Criminal networks in Somaliland smuggle Cheetah cubs out of Africa to wealthy buyers abroad. Now the independent African state is fighting back.


Do you know these animals?

The question from the prosecutor is about the five cheetah cubs pressed together in a carrier, and held up for two defendants to see from their barred cell at the front of the courtroom. The cubs’ birdlike chirps of distress echo off the concrete floor and walls.

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
A seven-month-old cheetah in the back of an SUV hisses at a rescuer’s outstretched hand. Authorities intercepted the cub, later named Astur, before he could be sold to a smuggler. But every year scores—perhaps hundreds—of mostly very young cheetahs are trafficked out of Somaliland to Persian Gulf states to be sold as pets.

One of the two, Cabdiraxmaan Yusuf Mahdi, better known as Cabdi Xayawaan, glances at the cubs. “I’ve never seen them before,” he says with a wave of his hand.

A pause, then the second man, Maxamed Cali Guuleed, speaks: They look a little smaller, maybe, but those are the cubs from my house.

The men are on trial in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous republic in the Horn of Africa. They’re accused of taking cheetah cubs from the wild at a time when Somaliland is cracking down on the networks that have made the region a hub for trafficking of the iconic, and increasingly rare, cats.

This case began in October 2020 when police, acting on a tip, launched an operation that led to the discovery of 10 cubs in Guuleed’s home and to his and Cabdi Xayawaan’s arrests. It was the sixth interception of cheetahs in four months in Somaliland.

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, has funded Timothy Spalla’s research on cheetah trafficking since 2019 and Explorer Nichole Sobecki’s current work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Guuleed approaches the cell’s bars to address the judge. He says he’d been caring for the cubs as a favor to his new friend, Cabdi Xayawaan, whom he’d met a few months before. When Cabdi Xayawaan had asked Guuleed to store some property at his house temporarily, Guuleed had agreed.

That “property” turned out to be the cheetahs. Cabdi Xayawaan pulled up at Guuleed’s house with the cubs in woven plastic sacks in the back of his silver SUV. He gave Guuleed a few hundred dollars to buy goat meat and milk for the animals, Guuleed says. He insists that he didn’t know keeping the cubs was illegal.

“I welcomed him. He was a friend,” Guuleed says. “Cabdi Xayawaan dragged me into this. I have 18 kids and four wives.” Guuleed pleads for a second chance.

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
At the entrance to a popular restaurant in Hargeysa, Somaliland’s capital, a cheetah sits on display near a trash can and rusty paint pail. Somaliland, not recognized as an independent nation by most countries, is striving to fight the illegal wildlife trade. Still, for many Somalilanders who are struggling to get by, protecting wildlife isn’t a priority.

Cabdi Xayawaan, sitting on the bench behind Guuleed, doesn’t react. He has three past cheetah-related convictions and a reputation as Somaliland’s top smuggler of the cats. His nickname, Cabdi Xayawaan (pronounced AB-dee HI-wahn; in Somali, c is silent and x sounds like h), means “Cabdi Animal.” When he stands to give his side of things, he speaks with relaxed indifference.

Yes, I served time in prison for cheetah smuggling in the past, he says, but I’m no longer involved in the trade. The cubs belonged to Guuleed. “There’s no clear evidence I was involved.”

The judge doesn’t look convinced.

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
After intercepting Astur, the young cheetah, and a five-week-old leopard near Xariirad, members of the rescue team stop at a roadside overlook to pray. Cheetahs often change hands in Xariirad, a remote town in western Somaliland near the Ethiopian border.
How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
The rescue team, the cheetah, and the leopard make the rough drive from Xariirad to Boorama, several hours away. Cheetahs are the most commonly smuggled cats, but leopard cubs show up too. This leopard cub was from a litter a herder said he took as revenge for their mother having eaten his goats.

Fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs are left in the wild, according to recent estimates, most in southern and eastern Africa. The international commercial trade of cheetahs has been banned since 1975. Even so, from 2010 through 2019, more than 3,600 live cheetahs were for sale or sold illegally worldwide, with only about 10 percent intercepted by law enforcement, says Patricia Tricorache, a researcher with Colorado State University who’s been tracking the cheetah trade for 15 years. Taking cheetahs from the wild has been illegal in Somaliland since 1969.

Habitat loss and retaliatory killings by herders when cats prey on their livestock are the biggest threats to the cheetah’s survival, compounded by the illegal trade in cubs. Babies, often still nursing and dependent, are snatched from the wild while their mothers are hunting or when a lactating mother is tracked back to her den. On foot and by camel, car, and boat, traffickers move the cubs through the Horn of Africa and across the narrow Gulf of Aden to Yemen, a journey of 200 miles or more that can take weeks. Cubs that survive are sold as pets in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Kuwait, and other Gulf countries.

