On average, only half of the cubs rescued from the trade manage to survive, and members of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) are worried about the smallest of the group, frail ‘Green’, who weighs just 700 grams.
“Green” and its fellows were lucky. Each year, approximately 300 cheetah cubs transit through Somaliland to be sold in the Middle East to wealthy buyers looking for exotic animals.
Baby cheetahs torn from their mothers, transported from Africa to war-torn Yemen and then to the Persian Gulf can fetch up to $15,000 (€13,000) each on the black market.
But for this they have to survive the journey, during which they are usually malnourished, imprisoned in tiny cages, sometimes with their legs tied.
Less well-known than the ivory or rhino horn trade, this trade is no less devastating to Africa’s most endangered felines.
Take selfies with wild animals
A century ago, there were about 100,000 cheetahs in the world. Today, between human expansion encroaching on their habitat and illegal trade, barely 7,000 remain.
More than 3,600 live cheetahs were illegally sold around the world between 2009 and 2019, according to a study published this year based on an examination of hundreds of kitten ads posted on social media.
Because they are particularly difficult to breed, the only way to obtain them is by catching them in the wild.
“At this rate (…) it will lead to the extinction of species in a very short time,” Lori Marker warns.
Cheetahs have been prized as pets and hunting companions since the time of the Roman Empire.
Today, they are especially in demand in the Persian Gulf countries. Like fancy cars and wads of cash, their owners show off cheetah selfies as a sign of wealth.
“There’s exaggeration, bragging,” complains Lori Marker, whose association tries to raise awareness of the behavior in those countries: “One of our messages is don’t +like+ things like that on social media.”
Combating this traffic is particularly difficult because it is centered around Somaliland, a self-proclaimed republic without international recognition and one of the world’s poorest regions.
This separatist region, located between Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, is fighting for control over its porous borders, including 850 kilometers of coastline that faces Yemen.
Interior Minister Mohamed Kahin Ahmed told AFP that Somaliland’s small coast guard unit was doing its best to fight the cheetah trade, but it also had to fight arms and human trafficking.
In recent years, real estate foreclosures have increased rapidly along with increased government repression.
From a handful of cheetahs in 2018, the rescue of “Green” and his relatives has brought the number of cubs to 67, currently being hosted at CCF’s shelters in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
Laws criminalizing the sale of cheetahs began to be enforced: in October 2020, a network of smugglers was exposed and a known trafficker prosecuted in a landmark trial.
Under the UK-funded scheme, Somaliland is also sharing intelligence with neighboring countries and Yemen to prevent the iconic animal from escaping Africa.
A generation without a cheetah?
The government has also reached out to rural communities, whose contentious relationship with cheetahs fuels the trade.
Of the 13 cubs seized between September and November, at least four were captured by farmers who wanted to sell them, they said, for money after their livestock were attacked by cheetahs.
“The next generation may never see a cheetah if this illegal trade continues,” former Somaliland foreign minister Edna Adan Ismail told an anti-poaching conference in September.
Ahmed Yusuuf Ibrahim made it his goal to prevent this from happening. This 27-year-old veterinarian learned how to put rescued cheetah cubs on their feet.
Removed from the environment, the cheetahs will not be able to fend for themselves in the wild, and over time they will be relocated to a natural enclosure on the outskirts of Hargeisa.
But in the meantime, Ibrahim spoils them and makes sure that they have the necessary amount of camel meat: “I take care of them. I feed them, clean them. They are my children.”
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