Above picture:Cheetah cubs confiscated from the illegal pet trade in the Somali region of Somaliland. The cub on the bottom had just died due to inadequate care. The other two cubs were eventually transferred to the Born Free Foundation sanctuary in Ethiopia.  © Günther Wirth.

The horrific illegal trade in cheetah cubs and other endangered wildlife fuelling the exotic pet trade

Wild Cheetah cubs with their mother in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya Picture copyright Karl-Andreas Wollert.

It was a phone call from a U.S. Marine in November 2005 that put the wheels in motion for Patricia Tricorache, assistant director for strategic communications of the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) to add ‘illegal wildlife trade’ to her title.

“He was calling from Ethiopia about two cheetah cubs that were tied with ropes outside a restaurant in Gode, a remote village in eastern Ethiopia. He was a vet and said that the cubs would die soon; he was considering buying them.

“I begged him not to buy them because it would only encourage more poaching. We frantically began calling everyone we knew in Ethiopia, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Program and the U.S. Embassy.

Scout and Patch, two 3-month old cubs reported to CCF by a US Marine soldier and confiscated from a restaurant in Gedo, Ethiopia in 2005 by the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority. Both cubs died a few months later. © Befekadu Tefera, 2005.
Scout and Patch, two 3-month old cubs reported to CCF by a US Marine soldier and confiscated from a restaurant in Gedo, Ethiopia in 2005 by the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority. Both cubs died a few months later. © Befekadu Tefera, 2005.

“A week later the EPA confiscated the three-month-old cheetah cubs and the U.S. military flew them from Gode and delivered them at the National Palace in Addis, 1000-kilometers away.”

The rescue made international news. The cubs had been tied with ropes around their necks and used by the restaurant owner to amuse clients. One cub was blind in one eye, both were severely malnourished.

“We then started hearing from people who owned cheetahs or wanted to buy or sell them. It was an eye-opener of how big the cheetah trade was.

“We organized confiscations whenever possible, and l decided to keep track of all the communications.”

It was the start of the database for monitoring the illegal trafficking in cheetahs.

By 2010, CCF had the world’s most extensive database of illegal trafficking of cheetahs.

Legal Status

Listed under Appendix 1 by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna), it is illegal to trade in cheetahs.

But it is okay to trade in captive-born cheetahs under CITES Appendix 2. South Africa, for example, supplies about 70 per cent of captive-bred cheetahs in the world.

“Breeding and raising cheetahs is very difficult and so we believe that many are from the wild. The mortality rate in captive-born cheetahs averages 25 per cent; most die within the first month,” tells Tricorache. Reports of cubs smuggled into South Africa from neighbouring countries have prompted conservationists to call for better controls that prove the origin of cheetahs traded as captive bred.

“The Horn of Africa, where we now have a network of people reporting cases, is of great concern” continues Tricorache speaking in Nairobi enroute to Addis Ababa for a cheetah stakeholder meeting where cheetah experts, relevant governments and NGOs will discuss the steps that need to be taken to reduce supply of cheetahs from the region.

While in Kenya she is meeting with the Project to End Great Ape Slavery (PEGAS – http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/magazine/The-story-of-the-traffick-in-Africa-s-great-apes/434746-2390074-6ryjdr/index.html) coordinator. Tricorache’s research shows that the dealers trafficking cheetah cubs also engage in other endangered species like the great apes.

“All the reporting shows where the trade is rife in cheetah cubs. It is from the Horn of Africa (mainly Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya). The cubs are smuggled in small fishing boats across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen– a distance of about 200 kilometers.” And not in the best of conditions.

Once in Yemen, the cubs are distributed to the Gulf States where exotic pets are a status symbol.

Crashing in the Wild

Coupled with the rapidly dwindling population of cheetahs in the wild, the spotted cats are genetically very similar. In the absence of genetic variation, populations can die off from a single disease outbreak.

Experts estimate that 300 cheetah cubs are illegally trafficked from Africa into the Arabian Peninsula per year – 300 cheetahs completely lost to conservation every year because they can never survive in the wild again.

“These are the ones that survive. 25 per cent die in the hands of the first handlers that keep them.”

Poachers wait for the cheetah mother to go hunting and then take the whole litter leaving no survivors to reproduce in a population that is already very thin.

Coalition for Cheetahs

In 2005, CCF became a founder member of the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT).

It brought together six governments and 15 NGOs to deal with the problem of illegal wildlife trafficking. Their focus was mainly on iconic species like the elephant, rhino, tigers and others.

“I kept squeaking ‘cheetah’ because nobody realized the magnitude of the problem,” says the soft-spoken woman. “Finally my data got published on the CAWT website which led to the Rangeland Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dog to work on a proposal by Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda to include illegal cheetah trafficking on CITES agenda. I call CITES the UN of the animal world.”

