By Vesela Todorova
DUBAI // Each morning, while everyone else is commuting to work, Alan Stephenson enters a lush, landscaped private oasis.
As manager of the Sheikh Butti bin Juma Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre, he shares his picturesque workplace with dozens of flamingos, meerkats, antelopes and a host of other animals in a compound large enough for them to roam freely.
“This is the way I like to see animals, not in cages,” said Mr Stephenson.
Wealthy collectors have long been criticised by conservationists for being secretive about the animals they keep in private zoos.
But this centre, says Mr Stephenson, is an example of how one person’s interest in rare wildlife can play a part in conservation efforts.
The centre is home to animals from all over the world and is focused on helping important local species, such as the cheetah, which is extinct in the wild in the UAE.
It has 24 animals capable of breeding, with the youngest cubs just two years old. This year 70 flamingo chicks, some the native Greater flamingo but also the rarer Lesser flamingo, hatched at the centre.
“We are now trying to channel the expertise, the management and the finances into something positive, something for conservation – breeding the Arabian oryx, breeding local species which are noteworthy, instead of just having a whole collection of funny animals that are not suited for this climate,” said Mr Stephenson.
The centre also breeds Lesser kudu antelopes and the northern bald ibis, listed as critically endangered by BirdLife International.
Responsible individuals looking to set up their own collection need to consider several factors, said Mr Stephenson, the first being whether the animal they intended to buy was suitable for captivity.
“There are certain animals that really are not suited to captivity, they are very stressed – things like big cats, like lions and tigers.
“We do not have any of the large cats because they are dangerous and there is no real point in keeping them here.
“There is no conservation value, it is purely for personal gratification.
“How nobody has been eaten here or killed – that we know of – to me is quite a miracle because some of the facilities I have seen, it is just an accident waiting to happen.”
The animals must also be given proper, round-the-clock care, which can prove costly.
“It is an expensive thing,” said Mr Stephenson. “If you are going to do it, you must do it properly – have the space, have the cages, have the manpower. You need to employ people who have the expertise and the qualifications to look after these animals properly.”
Nutrition, said Mr Stephenson, was “a big problem here” with the centre importing its animal feed from abroad.
“It is very expensive but we see it in our results. The animals are healthy, they are breeding well, they do not get sick.”
The facility is registered with the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, which carries out regular inspections, as well as Cites.
This means animals in the special trading regime have rings, tags or microchips with data related to their origin.
“To be registered as a Cites organisation, you must have records of your animals,” said Mr Stephenson.
While legal collectors are required to abide by strict rules and regulations, not enough is done to curb illegal activities, where “there is a good living to be made”, he said.
“Obviously money is changing hands between them and whoever and they are buying up animals.
“If you have surplus animals and you want to sell them, that is fine, but when you are taking wild animals, especially rare wild animals, from the wild and bringing them into institutions or private people, this is not good.
“People who are bringing in animals should be registered and controlled.”