Human Journey

Busting a Cheetah Skin Seller : South Africa


The seller laid the skin out for me to examine

Cape Town, South Africa, December 21, 2011 — I have just returned from a 9-day trip through the remote North West Province and the Karoo in the Eastern Cape.  It is my day off and I fully intend to do nothing other than stroll around beautiful Cape Town without purpose.

In famous Greenmarket Square, while buying some gifts for friends back home, I notice a seller has something that looks like a spotted skin.  I can’t believe the sight; it lies under a pile of springbok skins, but in full view.  I ask the seller what it is and he replies with a big grin, “It’s a leopard!”

“No, this isn’t a leopard it’s a cheetah.”  “No it’s a LEOPARD.”

The seller tried to convince me this is a leopard, but after some discussion he admitted it is indeed a cheetah.

We go back and forth like this for a minute and I finally ask him to unfold the skin so I can see it better.  He places it on the cobblestones and I pick up the face and show him the tear-marks.  “You know this is a cheetah”.  “How do you know it’s a cheetah?”  He is starting to get irate, but he is still smiling.  I ask him where it’s from. “It’s a secret,” he says, and then he tries to sell it to me for 6000 rand (U.S.$740).  The shoulders are ripped and I ask who would buy such a thing in bad condition.  He tells me that traditional medicine men will come to the market and buy it from him.  “For what?”  “I’m not a bush doctor, I do not know.”

The selling without a permit of any spotted cat skin is illegal in South Africa

At this point I decide to leave and figure out what I should do.  I flirt and smile with the seller a little more and wave goodbye.  After walking a few blocks I find two officers from CCID who are greatly concerned but unsure of what steps to take. We talk to two police officers sitting at a table in the Wimpy’s fast food restaurant.  One of the officers laughs at me, the other looks with a blank stare and nothing to say on the matter.  The CCID officers realize they don’t know what to do either and decide to radio more police that could possibly help.  After more waiting, the police radio them back, refuse to show up and state that the seller is allowed to have the skin.

Clearly nothing is going to be done and my contacts with conservation will have a better idea.  I thank the officers for their genuine concern and attempt to assist, and return to my office to write some emails.

Within minutes of sending a concerned email to every person I could think to help, including the Cape Town Mayor’s office, a friend in Johannesburg messaged back to call Annie Beckhelling, the founder of Cheetah Outreach, immediately.  By 10:30 pm, Annie has a plan.  We will meet at the hotel on Greenmarket Square in the morning, she will bring her film crew from The Cheetah Diaries and alert Cape Nature as well as the proper police department for rapid response.

According to the Endangered Wildlife Trust :

“Cheetahs and leopards are both protected under our National legislation the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004 (NEMBA) and the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations of 2007 (ToPS). In accordance with this legislation permits are required to possess and sell any product or live specimen of any listed species which therefore includes cheetahs and leopard. Unfortunately this legislation is currently not implemented in the Western Cape Province.”

Morning, December 22, 2011 : Annie is a presence, arriving with a security guard, and decked head to toe in leopard print, elegant jewelry and not a hair out of place.  I feel instantly frumpy in my bush clothes and ponytail.  She sits down and takes charge, strategizes how the day will go down, what laws have been broken, where the skin most likely came from and how our on-camera interview will proceed.

Annie Beckhelling and The Cheetah Diaries film crew observe as Cape Nature reps confiscate and gather information.

After our interview, Annie and her security guard take a stroll through the market to the stall I pointed out and discover the skin is still there, out in the open.  I stay behind, to give information but not show my face so the sellers do not catch on to what is about to happen.  They find the skin right where it was yesterday and return to the hotel café where we call Cape Nature to confirm and await their arrival.

With the skin in full view, Cape Nature's Biodiversity Crime Unit talks with the stall keeper

True to African time, 4 hours roll by as we wait for Cape Nature, “30 minutes away”.  At last they arrive and thankfully the skin is still there.  The two reps approach, confiscate the skin and start taking information.  The police step in to assist in gathering information on the seller.  The owner of the stall is not there, only a shop worker.  This is the last man in the long chain of the sad journey of this cheetah’s life.  What happens now?  The stall owner’s information, home address, phone number and stall number is taken and a court hearing is expected to occur.

