Over the years, two Dubai-based social media personalities with millions of followers have posted photos and videos of themselves alongside tiger and lion cubs, despite strict rules in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) regulating the possession and trading of ‘dangerous’ or exotic, animals.
Intriguingly, the pair have claimed that two of their photoshoots, one held in 2019 and another in 2020, were facilitated by a royal friend.
Open source evidence buttresses these claims and suggests at least one of these photoshoots took place in a property owned by one of the UAE’s royal families.
In a 2021 investigation, Bellingcat uncovered how several celebrities were acquainted with underground procurers of the animals they posed with in Instagram stories to their millions of followers. A variety of young exotic animals, including tigers, lions, monkeys and even endangered species like cheetahs were found to be kept in a small apartment and sold internationally by an individual operating an anonymous account.
Celebrities such as MoVlogs, a YouTuber with over 10 million followers, and Saygin Yalcin, an influencer with over one million followers on both Instagram and Youtube, were acquainted with this dealer. They had visited the dealer’s apartment and tagged his name in their posts. Shortly after Bellingcat reached out for comment in 2021, the dealer deleted his account that had thousands of followers.
However, both MoVlogs and Saygin Yalcin have since continued to pose with tiger and lion cubs in private homes.
In two separate vlogs from 2019 and 2020, the influencers claimed these cubs were brought by their royal friend because they were either “rescued” or outside a zoo for a “quick medical checkup”.
However, there is no sign of a veterinarian in either of the videos. Wildlife experts told Bellingcat that removing cubs from their mother for a prolonged period at such a young age could endanger their development, their health and leave them distressed. Experts Bellingcat spoke to said that claims of “rescue” or “medical checkup” appear to make little sense.
Animal welfare campaigners have repeatedly stated that the widespread practice of animal photoshoots perpetuates a booming illegal trade in exotic and often endangered animals. “It’s two-fold”, says Chris Lewis, captivity researcher at international wildlife charity, Born Free. “There’s the element of seeing animals on social media, which creates a feeling of someone else wanting it. There’s also the element of an animal in a non-native, or domestic setting, which desensitises people to what that animal actually is and needs.”
The vloggers are reluctant to reveal much information about the true identity of their ‘royal friend’, but Bellingcat has been able to discover that one of the videos was filmed at a house owned by the ruling Al Mualla family of the Emirate of Umm Al-Quwain, one of the constituent emirates of the UAE.
Bellingcat reached out to the royal family of Umm Al-Quwain to ascertain why videoshoots with two popular vloggers had taken place at the property, but received no response by the time of publication.
Cubs and Claims
The claim that royalty is involved is made in two videos, one featuring lion cubs and another featuring tiger cubs.
On 15 June 2019, Saygin published a video to YouTube that showed two lion cubs (hereafter referred to as the ‘lion cub vlog’).
In both the video as well as the description, Saygin says that “my friend from the royal family has rescued 2 baby lions”, but does not specify who this royal family member is.
The cubs are brought to what is described as Saygin’s home, where he plays around with them. He is later joined by MoVlogs, who uploaded his own YouTube video of the same visit. In MoVlogs’ video, Saygin adds that “they found and they rescued them, and now they are here”, but does not elaborate on where the royal family member found these cubs, nor what they needed rescuing from.
“These are called Tsavo lions”, explains Saygin with a smile, “and they’re really, really rare!”
In June 2020, almost exactly a year after this video was published, MoVlogs uploaded a video (hereafter referred to as the ‘tiger cub vlog’) in which he met up with Saygin Yalcin again to see newborn tigers.
At the start of the video MoVlogs states: “My friend Saygin, he actually invited me to his friend’s house, who is a part of the royal family because.. To own a pet tiger… I mean regular people aren’t allowed to own pet tigers. I don’t think that’s a sane thing to have.”
A UAE federal law introduced in 2016 states: “Every natural or legal person shall be prohibited from owning, possessing, trading or breeding dangerous animals”. The accompanying list of “dangerous” animals includes all ‘Felidae’ with the exception of domestic cats. Lions and tigers are members of the Felidae genus.
While this law does make exceptions for licensed facilities such as zoos and breeding centres, even these facilities cannot “move animals from one place to another” without obtaining consent from the ministry and meeting stringent conditions. It is not fully clear from the videos alone whether any laws were broken or if any of the exceptions within the legal framework were met.
According to both MoVlogs and Saygin, the tiger cubs are about five days old, and can’t open their eyes yet. Both also state, five times in all throughout the tiger cub vlog, that the reason the cubs were at this building that day is for a “quick medical checkup” before they are “sent back to their mums”, though Saygin says it’s for a few hours whereas Movlogs says it’s for a few days.
