The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Hargeisa, Somaliland is taking care of 12 confiscated Sudan cheetah cubs, stolen from the wild.
The Sudan cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii) is one of four subspecies of cheetah and slightly smaller and more golden than its southern African counterpart. It is estimated 300 cubs are sold annually to the Middle East region in illegal wildlife trade as pets.
“Data indicates there are about 1 600 Sudan cheetahs left in East Africa, and approximately 300 are found in high traffic areas,” explains Dr Laurie Marker, founder of CCF. The population hardest hit by wildlife trafficking is small, severely fragmented and unprotected. Most cheetahs are found outside protected areas, or reserves that do not have proper resources to protect wildlife. The cubs are taken from the mother while she is out hunting and are then taken to Somaliland for export.
“If we stand by and do nothing, this subspecies will be extinct in eight to 10 years,” says Marker. “If governments and NGOs act now, we can try to stop poachers from removing cubs from the wild, while at the same time educating people to reduce demand.
“Despite cheetah poaching and the cheetah pet trade being outlawed in most parts of the world, they are still in high demand as status pets in certain Gulf States,” explains Marker. CCF estimates that close to 1 000 Sudan cheetahs may currently be kept in houses and compounds in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. Few survive past two years of age due to malnutrition, while even fewer survive the smuggling process, with five out of six dying before reaching the market.
The lifestyle for a pet cheetah can vary greatly. “We have seen an instance of a pet cheetah living in a one-bedroom, high-rise apartment,” says Marker.
Keeping domestic cheetah as hunting companions or pets is nothing new – India loved local cheetah populations to extinction. The fast and lightly built cheetah has long been sought-after for a royal sport called coursing, in many regions of the world. The earliest record of humans taking a pet cheetah dates to 3000 BC Sumeria. During his 49-year reign as Indian Mogul in the 16th century, Akbar the Great kept more than 39 000 wild-caught cheetahs for coursing. Cheetahs are considered easy to train, but do not breed well in captivity. In five decades of keeping cheetah, Akbar only bred one litter.
Today, the cheetah trade supports aspirational lifestyles that emulate royal and societal leaders. “While intercepting poachers and prosecuting wildlife traffickers is important, reducing demand for pet cheetahs will be the key to mitigating this threat,” explains Marker. The CCF relies on grants and seeks corporate and media partners to help reduce demand through a public awareness campaign in parts of the world where keeping cheetahs as pets is still considered glamorous.
Dr Marker started working with these cats in 1974, drawn to them by the expressive sounds they make, from barking and chirping to bubble noises and purring. International Cheetah Day is celebrated annually on 4 December.
Written by Georgina Lockwood
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