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Illegal trade pushes cheetahs to the brink of extinction

Every year about 300 cheetah cubs are snatched from their mothers and trafficked through Somaliland to wealthy buyers in the Middle East who seek exotic pets and are willing to pay up to $15,000 for a cub. Although it is a less known business than elephant ivory or rhino horn trafficking, the illegal cheetah trade is equally devastating for Africa’s most endangered large cat species.

A century ago, there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs worldwide. Today, barely 7,000 remain, and this number is dangerously diminishing due to human encroachment and habitat destruction. The cub trade significantly contributed to this decline. During the past decade, over 3,600 live cheetahs were illegally traded. 

Moreover, the smuggled cubs suffer terrible mistreatment along the trafficking routes, being fed improperly and confined to small cages, often with their legs tied up.

“If this keeps going… that kind of offtake causes the population to go extinct in a very short time,” said Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). “The next generation may never see a cheetah if this illicit trade continues,” added Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s former foreign minister.

Combating this criminal trade is challenging since it revolves around Somaliland, a self-proclaimed republic with no international recognition and one of the world’s poorest regions. Although a small coast guard unit is continuously patrolling for cheetahs, they also need to contend with other pressing issues such as human trafficking or gun runners.

In recent years, however, organizations such as Marker’s CCF have helped to rescue an increasingly large number of cheetahs. The organization is now sheltering 67 cubs across three safe houses in Somaliland’s capital Hargeisa.

Additionally, laws criminalizing the trade of cheetahs have been enforced. A high-profile trafficker was prosecuted in October 2020, and his smuggling ring was shattered.

Yet, such measures might not be enough to safeguard this endangered species. Urgent local and global efforts are needed to completely halt illegal cheetah trafficking, and to mitigate other factors that threaten cheetah populations, such as human industrial expansion through habitat destruction.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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