x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Cheetah advocate takes a second run at owners' group

An East African conservationist has revised his calls to start a group for cheetah owners in the UAE.

A recovering cheetah at Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre after being found in May this year wandering the capital's streets.
A recovering cheetah at Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre after being found in May this year wandering the capital's streets.

DUBAI // The conservationist who put forward a controversial plan to start a group for cheetah owners in the UAE has refined his plan amid opposition from other wildlife experts.

Kenya-based Dr Mordecai Ogada visited the UAE last week and was seeking advice on how to proceed with the proposal during a series of meetings with government officials and animal specialists.

He now says he does not wish to start a cheetah club, but rather a forum or a network of cheetah owners that would receive advice from veterinarians on how to care for the big cats.

"I feel it's the only viable way to address what is a bad situation," Dr Ogada said. "It would be a forum, not a membership thing like a club or a privileged or exclusive thing, because a club has connotations, it might be something people would aspire to join.

"It would be a forum or network where people could share information. If I came here and I wanted to give a talk on cheetah conservation in the Serengeti, then these are people I could address about these things."

He believes that if forum members were taught how to look after their animals properly, peer pressure would make cruel practices such as the removal of claws less common.

"There is information that people need to have, like what do you feed a cheetah? Do you need to vaccinate a cheetah? Cheetah owners right now don't have anyone to pick up the phone and call, or an information website."

In addition to setting up a database of captive cheetahs and their owners, he would like to see all the animals fitted with microchip implants carrying identification information. Then, if an animal were found wandering the streets - as happened in Abu Dhabi in May - its owner could easily be traced.

Dr Ogada, the East African co-ordinator of a cheetah conservation programme, said the big cats were a popular choice among wildlife collectors in the UAE, and the smuggling of cubs was widespread across the Gulf. He said the forum would raise awareness of conservation initiatives and the effect of the illegal trade on wild populations.

"Cheetahs have become something of a status symbol," he said. "Here in the UAE, a cub would cost the equivalent of US$11,000 (Dh40,400). The person who captured the cub in Africa might get a quarter of that, which is very good money for something that is essentially free, he didn't buy it. It's the contrast between wealth at one end and poverty at the other that drives this trade."

After Dr Ogada put forward the idea of a club for owners, the Dubai-based wildlife expert Dr Reza Khan criticised the plan, saying it would encourage more people to keep cheetahs and lead to an increase in the illegal trade in cubs. The International Fund for Animal Welfare also said a club would encourage the keeping of pet cheetahs.

However, Ayesha Kelaif, an Emirati who runs the Dubai Animal Rescue Centre at Al Barsha, backed Dr Ogada's proposals to educate owners, as did the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund. "The reaction was a good thing," Dr Ogada said. "We have a problem because we are not having these conversations, so having these conversations and debates is a good thing. In an ideal world I wouldn't want anyone to have a pet cheetah.

"But I think the reality we need to work from is that cheetahs that have been taken into captivity cannot be returned to the wild, they cannot learn hunting or survival skills."

However, Dr Khan, a member of the World Commission on Protected Areas, said he still opposed Dr Ogada's plan, even in its revised form. He said information about cheetahs was already available online and in animal-related television shows, and added: "Why do we need a forum? I do not subscribe to his views.

"Why in the world would you, I or anybody else capture or possess a cheetah or, for that matter, any other wild animal species? If such wild animals are confiscated or donated to somebody he or she should hand them over to a zoo, captive breeding centre or research centre managed by zoologists, wildlife biologists and/or veterinarians, not by novices."

csimpson@thenational.ae