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Lion breeder in Yemen cashes in on Gulf demand for exotic pets

Lion Farm in Yemen


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Lion breeder in Yemen cashes in on Gulf demand for exotic pets” was written by Joe Sheffer in Zabid, for The Guardian on Sunday 3rd February 2013 13.38 UTC

In a cage built from lengths of rusting steel trellis, six African lionesses sit on the concrete floor. The bare skull of a donkey lies at the back of the cell as two male lions pace up and down patrolling their shared six metres of territory.

A village on Yemen’s scorched Tihama plain is an incongruous home for African lions. Set back several miles from the nearest road and reached by a rough network of sandy paths and thorny gorse bushes, it is home to one of Yemen’s newest and most unlikely businesses.

Lion breeding in Yemen seems as improbable a venture as salmon fishing. But rampant demand for exotic pets from collectors in the wealthy Gulf states has made this exercise in animal husbandry suddenly profitable.

Inside the compound, Hassan Bari proudly displays his merchandise. The eight lions were bought as juveniles just over four years ago, and Bari has recouped his initial investment from a first batch of captive-bred cubs. All six of his lionesses are pregnant, and he expects his next cubs to be available within a fortnight.

“I expect most of the cubs will be sold within days,” he says “There is a big demand for these animals, and often individuals will buy as many as I have on offer.”

With the value of lion cubs, and those of other big cats, reaching 50,000 Saudi riyals (£8,400) apiece, animal trafficking represents an enormous opportunity to people in one of Yemen’s poorest regions. A loose network has sprung up, trading not just lions but also cheetahs, leopards, gazelles, hyenas and monkeys.

The majority are bound for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates. The animals will end up in private collections and homes as trophy pets and status symbols.

The lucrative business is turning the coastal road along Yemen’s west coast into a wildlife superhighway thanks to the easy access it offers to the porous border with Saudi Arabia.

The director of Born Free Foundation’s project in Ethiopia, Stephen Brend, says the trade is “extensive, lucrative and with a low risk of prosecution. That’s probably why the trade is flourishing. This is having a devastating effect on wildlife populations in the region and also impacts on civil society.”

He says wildlife smuggling is being likened to the blood diamond trade because of its links with other cross-border criminal activities.

“A study by the UN office on drugs and crime suggests there are strong links between the illegal shipment of guns, people, drugs and wildlife. Hence, it seems the animals are just another victim of lawlessness.”

Bari bought his lion cubs from a dealer who landed on a small beach on the Bab-el-Mandeb, at the mouth of the Red Sea. ” I think that they originated in Ethiopia and were shipped from Somaliland,” he says.

He acknowledges that his business is mumnor, or forbidden, but says he is not worried about being caught.

David Stanton, who heads an NGO dedicated to protecting Arabian leopards in Yemen, says: “There is a feeling that wildlife crime is not really a crime but is almost universal. Yemenis who are involved in the wildlife trade probably generally know that what they are doing is illegal, but I doubt that many of them feel that it is unethical or immoral.

“People in this trade look at the bottom line, so if four out of five baby cheetahs die in transit, they see this as an economic problem for them rather than as something that is inherently wrong.”

It is estimated that 60-70% of animals trafficked towards the Gulf states die in transit, including upwards of 300 cheetah cubs each year.

Will Travers, one of founding members of the Born Free Foundation, says: “The shipping of big cats – captive-bred or wild – out of the horn of Africa into the Middle East and potentially further afield is unacceptable.

“Firstly, it’s a trade that threatens species that are already struggling for survival. Secondly, it’s creating a welfare nightmare. Thirdly, it puts money into regions where lawlessness, banditry and security issues are of global concern.”

Additional reporting by Tarim Kennedy

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