There are only 10,000 wild cheetahs left in the world and that number is ever dwindling. There has been a report showing there is a worrying trend for cheetahs to be sold as luxury pets and status symbols in the Middle East. This illegal wildlife trade is putting pressure on an already small population. A lot of the cheetahs are being smuggled across the Horn Of Africa, where war and famine are ripe and regulatory measures are not. “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.
Over the last century, cheetah populations have declined by around 90% as the human population has diminished their habitat. Their habitat is only 25% of what it originally was. As natural prey declines, the cheetahs have come into conflict increasingly with farmers as they kill livestock. The cheetah population crisis is made worse by the poor survival rate for young cubs; 50-75% of cubs die within the first few months from lion or hyena raids, exposure or mothers not being able to provide the young. Survival often relies on skilled mothers and each loss of a female adult spells disaster for the species. “I’m not aware of any other carnivore whose survival relies so heavily on the success of so few females,” says Sarah Durant of the Zoological Society of London.
There is a distinct subspecies in the Horn Of Africa of around 2,500 animals and these are directly supplying the market in the Gulf. From Somalia, the animals are taken to Yemen and then onto Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It has been stated that two-thirds of all cheetah cubs that are being transported are dying. “Huge number of cheetahs appear to die in transit,” said Mitchell, who is the eastern African co-ordinator of theRangewide Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs. The cubs are often taken as they can be tamed easily.
There are other subspecies such as those in Iran, numbering around 40-100 and the other sub-species in north and west Africa, which only total 250. All of these subspecies are coming under threat from the illegal wildlife trade. Trophy hunting in Southern Africa is commonplace and Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe allow for over 200 cheetahs to be killed each year for the price of $10,000-$20,000. Trophy hunting has been seriously criticised in the world media over the last few weeks as pictures of Kendall Jones flashed around the globe. It is not hard to imagine why. When the population of cheetahs is at a breaking point, where the number being taken surpasses the numbers being replaced, trophy hunting seems illogical.
A new Cites group has been tasked with monitoring the populations of cheetahs and to curb the illegal trade of cheetahs with improved laws. Qatar, Emirates and Kuwait have all acknowledged the problem in the illegal trade of cheetahs and are working to improve the situation.
The increasing demand for status symbols in the Middle East and Asia is showing how their economies are booming. Illegal wildlife trade typically results in the animals being used in medicine, but the new trend is for these products to be displayed as a status of wealth. Interpol estimates the illegal wildlife trade to be worth $10-20bn a year. Cites secretary general said in 2013: “It increasingly involves organised crime syndicates, and in some cases rebel militia. This poses a serious threat to the stability and economy of affected countries and robs them of their natural resources. They must be stopped.”
Cheetahs are the most vulnerable of all the big cats. “A rich, young man buys himself a cheetah to go with his sports car,” says Mordecai Ogada, a Kenyan wildlife biologist who has studied cheetah-human relationships and wildlife trafficking. Of course it is not only cheetahs that are sold illegally. Caraculs, lions, leopards, gazelles, kudu, bush babies, ostriches, Nile crocodiles and Ethiopian wolves have been seen on the black market and almost all come from The Horn Of Africa. Where poverty is rife it is no surprise that there is a widespread illegal trade occurring, but it is typically large and wealthy criminal organisations that are carrying out the trade.
Until all the countries involved in the illegal trade of cheetahs and other wildlife admit that it is happening, little will be done. It is a hard to ask countries that are facing war and famine to respect the wildlife and enforce laws. When there is so much human strife, the status of the cheetah seems irrelevant. However, if something is not done soon, the cheetahs will become extinct from a combination of habitat loss, illegal wildlife trade and human-cheetah conflict. It is a loss that we will not be able to recover from; the loss of one of the great cats.