Yet one wildlife expert from FourPaws, a global animal welfare organisation, told Bellingcat that this explanation doesn’t seem to make much sense given the cubs have been taken to a residential location and are being handled and filmed by two vloggers.
A Royal Residence
A prominent character in Dubai’s exotic animal scene is a man named Mohamed Elshamsy, who also operates an Instagram account with 2.5 million followers under the name of Mohamed Othman. He has referred to himself as the “King of Monsters” in social media profiles that utilise both names.
A review of the Elshamsy and Othman Instagram feeds showed that in May 2019 he had posted from a location that looked strikingly similar to that shown in one of the videos shared by MoVlogs and Saygin Yalcin. He sits on the floor and feeds two lion cubs.
Note the matching cushions, curtains, couch, rug and tables in the images below.
An analysis of the connections between the accounts of Elshamsy and the vloggers show that they are both connected with a man named Al Mualla bin Ahmed bin Nasser Al Mualla, hereafter referred to as Al Mualla
Al Mualla is listed by a Dubai investment firm, as a partner and “member of the UAE royal family”. He has also posted from the same location as the vloggers and Elshamsy, as the images below show.
Al Mualla’s Instagram channel displays a further series of stories and photos that feature elements also visible in the tiger cub vlog.
For example, at one point in the latter, Saygin walks over from the above living room area to stand beside a framed picture of a leopard.
This same leopard artwork was also shown in posts by Al Mualla and Elshamsy. The picture and frame match, as do the colour and junctions of the walls and floors.
It is therefore clear that Al Mualla, Elshamsy, Saygin and MoVlogs have all been seen in the same house where exotic animals were exhibited before the camera.
But important clues suggest that the Al Mualla is more familiar with the property than the others. He has posted from this house on seven clearly identifiable occasions in Instagram stories and posts dating back to 2014.
A more hidden but perhaps more revealing clue is a framed picture seen in the background of MoVlogs’ video.
This framed picture is also the very first picture visible on Al Mualla’s Instagram profile, posted back in 2014.
In the image caption Al Mualla states “Thank you Khalifa” — likely meaning Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a former ruler of the UAE and the world’s fourth wealthiest person at that time, who is sitting on the left. The photo was taken in a room in Dubai’s Mushrif Palace where the monarch received guests in an official capacity.
The photo appears to be original; it does not appear elsewhere online in a Google reverse image search.
Placing the photos in the same perspective shows that they are identical.
Moreover, the exterior of the house can also be connected to Al Mualla. MoVlogs only recorded the front of the building and some of its rooms, but this was enough to allow Bellingcat to geolocate it to a neighbourhood in Dubai.
A crucial element is the reflection of a mosque’s minaret in the window:
This style of minaret is less commonly seen in the UAE, but it is an exact match with one seen in a Snapchat story posted by Elshamsy, the animal handler previously seen at the same house:
Knowing that the house is within the line of sight of a mosque helped refine the geolocation.
Al Mualla’s own Instagram posts also allowed Bellingcat to geolocate him and an apparent family member to this house. In one photo, a man described by Al Mualla as “father” sits in a car while holding a lion.
The style of the building, as well as the strip of pavement and grass all match with Google Earth satellite imagery of the garden around 2014, before it was renovated in 2017. Again, using the reflections in the window, elements such as the curvature of the building’s round edge (blue arrow), the mosque minaret (red arrow) and dome (green arrow), as well as the garden wall (yellow arrow) all match.
In another photo posted to Instagram June 2014, Al Mualla tagged himself while petting a tiger cub. This photo can also be matched to the same house.
The presence of the Al Mualla family at this house over multiple years could suggest ownership of the property. But the geolocation also allowed further confirmation from the UAE’s public records.
Dubai does not have a traditional address system, but instead relies on a ten-digit code called Makani assigned to each building. Once the coordinates of a house are known, they can be entered on the Makani app to discover the ten-digit code.
The geolocation therefore allowed Bellingcat to find the house’s Makani number, which in turn can be used to check its property status on Dubai’s Land Department website. Doing this yielded the title deed number, which can be entered into the same website’s title deed verifier which provides the name of the property’s owner.
The name on this property’s title deed matched the name of Al Mualla’s father: Ahmed bin Nasser Al Mualla.
The video shoot attended by the vloggers Saygin Yalcin and MoVlogs was not the only time celebrities have been brought to this house to pose with exotic animals.
In a 2020 Instagram video, Indian actress and influencer Nagma Mirajkar held a White Siberian tiger cub while promoting a sweatshirt to her 8.7 million followers in the same room of the house that Saygin and Elshamsy had posted.
