Bahraini authorities are seeking to tame a roaring trade in wild animals, which are being smuggled into the country to meet the fierce demand for exotic creatures in the tiny Gulf archipelago.
"Our teams have managed to confiscate monkeys, crocodiles, young tigers and various types of snakes of different sizes," Salman Abdulnabi, an official at the ministry of municipalities, told AFP.
The problem reared its head last week when a stray wild cat caused panic by entering a company building in the capital Manama. The cat, a lynx, was later caught.
"We have discovered crocodiles, snakes, wild cats, in total about 30 species of wild animals . . . that were smuggled into the country," Abdulnabi said.
"We never imagined there are that many wild animals in Bahrain,” he said.
Some farms acquired so many strange beasts that they have become virtual zoos and schools have started to organize trips, according to a man who rears wild animals.
We never imagined there are that many wild animals in Bahrain
Salman Abdulnabi, Ministry official
The passion of Bahrainis for exotic animals is shared by residents of other Gulf states, but the small size of the country means problems are greater when the unusual pets escape or their owners discard them if they have become difficult to maintain.
Bahrain offers little space for animals to roam about, as its 13 islands are home to over a million people but have a combined area of merely 662 square kilometers (255 square miles), barely the size of a decent ranch in some countries.
Wild animals on the loose
Two years ago an African hyena escaped a farm in a central Bahraini village, terrorizing the population in the village and its surrounding neighborhoods.
It took hunters a week to catch the creature and by that time it had injured a number of women and children.
Abdulnabi said smugglers bring the wild animals into the country when they are still young and easy to hide.
Crocodiles, for example, are transported in fish aquariums, when they are barely the length of finger, he said.
"These animals are then hand-reared, but they grow up and turn dangerous for human beings and the environment," the ministry official said.
The culprits can be charged with "introducing animals illegally and without a permit" to the country. Those convicted are usually fined, though judges often accept the claim the animals were bought or reared in good faith and animal welfare groups would like to see stiffer penalties.
These animals are then hand-reared, but they grow up and turn dangerous for human beings and the environment
Stemming exotic animal trade
As part of the ministry's efforts to stem the trade, it launched a press campaign offering an amnesty to owners of exotic pets who hand them in voluntarily to the authorities.
"The increasing demand is what drives breeders to import more animals," one animal rearer, who requested anonymity, told AFP.
Some buyers keep the animals as pets while others sell them, he said, noting that demand is high for boas, a large kind of snake that is not venomous.
Other people order crocodiles, chameleons, monkeys and African hyenas, while one dealer even imported an Afghan bear, the animal rearer said.
"It is a limited trade, but it exists, and it is growing," he said.
Bahrain, a country with only small numbers of wild animals of its own, has one reserve, where a few local Arabian oryx and other deer species are protected.
It is a limited trade, but it exists, and it is growing
Animal rearer in Bahrain