The latest update from Cape Nature’s Biodiversity Crime Unit as of January 11, 2012, is the stall owner claims the skin is not hers and she was selling it for someone else.  Cape Nature is in the early stages of investigating charges, continuing this investigation, and there will be regular follow up as new evidence develops.

How does one work backwards in the chain of poaching?  Is this a dangerous endeavor?  I myself do not know, and am saddened this even occurred, but proud of the hard work of a dedicated group of people to act within 36 hours during the hectic holiday season in South Africa.

Feel free to express in the comments should you like to let these government agencies know the global community is watching, concerned and taking notes on the effectiveness of implementing these existing laws.

The Cheetah Diaries will also be posting a clip from the bust on their website as well as featuring the story in Season Three.  My next post will link to their follow-ups.

The cheetah skin is confiscated and removed from the stall




More on Cheetah Outreach:

“In January 1997, founder Annie Beckhelling, launched the project with a hectare of land provided by Spier Wine Estates located in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Cheetah Outreach then set out to introduce cheetah to the South African community.”

Cheetah Outreach is continually evolving and taking on new challenges. In addition to partnering with ambassador cats to inform the public about the problems the cheetah faces, Cheetah Outreach:

  1. Continues to be involved in environmental education, offering curriculum-linked school presentations and resources as well as workshops and fellowships for teachers.
  2. Breeds Turkish Anatolian Shepherd dogs and places them on South African farms to guard livestock in an effort to reduce conflict between farmers and predators.
  3. Hand-rears cubs from the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre and raises them to be ambassadors for the species.
  4. Partners with other cheetah conservation organizations worldwide.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of Marcy Mendelson, a freelance  photographer working with NGOs involved with the conservation of cheetahs, and not necessarily the views of the National Geographic Society.

Marcy Mendelson (above) is a conservation photographer working on a project to help save the cheetah through visual storytelling and reportage of the hard work by fundraisers, farmers, NGOs and local communities. She will be traveling to Africa this coming fall and reporting to National Geographic News Watch in addition to her site, Cheetah-Watch. In the meantime, she resides in San Francisco, California and works with nonprofits like Cat Haven and Animal Ark in observation of the outreach they do with animal lovers eager to help and learn. More about Marcy’s photography and interests can be found on her website, Mendelson Images.
  • Leonora

    Well done Marcy. You should report the police officers to their station commander and called Cape Talk Radio who would take it up on air. You probably noticed that there weren’t many South Africans at the market and I think that most of the vendors are foreigners too. Thank you for showing your passion for protecting cheetahs by getting involved.

  • Cat

    Well done, Marcy and crew, hopefully that’ll discourage some from killing those beautiful animals. Can’t wait to hear more about your adventures and the progress the Cheetah cause made out there in Africa thanks to you.

  • Cat

    Well done, Marcy and crew! hopefully that’ll discourage some criminals from killing those beautiful animals. Can’t wait to hear more about your adventures and the progress the Cheetah cause made out there in Africa, thanks to you.

  • Marcy Mendelson

    Thank you, Leonora. I did not get the officers names, however chatting with Cape Talk Radio would be a good idea to get this story out to the local residents.

  • Beaty limo

    Good work , Cheetahs need to be conserved more not killing,the killer should not only be busted but also be prosecuted.

  • Emma DuBose

    Marcy, I met you at Cheetah Outreach (I’m the volunteer from TN who you gave your card to) and have been following your facebook page since then. Thank GOD you were there at this time and took the initiative to get an investigation started and bring some justice to whichever awful (and frankly stupid) person that did this. I can only imagine the rushing adrenaline you must have felt during all this, and I hope you are proud of yourself for taking action. Thanks for sharing and keep us updated.

  • Marcy Mendelson

    Thank you, Emma, it was a pleasure to meet you too! And yes you are correct about the adrenaline…

  • Matthew Bell

    Excellent story.

  • Patricia

    Good work Marcy, I wish more people would step in like you did!

