By Barry Neild
When a cheetah went walkabout in Sharjah earlier this month it caused widespread panic, reportedly surprising worshippers at a mosque before it was "arrested" and placed in an animal sanctuary.
The alarm caused by the beast wasn't confined to the streets of the United Arab Emirate city.
With local media blaming its presence on a thriving market for exotic pets, the cheetah incident has thrown new light on centuries-old practices that fuel illegal trade and threaten animals and humans.
Cheetahs -- listed as "vulnerable" by the United Nation's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (also known as CITES) -- are only the tip of the iceberg, say experts.
"Some active local markets are selling all kinds of wild animals," said Mohamed Elsayed, Middle East program officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
On offer, he said, are species including chimpanzees, green velvet monkeys, bush babies, bears, pythons, tortoises, birds of prey and cheetahs -- which, he said, mostly originate in Somalia.
"These markets are supplying exotic pets, not only to the U.A.E. but to neighboring countries," Elsayed said, adding that these create not only animal welfare concerns but also put humans at risk from animal-borne disease.
Behind the trade, according to John Sellar -- a Scottish former police officer who is now chief of enforcement for the U.N.'s CITES body -- are several factors, not least the region's rich traditions. More....