Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 January 2020

We cannot stand idly by while cheetahs are hunted to extinction

Wild cheetahs being sold as pets in the Gulf states is driving a dramatic decline in their population in the wild, experts warn.
An adolescent cheetah recovers at Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre. Trade in the species is decimating wild populations. Photo: Andrew Henderson / The National
An adolescent cheetah recovers at Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre. Trade in the species is decimating wild populations. Photo: Andrew Henderson / The National

Despite being the world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah is rapidly losing the race against the poachers and traffickers. Over the last century, the population of this emblematic member of the big cat family has dropped 90 per cent and much of its territory in Africa has been turned over to farming. Fewer than 10,000 cheetahs are left in the wild, including a small population in Iran. Their numbers continue to slide.

Today’s demand for pet cheetahs in the Middle East is fuelling a calamitous drop in its numbers in the wild. Cubs are poached in the Horn of Africa, and then shipped from Somalia to Yemen by boat before being driven into the Gulf states by road. It is thought that up to 50 to 70 per cent of the cubs die along the route. Given that as many as 90 per cent of all cubs are killed by predators in the wild, it is easy to appreciate the catastrophic damage that this illegal trade has on cheetah numbers.

Thankfully, countries are starting to organise. Last year, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda called on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) to investigate the scale of the trade and its many trafficking routes. The reply from Cites was delivered in a report published this July. It made for depressing reading: the greatest impact of this trade has been on the East African cheetah population, and it is being driven by the demand for exotic pets across the Arabian peninsula. According to Cites, the trade has been continuing for at least 15 years.

Determining this illicit trade’s extent is an important start, but it is only the first step on a long road. A truly global response is needed. One that binds together the countries where the cheetah is poached, the countries where the demand exists and just about every nation in between.

Law enforcement officers in East Africa can play a key role, but they need thorough training and increased resources. Enforcement efforts need to be stepped up and agencies in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula need to close the circle through joint operations and the sharing of information on traffickers and routes. To further reinforce these activities, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s maritime crime programme will also seek to check wildlife trafficking by sea.

The UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) is an effective tool capable of underpinning close cooperation between the two regions. Trafficking in wild cheetahs and other animals and their body parts should be a serious crime, one that warrants the full attention of national legal systems. Both traffickers and those who buy these animals illegally must be aware that they face significant penalties. UNTOC can also be used for conducting specific investigations, developing mutual legal assistance among countries and extraditing suspects.

Criminals are motivated by greed and profit. It is a weakness that should be exploited. Profits may be used to further this illegal trade, but they may also be ploughed back into other crimes such as human trafficking. Our activities must be founded on sound research and working across countries, regions, time zones and banking systems. Spreadsheets, transactions and financial databases are simply part of the overall trafficking landscape where our vigilance is needed.

The cheetah is a living symbol of speed, and displays amazing feats of acceleration to capture prey, but it cannot elude the poacher. If we are to succeed against the criminals, we must display similar predatory skills in identifying the criminal networks, rolling up the trafficking routes and seizing assets. Just like the cheetah, speed, stamina and agility are essential for success.

Yury Fedotov is executive director at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

Updated: August 27, 2014 04:00 AM