Article by Elizabeth Claire Alberts Image by Dr. Laurie Marker
- Wild cheetahs are under intense pressure in the Horn of Africa due to human-wildlife conflicts and illegal trade, which takes about 300 cubs from the region each year, conservationists say.
- In Somaliland, a country ravaged by climate change-induced drought, nomadic farmers will often kill or chase away cheetahs threatening their livestock, and either keep their cubs as pets or attempt to sell them to traders.
- The Cheetah Conservation Fund and Somaliland’s Ministry of Environment and Rural Development are working to develop an education program that promotes coexistence between farmers and cheetahs.
The 8-week-old cheetah cubs should have been with their mother. Instead, they were penned up in a small village near Erigavo, Somaliland, after a group of nomadic livestock farmers chased the mother away and captured the cubs from a nearby cave.
“There were actually three [cubs],” Asma Bileh, a Somaliland veterinarian for the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), told Mongabay. “One died immediately … so they brought back two of them into their houses. They were keeping them for a while.”
When Somaliland’s Ministry of Environment and Rural Development (MoERD) received a tip about the cubs, a rescue team, which included Bileh, traveled to the village on Aug. 22. The baby cheetahs were a little malnourished and dehydrated, having only been fed small portions of goat milk and meat, which hadn’t provided enough sustenance.
These cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) are among dozens of cubs that have been rescued by the MoERD-CCF team in Somaliland this year; as of this week, CCF reported a total of 29 rescued cubs since January, three of which have died. The reason for this onslaught of rescued cubs is human-wildlife conflicts between livestock farmers and wild cheetahs, as well as the illegal demand for wild cheetahs as pets in the Middle East, according to conservationists.
While the global cheetah population is estimated to be around 7,100, the local population in the Horn of Africa is thought to comprise about 300 to 500 adults, says Laurie Marker, a leading expert on cheetahs and executive director of CCF. It’s also thought that up to 300 cheetahs are captured in human-wildlife conflicts and illegally trafficked each year from this region, which puts the local population at extreme risk.
Tamer than your pet dog
In Gulf Cooperation Council states, such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), wild cheetahs are status symbols and highly desired pets. As a result, countless of the animals are smuggled between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, with a well-established trade route running between Somaliland and Yemen. This is done despite wild cheetahs being protected under CITES Appendix I, which bans all trade outside of exceptional licensed circumstances.
Of the 300 cheetahs taken in the Horn of Africa each year, Marker said about half are destined for the exotic pet trade in the Middle East. However, these numbers are likely conservative since they don’t consider the cheetahs that may have died during the capture and trading processes, she said.
“They’re tamer than your pet dog basically,” Marker said. “That’s why they love them so much because they are easily tamed.”
Docile though cheetahs may be, most people don’t adequately care for them, Marker said. Their average life expectancy as pets is about one or two years, she added.
Traders who broker the cubs to buyers in the Middle East can get between $3000 and $10,000 per cub, according to CCF. The people who take the cubs from the landscape, on the other hand, may only get $75 to $100 per cub, and those who transport the cubs along the smuggling route can get $300 to $800 per cub, CCF said.
“People in the Middle East, have a lot of disposable income and they … [want] exotic pets,” Marker said. “But we’re trying to make people aware that … cheetahs are not an animal that should be a pet — they’re supposed to be out living in the wild. And they play a very important ecological role in maintaining the health of ecosystems.”
In 2016, the UAE passed a law that banned the private ownership and trade of exotic and dangerous animals. While this has helped slow the trade in the UAE, it hasn’t completely stopped it, according to Elsayed Ahmed Mohamed, a veterinarian and regional director for the Middle East and Northern Africa at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
“We cannot deny that illegal trade still takes place, but we can confirm that it has slowed down in the UAE following the ban,” Mohamed told Mongabay in an email.
Keeping cheetahs in the wild
“It’s our job to help bring them [farmers] into … conservation, because they could be the best partners in the world — our conservation partners,” Marker said. “What our angle and work will be is to help bring them into our partnership program.”
What the CCF team ultimately wants is for people and cheetahs to coexist peacefully on the landscape, which will promote a healthier level of biodiversity in a place already challenged by climate change.
“They’re fast, they’re gorgeous, they play such a key role in the ecosystem,” Marker said. “The idea is not to have them in the sanctuary — it’s to maintain them in the wild.”