Keeping exotic pets is largely illegal in Oman but the desire by some to have one as a status symbol has given rise to a tacky trade, one that can threaten the health and safety of not only the animals and their owners, but also the public at large. Team Y investigates how affluence and online egotism are fuelling the illicit imports of animals, reptiles, and insects.
How far would you go for the ultimate picture on social media?
Some would opt for snapping images of their chow while others may stick to simple yet tasteful nature shots.
But then comes along a bunch of social media aficionados from Oman that take things to a whole new level with the ultimate trump card – one beyond one’s wildest imagination: exotic pets.
They deem themselves ‘animal lovers’ – and it’s a label that hasn’t been used in vain – but these have-it-all folks take the concept of pet ownership to heights never seen before; levels that the law deems illegal and a criminal offence.
It’s something we stumble upon on the private page of an Omani man on Instagram.
Yaqoub*, a 23-year-old Omani youth, seems to have it all. Luxury cars, watches, a stunning villa, trips abroad that would put foreign delegates of countries to shame, and his very own duo of African leopards.
Unlike several of his counterparts, however, Yaqoub – who claims to be from the higher echelons of society – doesn’t flaunt his pets publicly. Instead, he shares his moments with the two felidae with his close contacts only through a private account that requires his authorisation to view.
It’s a list – mostly packed with the priveleged – that we (unexpectedly) get to infiltrate by posing as an animal lover and collector of rare and exotic animals.
Our attempts to connect with him directly through personal messages turn out to be futile but we manage to eke out information – from images posted – that the Omani also holds turtles, birds such as macaws and parakeets; and even a collection of snakes brought in from the southern parts of India.
But exceeding our expectations and spearheading to the top position is Yaqoub’s very own chimpanzee and baboon – both of which are illegal to have as pets in Oman, as Imran al Balushi*, an official from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs, confirms.
“Is he an animal lover?” asks the ministry official, before answering: “Not at all. I think that anyone who buys pets or keeps such animals that are not [indigenous] to this region must be tried, and their collection of animals and birds confiscated.”
In fact, the law states that it is prohibited for an individual or a company to hold exotic animals for personal or commercial purposes in the country.
“We keep a strict check of the animals, birds, and other living species that are imported and bred here,” the ministry official says. “So, if you were looking to bring one over to Oman, you would need to obtain a certificate from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs along with one from CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Currently, anyone holding exotic pets risks having their pet confiscated and the owner can also receive a fine, although the official fails to specify the amount.
Oman fails to define exotic pets, but going by international standards, an exotic pet is one that rarely classifies as a domesticated or farm animal. This covers snakes, lizards, big cats, primates, and the like. Even animals such as gazelles and leopards, which are native to the region, are deemed exotic – even though possessing them is illegal.
There’s a general lack of confusion among all official parties we speak to during the course of our investigation, most likely owing to the rarity of the incident.
However, owing exotic animals is still a habit that’s gaining traction among the wealthy in Oman as the ultimate show of opulence.
Omani camel trainer Khalfan al Kharusi, whose camel was also the winner of the 2015 camel race in Barka, says that while camel ownership – a hallmark of Bedouin culture – can be an expensive ordeal, exotic pets can have “higher costs of maintenance”.
He says: “I have a friend who spends nearly RO700 on her pet tiger per week. She received it as a gift during her wedding and has tended to its needs ever since.
“So, it’s not something that’s possible for everyone to do. But, it is definitely becoming so popular among the rich that they’re now flying to countries in Africa to buy them and import them.
“This now overshadows camel ownership, which is unlike Omani tradition. Somehow, people’s wealth and status now revolves around cats and birds,” he adds disapprovingly.
Exotic pet ownership is also an act that Simon Roy, an ecologist with a leading international environmental agency based in the Sultanate, condemns during his interview with Y – no matter how many online likes it can earn the individual.
He says: “Not only does bringing animals that are not native to this part of the world harm their health. It will kill them. The Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs rarely offers certificates if ever for exotic pets.
“So, I’m very shocked to see the photos of the animals that you are showing me. There is definitely foul play here – and I’m not sure if it’s through a dealer who is importing them here or the individual itself using ‘wasta’ (influence) – but I’m not sure if people want to take that level of risk anymore.”
Simon is right, as a quick walk through several pet stores in Oman show us several offerings that the law deems illegal – turtles for instance.
Costing anywhere between RO8 and RO120, depending on the age of the turtle, you can pick one up from select pet stores that keep them stowed away in the corners of their shops, away from the wandering eyes of the officials.
Our efforts to expose a larger racket is foiled as we learn that pet shop salesmen interact frequently with each other. Our questions were shared and suspicion was raised, resulting in them asking us to leave.
However, this is not before we’re offered a King Snake imported from Ecuador as a pet by one oblivious salesman.
