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.
Cheetahs, famous as the world’s fastest land animal, have lost about 90% 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% 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.
The largest surviving cheetah population – about 6200 – is in Southern Africa. Trophy hunting, costing ,000-,000 (£6,000-£12,000) per animal, is allowed in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, totalling over 200 kills per year. In South Africa, about 90 live captive-bred cheetahs are exported a year to zoos, although conservationists worry that illegal animals could be passed off as these legally-traded cheetahs.
. The South African government says it is moving towards creating cheetah stud books to enable DNA profiling.
Mitchell said he was “cautiously optimistic” that a new Cites working group, set up in reponse to the report’s 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”, ie a growing emphasis on status symbols over traditional medicines. “Many Asian countries still want the trade in medicinal products, but the more show-off element seems to be rising,” he said. “It comes with the rising economies of these countries and that drives up demand. But there are so very few animals left in the wild that they cannot afford a big rise in demand.”
The recent Cites summit, which ended on Friday in Switzerland, also acted on the elephant poaching crisis. “Thailand has been given a last warning.” Morgan said. “They have been put on notice that they have to put their house in order or there will be consequences.” Unless it acts on its domestic ivory trade, a key part of the ivory chain from Africa to China, Thailand will be barred from trade in all wildlife covered by the international Cites agreement, including the lucrative orchid and cacti trades.
Interpol estimates the illegal wildlife trade to be worth -20bn a year, the fourth most lucrative black market after drugs, people and arms smuggling. It is already at a scale where it harms people and nations, especially in Africa, with Cites secretary general John Scanlon telling the Guardian 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.”
He said: “The UN security council have linked the Lord’s Resistance Army to ivory smuggling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while al-Qaida’s al-Shabaab group has been linked to illegal ivory in Somalia.”
• This article was amended on 15 July 2014. It originally called the Wildlife Conservation Society the Wildlife Conservation Fund. This has been corrected.
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