the Middle East, said the UAE has become a hub for trade of endangered and exotic animals, such as cheetahs, lion cubs, baboons and rare birds. Some smugglers find a market in the UAE with people keeping exotic pets at home and in private zoos, while others re-export them.
Local sellers are sometimes caught selling small pieces of ivory, but there is not a large market for it in the UAE, he said.
"From time to time, we notice there are some sales of small pieces, but this is not like other countries or a case of open markets," he said.