Loving a Species to Death


CCF Blog

By now, we’ve all seen the photos on Instagram and Facebook. Wealthy, young owners showing off their glamorous pet cheetahs. Big spotted cats strutting on diamond-studded leashes and riding in the front seat of luxury vehicles. Because the cheetah is light, built for speed and has a flight versus fight instinct, it has long been a sought-after companion for humans in multiple regions of the world. Plus, cheetah cubs have tiny bodies with oversized heads, fluffy mantles and cute little faces. They are incredibly adorable, yes – I will be the first to agree – but cheetahs are not pets, and cubs need to remain in the wild to survive.

This situation presents a conundrum. If the people who have pet cheetahs are truly animal lovers, would they still want to cuddle and nuzzle one if they knew the harm being done? Would they still insist on loving a species to death?

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime lists wildlife trafficking as one of the top five transnational crimes. Despite trade in wildlife species products being regulated by both international and national laws, the illegal trade is estimated to be worth between $50-150 billion USD annually, and it impacts many species. Cheetahs, listed as CITES Appendix 1 species, are removed from the wild to be sold as pets and for their body parts.

While cheetahs are not poached at the same high rates as elephants and rhinoceros, an estimated 300 cheetah cubs are being smuggled out of the continent each year to supply the illegal pet trade, and many, many more die before being shipped. In areas of East Africa most affected by trafficking (Ethiopia and northern Kenya), the entire adult wild cheetah population is estimated at only 300 individuals. Trafficking is decimating cheetahs here and is a serious conservation threat.

Tracing a route from the Horn of Africa into the Arabian Peninsula, the port of Kismayo in Somalia, a known smuggling hub, is believed to be where much of the illegal transport involving cheetahs originates, with most coming in through Yemen on the other side of the Gulf of Aden. Poaching occurs primarily in Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya, with Somaliland reporting the most cases. The smaller, fragmented cheetah populations living outside protected areas in these countries are impacted most. These cheetah populations are already vulnerable due to their small size, lack of genetic diversity and lack of conservation measures to mitigate conflict and other threats.

Harm to poached cubs

Our Cheetah Conservation Fund research indicates cheetah cubs are poached while their mothers are out hunting. An estimated five out of six cubs poached will die before being sold into the pet trade. Cheetahs that survive long enough to become a pet most likely will not make it beyond two years of age, and all will eventually become sick or disabled and die prematurely. This is due to Improper diet, poor environment and lack of proper veterinary care, and exacerbated by being taken from their mothers too early in life.

Cheetahs are delicate creatures, and if their needs are not met, a myriad of debilitating health problems can result, including cheetah myelopathy, a term used to describe ataxia, hind limb paralysis and pareses caused by degenerative lesions on the spinal cord. Cheetah myelopathy can lead to vision loss, muscle weakness, stiffness, spasms, and loss of coordination, loss of sensation, pain and changes in bladder and bowel function. Most cases are fatal. Owners of pet cheetahs suffering from this condition abandon them, with no sanctuary or other healthcare facility in the community equipped to manage the animal. Sometimes, they are let loose in suburban or rural areas. Injured and sick, these cheetahs are unable to hunt wild prey, so they may turn to domestic pets and become a neighborhood menace.

Knowing all this… Why would people still want to keep cheetahs at pets? The answer mystifies, because despite this information being made available through ample media stories and websites on the Internet like ours, they still do.

Today, despite cheetah poaching and the cheetah pet trade being outlawed in most parts of the world, they are still very much in high demand as status pets in the Gulf States. CCF estimates that close to 1,000 cheetahs may have been kept in houses and compounds in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar at different times over the past decade, each costing thousands of dollars and few surviving to adulthood. Evidence suggests most of these cheetahs were illegally sourced from nations in the Horn of Africa.

I first became actively involved with issues involving the illegal taking of live animals in November 2005, when CCF staff arranged for the confiscation of two extremely unhealthy cheetah cubs held with ropes outside a restaurant in Ethiopia. Since then, our organization has been monitoring cheetah trafficking and coordinating with authorities whenever possible. We train veterinarians in the UAE to care for cheetahs, and we collect and bank genetic samples from cheetahs in the UAE and from the Horn of Africa nations, under the proper CITES permits, to build a database that will help identify their geographic origin. These samples are analyzed and stored at CCF’s conservation genetics laboratory in Namibia.