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
With an airline eye mask and a tissue in his ears to help him stay sedated, Astur undergoes an intake exam at one of the nonprofit Cheetah Conservation Fund’s (CCF) rescue centers in Hargeysa. Cubs smuggled or intercepted from criminal rings often get sick, typically because they’re subjected to long, grueling journeys and deprived of proper nutrition. Many don’t survive.

Somaliland is believed to be the center of the cheetah trade because of its easy access to the animals in Ethiopia and Kenya, its nearly 500-mile coastline, and its proximity to Yemen. Trade of all kinds, legal and illegal, has flowed across the Gulf of Aden for millennia. Today cheetah cubs, gemstones, humans, and more are smuggled out of the Horn of Africa, and guns, explosives, and ammunition are smuggled in.

The prosecutor, Cabdiraxmaan Maxamed Maxamud, springs to his feet, holding out Cabdi Xayawaan’s phone, which was confiscated after the arrests. He begins to play audio messages the defendant had recorded on his phone and sent to his contacts. One is of Cabdi Xayawaan three months earlier, telling an associate in Ethiopia to find him cheetah cubs. In another, he discusses a money transfer with a contact in Yemen. The prosecutor shows the judge photos and videos of cheetah cubs on the phone—some local, some from Ethiopia—as well as photos of weapons Cabdi Xayawaan had requested from Yemen.

My old contacts keep sending me photos, asking me to find cheetah buyers, Cabdi Xayawaan says, beginning an elaborate explanation. He admits that he sometimes forwards those photos to the Yemeni—but not because he’s trying to broker a deal, he insists. The Yemeni, Cabdi Xayawaan explains, owes him $80,000 for fuel but doesn’t have enough money to settle the debt. If the Yemeni could get some cubs and sell them, he’d have the money he owes me, Cabdi Xayawaan says. “Whenever I ask for my $80,000, [he] asks for more photos. [He] has other buyers, so if he can sell more cubs, he can get the $80,000.”

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
Asma Bile Hersi (at center), a veterinarian who volunteers with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, buys goat meat at a market in Boorama to feed Astur and the leopard. One of Somaliland’s rare female wildlife veterinarians, she estimates she’s helped save more than a dozen cheetahs, treating them in the field until they reach a rescue center in Hargeysa.

The prosecutor calls Cabdi Xayawaan a “habitual offender,” telling the judge, “He’s a criminal who has made the illegal wildlife trade part of his career.”

In November, Guuleed and Cabdi Xayawaan were found guilty. Guuleed, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to a year in prison. Cabdi Xayawaan got four years, a record sentence for an environmental crime in Somaliland. It was a milestone for Somaliland’s justice system—one that law enforcement and political leaders hoped would be enough to deter cheetah smuggling.

How Trafficked Cheetah Cubs Move From Wild Into Your Instagram Feed
Five rescued cubs are corralled in a tent in front of a heater. Just six weeks old, they require feeding every few hours. One CCF veterinarian at a time serves as the primary caretaker for very young cubs, even sleeping next to them. The organization houses and cares for all of Somaliland’s confiscated cheetahs—nearly 60 as of mid-2021.

The 10 cubs now live in a rescue center in Hargeysa run by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a nonprofit headquartered in Namibia that began working with Somaliland in 2011, when the government asked for help caring for confiscated cheetahs. By mid-2021, CCF had three facilities in Hargeysa holding nearly 60 cheetahs and one leopard. Because they were taken from the wild so young, none of these animals are equipped to survive in the wild; they must spend the rest of their lives in captivity.

The appeal of cheetahs is no mystery. As cubs, they have huge round eyes, fuzzy little bodies, and Mohawk-like ridges of fur down their backs. As adults, they’re sleek, speedy, and regal, less aggressive than lions or tigers, and they purr like overgrown house cats.

Throughout history, cheetahs have been status symbols. A painting in the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian vizier, shows foreign visitors bringing tributes to the Pharaoh Thutmose III, including a cheetah on a leash. A Renaissance fresco in a Florentine palace shows a teenage Giuliano de’ Medici riding horseback with a cheetah seated behind him. Jazz Age burlesque star and French Resistance agent Josephine Baker could be seen walking her cheetah, Chiquita—an occasional participant in her stage act—down the Champs-Élysées.

Today Instagram is the place to see and be seen with a cheetah. Many public posts of pet cheetahs are from wealthy people in Persian Gulf states who use cheetahs as prestige props. There are photos of cheetahs with Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces, cheetahs alongside sparkling swimming pools, and cheetahs posing with sumptuously dressed owners.

Instagram is also where many dealers post photos of cubs for sale, Tricorache says. (Snapchat, where posts disappear after a certain period, and TikTok, which hosts mainly short videos, are also used now, she says.) Instagram did not respond to requests for comment.

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