Note the couch and curtains in the image below, which match other imagery of this room.
Mirajkar even tagged an empty and inactive Instagram account that had the name of another Al Mualla family member.
Tiger Tracking and ‘The Zoo’
Mohammed Elshamsy’s apparent connection to the Al Mualla family does not end with him being pictured at the Dubai property.
On May 21, 2020 he began sharing posts and videos of himself holding several newborn tiger cubs on Instagram.
Because tiger stripes and fur patterns are unique, a close comparison of their coats reveals that they are in fact the same cubs which Saygin and MoVlogs would encounter during their visit to the Dubai house, published less than three weeks later.
Remember that May 2019 image of Elshamsy sitting on the floor of the Dubai house? Once again, the lion cubs he is pictured feeding are identical to those seen in Saygin’s lion cub vlog.
Elshamsy, these tiger cubs and Al Mualla can all be linked to the “The Zoo – Wildlife Park”, a privately-owned facility in the Emirate of Umm Al-Quwain.
This zoo’s website does mention a “mobile zoo” that offers an “educational and informative” experience of close contact with “hand-tame” animals for “schools, private parties, homes and more”. Its page about this service features photos of chameleons, chinchillas, iguanas, rabbits, snakes and turtles — but none of lions or tigers.
The website provides no details as to the zoo’s ownership apart from a business contact email. But open source evidence indicates that this private zoo belongs to Al Mualla’s father, Sheikh Ahmed bin Nasser Al Mualla.
This can be established on the UAE’s business registry website, which allows users to search for commercial information by company name.
Doing so showed a contact email address starting with ‘ahmedalmualla’ in connection with the zoo. At the time of publication, this page had been updated to show that the license had been renewed and it was no longer possible to see the ownership details.
Ahmed bin Nasser Al Mualla was also mentioned as the “proud owner” in an Emirates News TV segment on the birth of white Siberian tiger cubs there in June 2020.
In February 2022 Ghaf Consulting, a company in which the younger Al Mualla is a partner, tweeted a photo from a visit to the same zoo, which it referred to as the Sheikh’s “farm”.
The younger Al Mualla can also be found posting at this zoo from his Instagram account as early as February 2015 and as late as July 2022.
Elshamsy has also regularly posted videos and photos from this zoo since 2017. In January 2021, Elshamsy even filmed himself at this zoo showing off the same animal seen in Saygin and MoVlogs’ tiger cub vlog posted a year and half earlier.
This tiger has grown since Elshamsy, wearing a mask and a white robe, held it alongside two others. Now he leads it around the zoo on a chain. However, the distinctive patterns in its coat show that it is the same animal.
Elshamsy also posted a video of a tigress with a newborn litter around about the time the vloggers released their tiger cub vlog.
Though the footage is not clear enough to conclusively identify the cubs, it was posted on 4 June 2020, six days before Saygin and MoVlogs’ video with newborn tiger cubs.
This is also around the time when Elshamsy posted an image of himself holding three tiger cubs – one of which matched that held by Saygin.
The tigress in Elshamsy’s video of the litter can be matched to a tigress at the zoo by comparing the animals’ coat patterns seen in a video made by a visitor in 2021.
In June 2021 the zoo was visited by reporters from the German news show STRG_F who were investigating the industry that sees baby monkeys used for Instagram photos.
The journalist Michel Abdollahi arrived at the zoo after getting in touch with the Instagram profile of a man named Abdallah Baki, saying that while others asked for sums up to US$10,000 for a half-day shoot, Baki was the only animal handler who would let the TV crew film for free. The Instagram posts seen in the documentary, which include several baby monkeys, no longer appear on Baki’s account at the time of publication.
Baki directs the journalist by telephone to the Umm Al-Quwain Wild Zoo, as demonstrated by the distinctive elephant statue in the background. Baki is coy when asked direct questions about the status of the zoo, saying “This is all private … well, it’s registered as an official zoo, do you know what I mean? It has paperwork for a zoo, we work hand in hand with the government.”
“It’s a private, official zoo” he says, before picking up a snake to show to the camera.
“You can call it a private zoo” he later clarifies, “but in the eyes of the government, CITES [referring to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora], all the other animal organisations, even WAZA, this is legit, this is the real thing”.
In fact, WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, does not list this zoo as a member on its website. Bellingcat reached out to WAZA to confirm Baki’s claims. WAZA stated that this zoo was not a member, adding that WAZA members “strive to uphold the highest standard in animal care and welfare, environmental education and global conservation.” In the past, WAZA has also explicitly distanced itself from roadside zoos as seen in Netflix’s Tiger King documentary, where the emphasis is on entertaining visitors with petting and bottle-feeding big cats.
