About 300 cheetahs are trafficked through Somaliland each year, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), making it the world hub for smuggling animals.
By Fred Harter, Hargeisa
As a vet, Calum Cairns used to treat domestic pets in a rural part of North Yorkshire. Today he cares for 86 cheetahs on the edge of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland in east Africa.
“They come to us in a very poor state,” said Cairns, as a group of adolescent cheetahs lounged in the shade of an enclosure behind him. “Normally, they are malnourished and dehydrated.”
About 300 cheetahs are trafficked through Somaliland each year, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), making it the world hub for smuggling animals. All the cheetahs under Cairns’s care in CCF “safe houses” were seized from traffickers who had planned to ship them, via Yemen, to wealthy Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to feed the trade in exotic pets.
Many die before they reach the Gulf, including six out of 15 cheetah cubs that arrived at CCF’s compounds in March. They were confiscated from smugglers after they were found in a police raid near the border with Ethiopia.
“We try with the facilities and equipment we have, but it’s not always possible to save them due the critical condition they’re in,” said Cairns.
Smaller, less aggressive, and easier to train than lions or leopards, cheetahs have long been symbols of prestige in some Middle Eastern countries where they can fetch up to £12,000 as cubs to be flaunted on Instagram.
Laurie Marker, the head of CCF, said the illicit trade was a key factor driving the species’ decline, together with habitat destruction and conflict with humans. The animals are teetering on the edge of extinction, with fewer than 7,000 left in the wild, down from more than 100,000 a century ago.
“What many people do not realize is that cheetahs don’t breed in captivity,” said Marker. “That means you need to keep going to the wild to bring new animals into the pet trade and the numbers simply can’t sustain it.”
Cheetahs are particularly vulnerable because their natural ranges are much larger than most other predators, meaning they regularly roam outside of protected areas and come into contact with humans. Farmers have been known to kill females threatening their livestock and then sell the cubs.
Some of the trafficked cheetahs stay in Somaliland. At one restaurant with blaring music and flashing lights in downtown Hargeisa, tourists can pay $5 to pose for pictures with a cheetah on a lead. There are also five caged lions. Staff prod the cats with sticks and rattle the bars to get them to move for visitors.
“Yes, it’s illegal to buy and sell cheetahs in Somaliland,” said a worker at the restaurant. “But we’ve never had any problems.”
The wild pet trade is opaque, with long chains of dealers, buyers, and middlemen communicating through encrypted messaging apps, but researchers believe the criminals trafficking cheetahs through Somaliland also smuggle humans, arms, and ivory.
Complicating efforts to protect cheetahs is Somaliland’s status as a de facto state, whose independence from Somalia is not recognized, leaving it unable to ratify international treaties. “We have officers checking at the borders, but you can’t put a guard under every tree,” said Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare, the environment minister.
Captain Zuhur Fathi Muktar, head of the anti-cheetah trafficking unit at Somaliland’s coastguard, said border officials rely on tip-offs from fishermen to catch smugglers. “They drive across the border in 4x4s and put the cubs on boats at night,” she said. “Then they hand them over to middlemen waiting out at sea.”
For decades the burgeoning cheetah trade went unnoticed by authorities, but Somaliland has started to clamp down, handing out hefty fines and jail sentences to wildlife traffickers. So has Saudi Arabia. “The Saudis are tired of being associated with this,” said Marker.
Instagram, which was once flooded with pictures of exotic pets lounging on pool sides and in the back of sports cars, has started to filter the results of searches such as “#petcheetah” while warning users that the posts may involve animal abuse.
The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is also funding a project, through the CCF, to train police fighting the wildlife trade in Somaliland, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen.
Later this year the 86 cheetahs under the CCF’s care will be moved to an 800-hectare conservation area outside Hargeisa, which will be Somaliland’s first national park and a potential source of tourist revenue.
The CCF’s Marker believes education is key to stemming both the demand for cheetahs in the Gulf and convincing Somalilanders to work with the authorities against the traffickers.
“This species is so vulnerable,” said Marker. “If we don’t stop the trade, the cheetahs will be gone.”
This message was echoed by Bandare. “I know in some places they have a culture of keeping exotic animals as pets, but they need to know they are actually killing wildlife,” said Bandare. “We are also trying to educate people here in Somaliland that, if they lose their livestock to cheetahs, they should report it to us — they should not kill the animals.”
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