Taming the wild: The dangerous allure of big cats in the GCC

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(Whie lion cub Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images)

 By Laura Wrede

In Qatar, you can experience the fastest animal in the world roam the skies –the peregrine falcon. The fastest animal on the ground – the cheetah, can also be seen in Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and throughout the GCC...however, not always running across the desert as it should, but rather tethered to the latest Ferrari. It’s not unusual to spot cheetahs, tigers, lions, and other very big cats in Land Cruisers, Ferraris, or on speedboats. The fast and the furious all together.

These animals have become a status symbol (just like the car or speedboat they’re displayed with), mainly to boost the amount of likes on Instagram. The more exotic, the better. No living creature is a status symbol or should be treated as such. If someone wants a fancy car to show that they’re excelling at life, then by all means they’re free to do that. They can park it, sell it, and use it at their convenience. Or, they can get themselves a Rolex watch, or book a flight to outer space – but to show off one’s status with animals is a form of abuse.  

(Author Laura Wrede with a cheetah that is used to hunt gazelles. This cheetah lives with a family in Qatar and has regular exercise, as well as fresh food. Photo credit: Laura Wrede)

Taming the wild

Any type of animal is a daily commitment for as long as it lives, and not for as long as it’s convenient for the owner. Each animal requires certain conditions to live – space to roam, activities to keep them physically and mentally fit, adapted meals to keep them healthy. Whether it’s a dog or a white lion, a prospective owner has to know if they can meet those requirements.

Clearly, one of my friends did not consider any of that when he asked me if I knew a vet that could treat his three white lion cubs – or if I could take care for them for ‘just’ two weeks while he was on holiday. As much as one part of me wanted to say ‘Yes’, I knew it was irresponsible as I didn’t have enough space for one white lion cub – let alone three – nor the time to bottle-feed them as required. Apart from that, I was terrified they would have my Jack Russell terrier for breakfast, and my falcons as afternoon snacks. That would end the friendship on very bad terms.

We all remember the trending Twitter hashtag #DohaTiger over a year ago when one was spotted on Qatar’s northern Expressway walking between the cars, completely frightened. We’ve heard stories from across the region, of household members being mauled while trying to feed the family lion, and other dangerous attacks. To prevent this from happening, owners of such animals proceed to declaw and defang their exotic pets to make them less dangerous. These procedures are unethical and against animal welfare since the animal cannot then behave naturally. It is also a form of animal cruelty as the painful operation often leads the animal to a lifetime of suffering. The less dangerous solution would be to have a house cat or, simply, no pet.  

 

(Image for illustrative purposes only.  Source: www.infinitesafariadventures.com)

The cheetah: A case study

And yet, here we are thinking – ‘What does a cheetah do in Qatar?’ While the real question should rather be ‘Why are there no cheetahs left on the Arabian Peninsula?’ – a place where cheetahs would roam freely and hunt gazelles, but the sad answer is because it faces extinction. Over the past century, cheetahs have lost 90% of their population. The last reported cheetah in the Arabian region was shot in 1977 near Jibjat in Oman. Today an estimate of only 50-80 Asiatic cheetahs survive in Iran, but their population is still heavily affected by poaching.

Cheetahs did not breed well in captivity and are therefore illegally poached from the wild in the Horn of Africa. For an outrageous amount of money, they’re then smuggled via boat to Yemen, and then by road through the Gulf states. Community forum sites list sale adverts for these exotic cats, and middle-men use Instagram adverts and WhatsApp to promote their services and incite people to buy these beautiful felines. For a cheetah, QR 25,000 is happily paid, and for a white lion or a tiger…more than double that price.

Seven out of ten cubs stolen from the wild die during transport. Poachers are, however, little concerned by the death of a ‘few’ animals – as the price of the surviving cubs makes up for their loss. Neither the seller nor the buyer are concerned by the drastically dropping wildlife populations driving the cheetah nearer to extinction. The same with tigers; just 3,800 tigers exist in the wild today, according to the World Wildlife Fund – with a loss of 97% of wild tigers in just over a century. That #DohaTiger should be in the wild where it belongs.

Qatar is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Therefore, Qatar has prohibited the import entirely of such animals, even if CITES papers are provided. Qatari authorities such as the Ministry of Municipality and Environment, as well as the Ministry of Interior, warn with penalties that include jail terms.  

There’s really no reason for tigers to be roaming expressways anywhere, and that’s the sad result of exotic pets owned by people who are unqualified to handle them, and instead use them as a status symbol to suit a luxurious lifestyle.

(Newborn white tiger cub Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images)

Education and an ethical alternative?

However, what if we promoted the legal trade of captive-bred animals to help ensure the survival of the wild population? What if, instead of focusing on fines and jail terms, we could drive education among the public as to what it means to keep such animals? A tiger can live only 10-15 years in the wild, but 15-26 years in captivity in the correct conditions. Let us focus on these correct conditions to enhance the life of tigers in captivity, as well as cracking down on the illegal trade to ensure the survival of the wild population.