Upon seeing a black panther, the reporter asks the zoo manager where it came from. Baki says that he’s not sure, “maybe South Africa”.
When the STRG_F reporter asks this man about the issues caused by exotic wildlife photographed as pets in private homes, the manager says it’s all the result of a misunderstanding.
The zoo manager says that keeping newborn tigers with their mothers might be dangerous, and so “I’ll keep them in my house, I’ll take them. So that would also be a picture of me, in my bedroom maybe, with a tiger. That happened a couple of times… but if some foreigner, or even someone from here who doesn’t know how this works.. ‘Oh you have a lion in your bedroom, that’s so exotic, that’s so cool’.”
Bellingcat did not receive a response from Elshamsy, Al Mualla and Sheikh Ahmed bin Nasser Al Mualla when asked whether they had taken cubs from the zoo to appear in videos with the popular vloggers.
Bellingcat also asked MoVlogs, Saygin and Al Mualla, where the lion cubs were “rescued” from, as they claimed in their videos. Bellingcat also asked why the “medical checkup” of the tiger cubs took place outside of a zoo, and why they had kept Al Mualla anonymous. None replied before publication.
Bellingcat also reached out to the zoo asking them to clarify Baki’s claim of being “legit” in the eyes of WAZA, even though WAZA says they are not a member. They also did not reply.
The fact that the cubs appear present at a zoo around the same time they were pictured with the vloggers also raises further questions about their explanations of a “medical checkup” and a “rescue”. No veterinarian nor medical equipment were visible in the vlog recorded at the royal house. Wildlife experts point out that if the cubs were in need of a medical check-up or were rescued because their wellbeing was in danger somewhere else, it would not make much sense to have them handled by vloggers outside a zoo.
Importantly, as experts told Bellingcat, doing so might actually be harmful to the cubs’ health, especially as they were newborns. Vanessa Amoroso, head of Wild Animals in Trade at Four Paws, said in an interview that “responsibly, you would have a wildlife veterinarian visit the mother, so you would cause the least disturbance to the mother. If you separate the cubs from the mother, her and the cubs are going to be disturbed and distraught”.
This is echoed by Chris Lewis, the captivity researcher at Born Free, who says that the best practice is to “leave cubs with their parents for a set period of time” because taking it away might pose “risks to the cub, as the immune system is not as developed yet, and there is also a risk if you reintroduce the animal to the adult. Even if they take them out, it would be as quickly as possible — they would distract their mother so she wouldn’t even notice.”
Lewis refers to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which recommends that tiger cubs should be left alone after birth, and warns that “disturbances during the early stages of rearing may cause the female to neglect or become aggressive toward the kittens. Cubs should be left undisturbed for at least the first week after birth depending on the behaviour of the female. When the opportunity arises, cubs can be weighed and sexed, but this should only occur when the female is voluntarily out of the box, and when cubs are at least two to three weeks old.”
This protocol appears a far cry from the vloggers handling cubs outside a zoo – cubs which, as MoVlogs and Saygin both state, were about five days old and ‘don’t even open their eyes yet’.
In September 2019, the UAE ministry provided more clarification on the 2016 law, stressing that licensed facilities need to meet “rigorous requirements” in order to prevent animal exploitation, abuse, or mistreatment.
According to Amoroso, the apparent “rescue” is an explanation that is used more often in the cub-petting industry, but often is “just an excuse to take the cubs away from the mother. The model is replicated around the world when dealing with young cubs. Behind every cub, there is a whole machine of intensive breeding of females.”
Then there’s the question of where cubs end up. Once grown, they become more difficult to handle, house, feed, and transport, and are reportedly less interesting for photoshoots. “Evidence from the US suggests cubs can get killed when grown,” Lewis added.
In July this year, the US passed a bill banning the ‘cub-petting’ industry as it encouraged “speed-breeding cubs and separating newborns from their mothers” until the cubs grow too large, after which they were sold or even killed.
Despite the many clear dangers for animals in being made to pose for photoshoots, the social media celebrities detailed in this article have since made more videos featuring big cats.
Saygin Yalcin posted a video in November 2020 that showed him frolicking with an adolescent tiger outside a tent.
In June 2022, meanwhile, MoVlogs uploaded a vlog recorded at Al Mualla’s zoo, showing a Bugatti alongside a tiger.
As he prepares to go to the zoo, he stated he was about to visit the house of a friend, “who happens to have a bunch of lions”.
Carlos Gonzales and Timmi Allen also contributed to this investigation