x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Cheetah owners' plan runs out of steam

Wildlife expert calls a halt to efforts to raise funds for project after he fails to find anyone willing to admit to owning a cheetah in UAE.

DUBAI // A wildlife expert has given up on his controversial plan to set up an organisation for cheetah owners in the UAE after failing to get the support it needed.

Dr Mordecai Ogada said he had not managed to establish contact with wildlife collectors who owned the endangered big cats.

"I pursued many sources in zoos, government and private ones, but nobody would actually admit to me that they owned a cheetah, nor speak to me once I knew they had a cheetah," he added.

"The 'cheetah people' in the UAE seem to be a totally closed shop. Under these circumstances, I couldn't pursue any further the funding and support that I had targeted for this purpose."

A year ago, Dr Ogada called for an owners' club to be set up as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the damage caused to wild populations by the illegal trade in cubs.

He said that it would support cheetah conservation projects in Africa and organise trips to see the animals in the wild.

"The club would also provide expert advice and veterinary information on how to keep captive cheetahs as healthy and happy as possible," he added.

However, the plan came under fire from other experts, who said it would encourage smuggling as members competed to have the largest collection of cheetahs.

A month later he modified his proposal, dropping the term "club" in favour of a forum or network.

"It would be a forum, not a membership thing like a club or a privileged or exclusive thing, because a club has connotations," he said at the time. "It might be something people would aspire to join."

But even this modified plan met with opposition from some quarters, though the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund was among those who backed his proposals to educate owners.

The scrapping of the idea was welcomed by Dr Elsayed Mohamed, the programme manager at the Dubai office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

"We are against teaching people how to keep cheetahs in captivity because this would encourage people to smuggle cheetahs and keep them as pets," he said. "We are against the forming of a club or a workshop or anything to teach this, cheetahs should be kept in the wild."

A Dubai-based vet who regularly treats cheetahs went further, saying such an organisation should be outlawed.

"I think it should be illegal to have any association, any club because it would encourage people to keep cheetahs, it should be banned," said the vet, who asked not to be named.

"The genetic pool of the whole species, especially the North African cheetah, is so narrow that there is no way to rescue it. They are basically condemned to extinction in the wild."

Dr Ogada was the East African co-ordinator of a cheetah conservation programme at the time he put forward the club plan, but has since become the deputy director of a conservation group in Kenya.

The cheetah, the fastest animal over short distances on land, is listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species as being threatened with extinction, and trade in the animals is illegal except in very unusual circumstances.

Dr Ogada said the keeping of captive cheetahs occurred across the Arabian Gulf, but was particularly common in the UAE.

Dr Jörg Kinne, a pathologist who performs post-mortem examinations at Dubai's Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, said in April that cheetahs were by a long way the big cat he saw most often.

He revealed that the lab had performed post-mortems on 77 adult cheetahs, and said specimens kept in captivity were prone to a range of illnesses.

csimpson@thenational.ae