On the search for a cheetah, I found a sketchy email on a local website forum advert with the handle ‘petexotic4’. They replied almost immediately and offered me cheetah cubs with the following ‘reassurance’: “We can ship to your home address in Qatar without delay”, which I found quite worrying. No talks about cheetah requirements, my qualifications as a potential owner, or about where they would provide the cheetah from.

Searching a little longer, I found a much more serious-looking address in South Africa that would provide cheetah cubs between 6-8 weeks-old, bred in captivity with CITES permit, pet passport, including vaccinations and vet check, as well as export permit license. Available at a total of $2,200 USD including the flight to Qatar.

(Image for illustrative purposes only. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk)

Checking with the airline, I got a green light to transport a cheetah, provided it had all the legal papers. However, despite the reassurance that the South African farm would assist with the authorities clearance in Qatar, I could get no such official confirmation. I contacted the Qatar Ministry of Municipality and Environment directly and was assured that no import permit was given to cheetahs or similar – even if CITES permits and other legal paperwork was provided.

Experience shows that strict rules are only likelier to enhance the illegal trade than to curb it. Due to the current blockade imposed on Qatar, the Saudi-led bloc of countries, most possible smuggling routes have vanished – making it difficult to near impossible for illegally poached animals to cross the Qatari border. This is a temporary solution but, to really solve the problem, more education on the matter is needed. Wildlife education should become essential in schools and beyond.

(Hooded falcon Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images)

Committed to conservation

Qatar’s natural habitat and ecology is home to a diverse range of animal species and the country supports a number of conservation programs and initiatives.

Through various falconry clubs, institutions, falcon festivals and, especially, through Qatar’s Souq Waqif Falcon Hospital, better overall care has been provided for Qatar’s iconic falcons. More information is easily accessible about health conditions and treatments offered, as well as overall handling and living conditions. A prize is given every year for the best maintained falcons. The falcons are judged by a committee, who also evaluate their living conditions and the food supplied. Thereby, each year standards rise as education and experience grows, and the incentive of a prize motivates many ambitious falconers to do their best in order to win.

Qatar also supports the International Association for Falconry (IAF) and, together with it its various conservation programs on an international level, strives to make sure that the wild falcon population is conserved. When the Arabian Oryx neared extinction, Qatar Foundation funded a program to map the species’ DNA in order to ensure successful future breeding and, therefore, preserve Qatar’s national animal.

Similar to these programs, I believe it would enrich Qatar and the Arabian Peninsula to invest in the preservation of the Asiatic cheetah, which once called the Arabian sands home – but is now almost extinct. Theoretically, permission could be granted to individuals who provide the necessary requirements for keeping a cheetah – such as 400 sq. m enclosure with vegetation, rocks, tree trunks, and fresh water, as well as sufficient fresh meat – preferably gazelle. Along with basic knowledge of keeping such an animal, permits should be granted on legal, captive-bred cheetahs. 

(Photo credit: iStock by Getty Images)

If one is willing to pay $10,000 USD for an illegally-smuggled cub poached from the wild, then would it not be better to pay $2,200 USD for a legal, captive-bred cheetah with a CITES permit. The owner should pay slightly more than that as a conservation fee in fact, with the money used for wildlife research and preservation work to ensure the survival of the cheetah. Current owners who keep their cats in small cages or chained should be fined accordingly, and these fines should also go to the extremely necessary conservation of these animals.

Conservation is necessary to preserve our environment and the endangered species living in it. Through education, we can bring a greater awareness to the importance of this issue and help in its collective effort. Humans are the single predator of cheetahs – as well as the almost-extinct Arabian leopard and Arabian wolf. So little information is known about these animals, that most people don’t know they ever existed on the Arabian Peninsula, nor that there are still a few left in the wild, critically endangered.

Thanks to intensive conservation efforts, the numbers of Oryx are rising, as well as the Houbara Bustard. I’ve heard many legendary stories told by Bedouins about wolves. Today the wolf is extinct in Qatar. The Arabian leopard is critically endangered – close to extinction – with only a few left in the mountains of Oman. What will our future hold for us, if we’re not able to conserve our environment with the species living in it?

 (A childhood photo from 1971 of actress Melanie Griffith with her pet lion Neil  Source: www.buzzfeed.com)

Learn more!

Thanks to TRAFFIC for providing critical background information and invaluable resources for the purposes of this feature.

Big Cats Initiative (BCI): This is a long-term commitment by the National Geographic Society to stop poaching, save habitats, and sound the call that big steps are needed to save big cats around the world. This global initiative actively supports on-the-ground conservation projects and education to help stem and eventually reverse the rapid disappearance of big cat populations.

Cheetahs are the most tamable of big cats, however, not all cats should be considered as pets. One Green Planet breaks down the reasons why.  

Looking for an alternative to big tigers? Here are examples of other, small exotic cats that are kept as pets.

And, finally, a look at how life with a lion could be like.

Please share this article to create awareness. Give us your opinion on how you think it would be best to conserve the species native to Qatar and the Arabian Peninsula. Do you have any conservation projects you would like to share or initiate? Drop us a line in the comments below and tell us your thoughts.