The hard work paid off. CoP16 (CITES Conference of the Parties) included cheetah trafficking on their agenda in Bangkok 2013.

“Finally the cheetah had a voice,” tells Tricorache.

COP16 commissioned a study on the illegal cheetah trafficking which was presented to the CITES Animal Committee meeting in Mexico 2014, Tricorache’s home country.

Subsequently, a working group was formed to look into the issue and organize a workshop to draft recommendations.

The workshop was held in Kuwait and included 11 countries from Africa and the Gulf States attended. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are countries were most cheetah pets are kept. To own exotic pets like cheetahs, chimpanzees, clouded leopards and more is a status symbol.

The recommendations were sent to Geneva, where the CITES Standing Committee met in January 2016. They listed that the demand of cheetahs as pets be reduced, that law and enforcement be improved including communications between relevant countries.

It also called for cooperation for placing confiscated cheetahs. “It’s a huge concern because any cheetah removed from the wild at such a young age can never go back to the wild. Cubs spend between 18 and 24 months with their mama to learn survival skills – like how to kill once prey has been brought down, who your enemies are and how to establish a home-range.”

It sounds very much like human babies taught by mama – learning what to eat and not to eat, where home is, who your friends are and how to stay safe.

CCF in Namibia conducts cheetah re-wilding research to reintroduce wild-born cheetahs raised in captivity to the wild. A group of four cheetah orphans observed by Tricorache did not know how to open the carcass of a wild animal – even though they were hungry.

Fighting Cyber Crime

Photo 2015-02-24: Caption: Screenshot of Instagram post offering 8 cheetah cubs for sale in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Screenshot captured by Cheetah Conservation Fund.
Photo 2015-02-24: Caption: Screenshot of Instagram post offering 8 cheetah cubs for sale in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Screenshot captured by Cheetah Conservation Fund.

A serious threat to conservation is the internet – a double-edged sword.

A month-long research on online cheetah cub advertisements by Tricorache revealed 129 dealers advertising on social media – mainly Instagram,– exotic pets like the cheetah, great apes, crocodiles, clouded leopards, pangolins and many more – all CITES-listed species.

The loophole again – the advertisements are not illegal. It is up to the country to follow up and take action.

“I began contacting other NGOs working with endangered species like PEGAS to put together a picture that can show the extent of the exotic pet trade.

One of the biggest achievements is when, among other decisions, the CITES 17th Conference of the Parties agreed to engage with internet outlets on social media to tell them that the illegal trafficking of endangered exotic animals is happening on their sites.

“This can be largely attributed to my work with PEGAS,” states the woman championing for cheetahs.

“Instagram became popular in 2012. On my research, still ongoing, I have counted 1000 cheetahs advertised for sale,” continues Tricorache. “This averages 250 cheetahs per year which matches our estimate of 300 cheetah cubs out of Africa per year.

Cheetahs in Future

The future for the spotted cat depends on the commitment of governments and wildlife organizations working together. “They have to view the trade of live animals as a problem of the same magnitude as ivory, rhino horn and tiger bones.

“If nothing is done, and with 300 cubs taken yearly from the wild in East Africa, there won’t be too many cheetahs left.

“Furthermore, once cubs become scarce in Ethiopia, Somalia and Northern Kenya, the poachers will likely move further into Kenya and beyond.

It’s serious advice if Kenya wants to maintain her position as a stronghold for cheetahs in the wild.

Biggest win for Cheetahs

Johannesburg 2016 – CITES

  1. Creation of a Cheetah Forum with government, NGO, international and national enforcement agencies i.e. all stakeholders committed to cheetah issues.
  2. Creation of cheetah tool-kit for enforcement officials on what to do when a cheetah gets confiscated such as locations to send them to or get permits if needed, listing facilities and veterinarians, and DNA sample collection.

Wildlife trafficking – the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products – is a soaring illegal market worth an estimated $10 billion a year.

Patricia Tricorache worked in a Fortune 5 company in the U.S. In her early 40s, she resigned from a successful corporate career to follow her heart. “I wanted to visit Africa and see cheetah in the wild fuelled by Joy Adamson’s Born Free l watched as a child. I had the money and went to Botswana but saw no cheetah.” The following year in Namibia she saw no cheetahs again. Returning to the U.S. she googled cheetahs in Namibia. The search led her to Earthwatch. In 2000, she signed up with CCF, founded by Dr Laurie Marker, and returned to Namibia.

Her first volunteer task with CCF was preparing cheetah scat for analysis. “It’s amazing what ‘poop’ can tell you,” she tells. “The scat provides a profile of the animal – like DNA, its health, diet and even where the cheetah is from.”

Action for Cheetahs in Kenya that is monitoring cheetahs outside protected areas in Kenya and is an off shoot of CCF, is using scat-detection dogs to search for cheetah scat to help with a national cheetah survey among other things and combat the illegal trade.