Cheetah smuggling ‘threatens extinction’

The rising trade in cheetahs for luxury pets in the Middle East is helping to drive critical populations of the wild cats to extinction, according to new research. The report also reveals the gruesome toll of the trade, with up to two-thirds of the cheetah cubs being smuggled across the war-torn Horn of Africa dying en route. However, the nations at both ends of the trade have now agreed that urgent action is needed.

As pets

Cheetahs, famous as the world’s fastest land animal, have lost about 90 per cent of their population over the last century as their huge ranges in Africa and Asia have been taken over by farmland. Fewer than 10,000 remain and numbers are falling. There is an ancient tradition of using trained cheetahs as royal hunting animals in Africa but, more recently, a growing demand for status-symbol pets in the Gulf States has further reduced populations.

Cheetahs are unusually easy to tame, especially as cubs, and the report found instances in Gulf States of the big cats riding as car passengers, being walked on leashes and even being exercised on treadmills. Other evidence showed cheetahs pacing around living rooms and tussling with their owners, including young children.

This whole trade had not been appreciated by the public or by the conservation world, said Nick Mitchell, who contributed to the report for the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the first comprehensive overview of the cheetah trade. If we do not act now on the trade and land-use change, then we can be certainly losing sub-populations in a few years. Cheetahs do not breed easily in captivity and the Gulf pet trade is supplied by animals snatched from wild in the Horn of Africa. The distinct sub-species living there numbers about 2,500. The animals are trafficked by boat from Somalia to Yemen and then by road into the Gulf States including Saudi Arabia. Huge number of cheetahs appear to die in transit, said Mitchell, who is the eastern African co-ordinator of the Rangewide Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs, a joint project of the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society. For sure, we are talking about very poor people in the Horn of Africa and they are not too worried about the welfare of the animals.

Seizures of cheetah cubs often number 30 cubs, with 50-70 per cent dying en route. There is also a demand for cheetah-skin shoes in Sudan, where they are considered to confer high-status. Even more threatened is the cheetah sub-species in Iran, where just 40-100 survive and may also be endangered by the pet trade. Another seriously threatened sub-species lives in North and West Africa, numbering fewer than 250. Here the main threat is from demand for skins for clothing and for bones and body parts used in traditional medicine and magic rituals.

Mitchell said he was cautiously optimistic that a new Cites working group, set up in response to the reports revelations, would curb the illegal trade in cheetahs with better law enforcement. “The countries were told you cannot ignore it: this is being monitored,” he said.

David Morgan, head of science at Cites, said: “Middle eastern countries spoke up very clearly and this has been a positive development.”

Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait all recognised the problem. Morgan said the demand for endangered species, including big cats, was showing a trend from health to wealth, i.e. a growing emphasis on status symbols over traditional medicines. Many Asian countries still want the trade in medicinal products, but the show-off element seems to be rising. This comes with the rising economies of these countries, he said.

The Cites summit, which ended on Friday, also acted on the elephant poaching crisis. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 12:11:13 PM |

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