  • […] have direct implications for the health of the environment, from smuggled animal parts (causing a crisis for wildlife in Africa) to bogus pharmaceuticals, which can end up poisoning people and our water […]

  • joshua a mongar

    I love to watch cheetahs and lepoards on tv shows 🙂 it just hurts to c two of the most amazing animals getting harassed and killed just for the skins. Its stupid I’m totally agains whaling, killing dolphins the cove, and hunting I’m wana be like u and try to cause an uproar. Great job! 🙂

  • Ailsa Porter

    Thanks for doing the right thing. I wouldn’t have known what to do in your situation. Quick thinking and reaction and hopefully a ‘good’ outcome! The poor cheetah!

  • Jennifer C

    Wow, impressive. I hope more people take it upon themselves to stop this when they see it.

  • Marlena

    I’m always horrified from stories like this, and I can’t understand why someone would do something like this period. I’m so glad you stood up for the cheetah and was able to get the ball rolling. I really hope they find the true culprit and that they are prosecuted. Earth needs more people like you to keep it safe. Please do keep us all updated on what happens. Anyone involved in poaching needs to be stopped. This ecosystem will not last if man keeps killing everything in sight.

  • Dana

    Awesome story! It put a smile on my face! I am glad to see people doing what’s right to conserve such beautiful and wonderful animals. If I had the means to, I would love to travel there and assist conservation efforts there! Thank you Marcy and crew for Being on the front lines of conservation and making a difference!

  • Darleen

    Wow, you are a warrior for the sake of those who have no protection from the ignorants of the world. When we come to know that there is more value in sharing the living beauty of these animals with all, rather than having a dead animals skin “gracing” someones wall, or ladies purse, coat, etc. these beautiful creatures just might have chance of survival.



  • Jaime Rodriguez

    Thank You Marcy. Big hugs and praises to you. Isn’t it sad, that the local law enforcement did not know this. Hopefully, the locals learned a good lesson and now will be on the look out.

  • Leslie Hunter

    Fantastic job Annie and Marcie and all involved to confiscate and hopefully prosecute all the way up the line. Sad, however how apathetic the local police force were.

  • Juniper

    Thank you for not giving up when the first authorities you found did not seem to know what to do. I’ve been to that market and would hate to see the products of poaching.

  • Jessica Umansky

    I am a masters student in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation and before this I volunteered at a small animal refuge near Jeffry’s bay. There we spent countless hours helping two abandoned cheetah cubs, hoping that one day they would breed and return to the wild. It saddens me greatly to think that there are people who dedicate their lives to helping the cause, and all it takes, is one idiot who buys a skin to ruin the work conservationist take on so seriously. Expose poachers and do something about this! post on your facebook, voice your concern…

  • Anita Walberg

    I am an avid Big Cat lover. In fact, my livingroom is full of pictures of them. Cheetahs happen to be my favorite. Online I am Ladycheetah. Thank you so much for what you did. More people need to care as much as we do. I wish I could go to Africa. I dream of it! I want to help all our kitties, big and small.

  • Lucia Kaiser

    Bravo for your tenacious efforts to get justice for this poor cheetah. The disregard for disappearing big cats is appalling, and actions such as those taken by you are necessary on all fronts to stop the slaughter of these beautiful animals. I am very interested in the results of this case and others like it.

  • Marcy Mendelson

    Thank you for the support & kind words everyone. Share this story and please continue to read Nat Geo News Watch & There will be updates and other stories about big cat conservation.

    *And to answer one reader’s question as to whether I’d have taken action if the skin was from a leopard, YES.

  • […] discussions on the future plans of range-wide conservation initiatives.  For the full story visit Busting a Cheetah Skin Seller.  (I have requested more information on the case in recent months from Cape Nature’s […]

  • Annika Vieira

    Interfering with someone’s livelihood is indeed dangerous, and setting them up for arrest and investigation even more dangerous! Impressive story about doing what’s right, no matter the consequences. I disappointed myself when I did nothing yesterday when passing a stall in a local market in Dar es Salaam selling not one but two highly endangered hawksbill sea turtle shells (aka torrtoise shell). Thanks for doing what’s right, even if the outcome is unknown. And happy to learn you were able to hand over to Cheetah Outreach and Cape Nature for their diligent follow-up.

  • Kaitlyn

    These pics are amazing,i love how they just came off the cheetah.

  • […] seen in my ongoing reports on National Geographic News Watch & click here for Interview with Annie Beckhelling during the […]

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