A new report has confirmed that the status-driven, illegal trade in live cheetahs is pushing vulnerable wild populations of the big cats to extinction. Cheetah cubs are poached from the wild and transported to the Gulf States across the Horn of Africa, and research reveals that up to 70 percent of the cubs do not survive the journey. The report, issued by CITES, has finally led the countries affected by the trade to agree to take urgent counter-measures.

Cheetah populations have declined by about 90 percent in the last century due to habitat loss, and now only an estimated 10,000 remain in the wild. The world’s fastest animal is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The remaining wild cheetahs are also divided into distinct sub-species, some only around 250 animals strong. With up to 30 cubs being poached at a time, the smuggling trade is a serious threat to the small remnant pockets of breeding animals.

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As the CITES report notes: “Cheetahs are somewhat unusual for a big cat in that they can be tamed relatively easily, especially if acquired while young, and there is an ancient tradition in Southwest and Central Africa of trained cheetahs serving as royal hunting animals, factors which inform the current demand for pet cheetahs and the trade in live animals.” In the Gulf States cheetahs are a high-status pet, and will reportedly even play well with children. The trade in wild animals has become so popular because the cats do not breed well in captivity. While the live trade does represent a shift from the medicinal use of animals to their appreciation as a status symbol, the high mortality rate of cubs on the journey counteracts any positives in the shift.

While around 88 captive-bred live cheetahs are traded annually with CITES’ approval, generally for zoos, in preparing the report most countries in East Africa flagged illegal trade as a concern in their national cheetah action plans. It is also often difficult to confirm that a legally traded animal came from a captive breeding program, rather than being poached. Of the response to the report’s release, David Morgan, head of science at CITES, said: “Middle Eastern countries spoke up very clearly and this has been a positive development. Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait all recognized the problem.” It is now hoped that a new CITES working group, set up in response to the recent findings, will work to drastically reduce the illegal trade in cheetahs through stricter law enforcement and multinational efforts.

Via The Guardian

Photos by Nic Redhead, James Temple, and Scott Akerman via Flickr