DUBAI // It is the first plane journey for six rare North African cheetahs, and it will be spent in wooden cages at the back of the plane.
The animals, raised as part of a private collection in Dubai, were leaving for Ireland early today as part of a conservation effort.
The four females and two males were born in captivity at the Wadi Al Safa Wildlife Centre, owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and UAE Minister of Finance.
With 31 captive-bred cheetahs and other rare animals, the collection is a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. It has been part of efforts to breed the North African cheetah, the numbers of which have declined steadily in the wild.
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At 2.30am today, the cheetahs were to have boarded an Emirates Airline flight to London. Each animal would be in a wooden box, about 86cm tall and large enough to turn around in.
From London, the cheetahs are to continue to the Fota Wildlife Park in Cork.
"They will spend about 24 hours travelling," said Declan O'Donovan, the director of wildlife services at Wadi Al Safa.
This month, two more animals from the collection are heading to Qatar and another to the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah.
The fastest mammal on Earth, the cheetah has been one of the big cats worst affected by human sprawl. Cheetahs used to live all over Africa and in vast parts of Asia, but the known cheetah population is not much greater than 7,000 today.
The last wild cheetah in Arabia was shot in Oman in 1977. The region's only remnant population is in Iran, and that is in jeopardy because the numbers are too small to provide enough genetic diversity for healthy future growth.
While conservation experts want to eventually see cheetahs back roaming in the wild, the best short-term strategy is to breed them in captivity and ensure their genetic health and diversity, Mr O'Donovan said.
Private collections in the UAE and other parts of the Gulf have long been criticised by environmentalists as encouraging the illegal wildlife trade and poaching.
Last week, a stray cheetah was captured on the streets of Abu Dhabi. Experts suspected the animal had been held illegally in a home.
But some centres in the UAE have been doing valuable conservation work, Mr O'Donovan said.
Since 2005, Wadi Al Safa has given 15 animals to zoos in the UK and France.
It is the third such facility in the country to breed the North African cheetah. The Sheikh Butti Bin Juma Al Maktoum Wildlife Centre in Dubai and the Sharjah breeding centre have similar programmes.
"Animals in captivity are not all bad," Mr O'Donovan said. "There is some good work being done here in collections that do have animals."
But Mr O'Donovan said keeping cheetahs in captivity was not a job for anyone but specialists.
The animals are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and trading them is illegal. They are only allowed to be trdaed for purposes of scientific research.
"Unfortunately, there was a lot of illegal trading here in the late 1990s and early 2000," Mr O'Donovan said.
The situation has improved but underground trade is still there.
"There is a certain allure to exotics [animals]," Mr O'Donovan said. "I would say, don't do it."