He nonchalantly parades the reptile in a glass cage before telling us (translated from Urdu): “This [snake] is what people love the most now. It is the number one form of pet for those looking for something different.
“The snakes are not venomous so they cannot harm you. But, it’s also very nice to look at if you have friends coming over to your home,” he adds.
He then goes on to reveal how the snakes are brought in from central Africa and that they’ve all been cleared by customs.
“We have paperwork to prove that it is legal in Oman,” he exclaims, when we ask him of the legality of keeping a snake as a pet.
However, our source Imran from the ministry thinks otherwise.
“Snakes fall into a category of exotic pets and are illegal unless you’ve been certified by the ministry to run a breeding centre,” he says, before pointing out how smaller pet shops often fail to avail themselves of the licence.
He then reveals that several pet shops import smaller exotic animals through the UAE or Yemen borders or through cargo containers, disguised and often stowed away from the eyes of the authorities.
“Would you trust what a man trying to make a sale is telling you or your gut instinct?” asks the official.
He then advises anyone against adopting or buying such unpredictable pets that can pose trouble to both the pet owner and the public at large if it escapes from captivity.
It’s a situation that has been brought to light in recent news when Omani researchers revealed that they found two different species of the black widow spider, also known as the ‘Latrodectus’ – a venomous spider that can potentially kill humans.
Researchers believe that this species wasn’t previously known to be native to Oman but instead could have made its way to the country through packing containers, or worse, when they escaped as pets.
Miriam al Zadjali, an entomologist working with a leading university in the country, believes that the insect has been brought in from another country by adherents.
“Arachnophobia alert. Spiders are simple arthropods – they have their set patterns of likes and dislikes with respect to the environment and they don’t budge much from that,” she says.
“So, you can understand why I was surprised to see them in Oman. The species is quite common in North America and also Australia but it’s a bit odd to see them here in Oman.
“There are three possibilities to its finding its way here: one, it has always existed in the Sultanate and we’re only finding about it now – which is quite unbelievable; two, it came through cartons of foods such as bananas; or three, and my most-backed belief, it has been brought in by someone as pets in their luggage.”
Characterised by its black body and hourglass-shaped red mark on its lower abdomen, the spider has been known to be venomous although the Oman government hasn’t issued any warnings to this effect.
Fatality rates have been reported to stand between 0.5 and 12 per cent for every 100 bites although several people have been known to keep them as pets due to their docile character.
Nonetheless, housing colonies such as those in Al Mouj have issued warnings to residents asking them to keep an eye out for the black widow spider.
But, it’s not just these creatures that can kill.
In fact, the turtles that we know and love can be just as deadly – if not more so!
Miriam explains: “Keeping turtles as pets is illegal in Oman for several reasons. And the most obvious reason for it is to help them survive out in the wild. A turtle that has been taken in and then let go into the wild stands less chance of survival than one that has always been in the wild.
“But, turtles also carry Salmonella. It’s bacteria that is often overlooked – because it usually only causes infections that can lead to fever and diarrhoea. But, what we need to realise is that it can also potentially cause life-threatening conditions.
“Unlike what people think, it’s also very easy to transmit the disease – and it’s possible to contract it from even a small turtle. A lot of people look at little turtles and think they’re very cute – and for the most part, they are – but you’ll need to know that they’re also incredibly infectious.
“They’re so infectious that it’s illegal in countries such as the US and Canada to sell small turtles.
“Big cats such as tigers, meanwhile, are very volatile and can attack by instinct – sometimes even their trainers. Not only is it difficult to fend off such an attack from such a large animal, it can probably result in serious injuries to both the person and the creature.”
That said, it’s not just the pet owner and the people who risk their health. The creature too can undergo severe physical and mental issues.
Simon tells us: “Animals and birds that cannot exist in this part of the world cannot survive the temperature and terrain change alongside the much more dangerous drop in pathogen resistance.
“Some animals and birds may not have the resistance to different forms of diseases that several of the indigenous species here have developed over the years.
“So, starting from the difference in climate to the possibility that they could pick up on different infections; there’s just a lot that can go wrong,” Simon asserts.
“Then there’s the whole problem of showmanship. Parading these animals in the name of social media or love for animals can do them more mental harm than one can ever think.
“There’s something very demeaning seeing a chimpanzee being paraded around in nappies by a trainer. It just doesn’t look natural.
“You can think that you’re providing these animals with the very best life – the food, shelter, and even healthcare. But by ripping them away from their homes in the wild, you’re essentially booking them a one-way ticket for a poor-quality life.
“These animals essentially become pet slaves that are then used for the benefit of a select group of people. For them it’s a hobby – but for the animal, bird or insect, it’s a struggle for existence in an orderly world. One that’s different from the wild but with its own set of challenges.” ν
* Name changed