DUBAI: The capital of the United Arab Emirates is known for its record-breaking skyscrapers and flashy sports cars – but it is now taking fashion statements to a whole other level with the latest, must-have accessory: big cats such as cheetahs, lions and tigers.
The animals are featured in posts on social media platforms such as Instagram, with photos of white tigers on sports cars, and videos of owners with their full-grown African lions. While they may have become the ultimate status symbol in the Gulf, keeping them comes with some very serious responsibilities.
RAK Zoo owner Jassim Ali Salim said: “To the owners, if the goal is showing off and quick fame, they should be more responsible. These animals aren’t playthings, they have dignity. They belong in zoos, rehabilitation centres and in the wild.”
Mr Jasim, started providing a sanctuary for big cats, left unwanted by local owners, 18 years ago. The animals in his zoo were all rescued from local families who could no longer afford to feed them, or feared their ferocity once they became fully grown.
While some of these exotic animals are bred domestically, the majority have been illegally smuggled into the country. The smuggling trade is very lucrative, as a rare white lion can cost as much as US$50,000.
The big cats born into captivity and smuggled into the country are often taken from their mothers as cubs and trained to suppress their natural instincts. They become dependent on humans for food as their natural hunting skills were never given a chance to develop, and that makes it almost impossible to return them to the wild.
Emirates Park Zoo owns two cheetahs which were seized from smugglers at the border with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
Jessica Martin, the zoo's Head Keeper, said the demand for big cats in the region is threatening their very existence. “A lot of people don’t realise that the animals they get, some of them are bred in the country but a lot of them are not. A lot of them are bought from outside and therefore they’re detrimental to the wild population by having them as pets,” she said.
Despite this sad reality, it is still technically legal for those with enough money to own big cats. The internationally agreed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) states that owners must be able to accommodate the needs of such animals.
“In order to keep any endangered animal or any wild animal in your home, which are under CITES Appendix part 1 and 2, you need to meet certain basic requirements such as free movement of the animals in the place you will be keeping. It should be able to access water at its own will; it should be fed with proper food at regular intervals,” said Dr Mohammed Ali Reza Khan, Dubai Zoo Wildlife Specialist, Dubai Municipality.
Unfortunately, the number of animals in Jasim's zoo indicates that many owners are not able to abide by these responsibilities, and so give them up. Local zoos are finding it increasingly difficult to provide food and space for the unwanted animals, so authorities are now looking to change the current laws allowing big cats to be kept as pets. But as the social media trend of sharing the latest photos and videos with wild cats continues to boom, big cats will remain a big problem in the UAE.