In 2011, we began working with authorities in Somaliland to address cheetah trafficking. Since then, the Ministry of Environment and Rural Development (MOERD) has intercepted and recovered 53 cheetahs from the illegal pet trade, either by surrender or confiscation. CCF transferred these confiscated cheetahs to rescue facilities in neighboring Ethiopia and Djibouti until 2017, when we set up a temporary shelter to care for confiscated animals in Hargeisa. On August 28, 2018, Somaliland courts achieved a landmark victory when two subjects charged with cheetah trafficking were sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of U.S.$300 – their first successful conviction of cheetah smugglers.

Currently there are 14 cheetahs at the CCF ‘safe house’ in Hargeisa. Despite this being an ad hoc shelter, all efforts are being made to provide them with the very best care. In September 2018, I travelled there from Namibia to administer veterinary care to two groups of recently intercepted cubs. Two were only weeks old, and they were severely malnourished and dehydrated. These baby cubs were stolen from their mother in a remote region of the country and held by villagers in retaliation for livestock predation.

I nursed the two cubs for 24 hours around the clock, keeping them quarantined from the other cheetahs in my hotel room, which I converted into an improvised veterinary clinic. For two days, I gave the cubs fluids, checked vitals and monitored fecal discharge. I did not sleep. After two days, both showed signs of improvement. But as is the case so many times with cheetah cubs this small, one of them suddenly crashed. A human doctor named Matt Jones from the Edna Adan Hospital in Hargeisa responded to our emergency call with oxygen, and we attempted to revive the cub for two hours. Despite our efforts, the cub passed.

Although I have four decades of experience hand-raising sick and orphaned cheetah cubs, and sometimes losing them, this experience impacted me deeply. I performed a necropsy on the cub that died, as I have done many times before. I focused my attention on the surviving cub that I named “Light as a Feather’ — because she weighed just ounces and fit in the palm of my hand when we met – and wrapped her in a blanket on my lap. Despite my attempt to remain calm, I could feel my anger boiling up.

Taking individuals from the wild, whether in retaliation for predation or to eliminate a perceived threat, or to traffic in the illegal pet trade in the Middle East, will lead to the species demise. Taking baby animals from their mothers when they are only weeks old is also just unbelievably cruel! As an animal lover as well as a scientist, is heart-breaking to hold a tiny, helpless cheetah cub as it struggles for its last breath.

Poaching and trafficking must be stopped, and we must educate people to reduce demand. People see music videos that depict beautiful women with pet cheetahs and they view having a pet cheetah as an aspirational lifestyle choice. What they are not considering is what happens to the other five cubs. Once taken, a poached cub will likely die within three weeks due to dehydration and malnutrition. If it survives to three months and is sold into the trade, chances are it will die within two years anyway from early lack of care and improper diet.

Since I left on September 13, three more baby cheetah cubs were confiscated by Somaliland Police and the Somaliland MOERD and placed at the safe house. Approximately three-weeks-old and extremely malnourished and dehydrated, two cubs died within 10 days. They were destined for the illegal pet trade in the Arabian Peninsula, across the Gulf of Aden.

While intercepting poachers and prosecuting wildlife traffickers is important, reducing demand for pet cheetahs will be the key to mitigating this threat. Buyers may be willing to pay up to $15,000 USD, but would they still want a pet cheetah if they knew how many cubs died to get theirs?

As a conservationist committed to creating a long-term future for cheetahs on Earth, I am asking humans to stop taking cubs from the wild to become pets. I ask authorities in countries where cheetahs are popular pets to act to make this practice not only illegal, but socially unacceptable. I implore Hollywood artists and social media influencers to stop glamourizing cheetahs as pets.

Every animal we lose puts us one step closer to losing this species permanently. We must stop taking our cheetahs from the wild to become pets, before we love species to death.