Dying in a Living Room: The Illegal Live Cheetah Trade

Cheetah cubs trade Somaliland
Cheetah cubs rescued from the trade in Somaliland. Only one of the three survived beyond a few days after the photograph was taken. (Photograph by Günther Wirth & Janice Bowdery)

Wildlife trafficking has become one of the major conservation issues of our time and the sinister illegal trade in cheetahs is increasingly coming to the attention of conservationists. Unlike leopards, the main trade in cheetahs is not a consequence of the desire for beautiful spotted skins to decorate the house, nor is it a response to the demand for traditional medicines in Asia, as is often the case with tigers and lions. Instead it belongs to the exotic, wild animal pet trade.

Those words ‘wild animal’ and ‘pet’ already point to one major issue at stake here; wild animals like cheetahs cannot rationally be kept to their dying days, as is sometimes reported, within the confines of someone’s living room. Cheetahs in particular need more space than almost any other terrestrial carnivore, so confinement within a home represents the most unnatural restriction.

More significantly, the species is listed by the IUCN Red List as vulnerable. Its vulnerability to extinction was already clear due to threats including the loss and fragmentation of their habitat, persecution by livestock owners, and reduction in their prey species, so the illegal wildlife trade compounds an existing list of troubles for the cheetah.

The low density at which the species naturally occurs means that the removal of a few individuals from the wild could have serious consequences for the continued existence of local cheetah populations. The Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs (RWCP) fears that large parts of northeast Africa currently targeted for supplying the live trade—places like Somalia, eastern Ethiopia and South Sudan—coincide with areas in which cheetah numbers are already extremely low.

cheetah cub Yemen
A cheetah cub kept in a living room while awaiting sale in Yemen.
(Photograph by Joe Sheffer)

The Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking (CAWT) publish figures collected by the Cheetah Conservation Fund that show 70 cheetahs were known to have been trafficked or confiscated in transit within a single year. The majority of these are young cubs and in most of the known cases they have died in transit.

Of the 70 known cases, 54 were from Somaliland, and that is a reflection of the strategic location of the area—it facilitates the relatively easy shipment of live cargo to the major market, the Middle East. Yemen, for example, lies less than 40 kilometers across the sea from both Djibouti and Eritrea, and it is increasingly featured in reports of trafficking big cats on to other countries of the region.

What Is Being Done About It?

It’s vital to gain broad international agreement on the significance of the cheetah trade because tackling this menace requires cooperation at, and across, national borders. Ethiopia has led the way (alongside collaborators Uganda and Kenya) in bringing the world’s attention to the issue via CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Consequently CITES has commissioned a study of the illegal trade in cheetahs that has just been published; this should result in an agreement about the scale of the trade and an understanding of its routes and methods of operation. There is hope that this will enable the regions of greatest concern with support and address some of the legal loop-holes.

Cheetahs rescued Tanzania cage
Cheetahs rescued by Tanzanian authorities from a private house in the town of Arusha. (Photograph by Rose Mosha)

Efforts at the national scale are also underway. The United Arab Emirates stepped up to the challenge last year with a ruling that prohibits the issuing of permits to import various wild animals, including cheetahs, for personal or commercial use. This is a fantastic step that we hope can be imitated by neighbouring countries.

One current example of efforts led by African governments comes from the Tanzania Carnivore Project of the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI)—they are collaborating with TRAFFIC to build the capacity of customs officials in detecting and combating the international trade in carnivores.

Cheetah Serengeti landscape
Really at home, in the wild. Here, a cheetah scans the spacious landscape of the Serengeti. (Photograph by Helen O’Neill)

Several non-governmental organisations are working through different avenues to address this intolerable trade. The Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs is working closely with government authorities across the continent to increase capacity to monitor and fight the trade. Meanwhile the Cheetah Conservation Fund documents and campaigns to raise awareness on the cheetah trade. And in Ethiopia, the Born Free Foundation is working closely with the government to increase the understanding of and adherence to the wildlife trafficking laws while also providing an essential sanctuary to cheetahs confiscated from traders. Other organisations, like the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa, keep traders on their toes by following up on the cases that come to light.

Not to be forgotten is the work of some notable and irrepressible individuals who are willing to go the extra mile to disrupt the trade and provide care for the confiscated wildlife. We are fighting the trade from many angles, but the task is formidable and requires broad collaboration and significant resources.

What You Can Do to Help:

1) Report any cases of cheetahs being traded or being kept in private captivity to either the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs (RWCP) or to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).

2) Contact us to donate directly to the cause of fighting the illegal cheetah trade.

For more information please contact cheetah@wcs.org,”like” us on Facebook under ‘Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and Wild Dog,’ and visit our website at www.cheetahandwilddog.org.

The first decade of Nick’s career was spent as an archaeologist with an environmental bias before progressing on to the environment with an historical bias for his PhD. Human disturbance of the environment and human-wildlife conflict are major features of both his past and current work. He now works as the Eastern Africa Coordinator of the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs and the scope of his work reaches from Tanzania in the south up to, and including, the Horn of Africa. His journey in conservation has led him from the confines of his native England to live in Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Germany and Tanzania where he currently lives on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
  • Rocky chaudhry

    save all animals.

  • Gaye Foster

    I am concerned that American households & others,seem to able to have animals that must have come from Africa,Asia etc.In Australia we would never think it was our right to do so,nor would our Government allow us to do so.The market needs to be removed.

  • Paul

    There are several million domestic cats and dogs in the world. Cheetahs meanwhile, are illegal to own and quite endangered. The right thing to do is allow a limited amount of private sale & trade of these rare animals in order to bring their numbers up.

  • Alex Keir

    We are supposed to be stewards of the planet, not exploiters. Education is the key – everywhere people need to be shown how beautiful, how fragile, how essential the environment is to all of us.

  • Brenna

    Why would anyone want to keep a wild animal captive in their home as a pet? There are many different animals that are meant to live in a home– cheetahs are not one of them!

  • Nick Mitchell

    Thanks for the comments. Paul you comment that “right thing to do is allow a limited amount of private sale & trade of these rare animals in order to bring their numbers up” – actually trade is not required for cheetah conservation. Managing small fenced populations in South Africa’s metapopulation requires artificial movement and exchange of cheetahs to maintain gene flow, but the survival of the species requires only that cheetah habitat is maintained on sufficient scale and with adequate prey numbers. It’s not too late for that and wise planning of land use can provide it; this is the ultimate challenge we’re facing.

  • Lindsay

    I’m writing a paper on cheetahs as exotic pets and the impact this has on their wild counterparts. I’m interested in how the pet trade threatens their numbers but also how the portrayal of these predators as a pet harms conservation efforts in terms of peoples attitudes ie. when people view them as status symbols or entertainment rather than predators that have evolved to fill a specific niche in the ecosystem. Do you recommend any sources (beyond those listed here), articles, studies, etc.?

  • soula christos

    Trading in wildlife puts the species at risk. It creates demand, which sees the unscrupulous stealing of animals from the wild, often killing parents of the abducted animals. Captive breeding of animals removes the wildlife aspect of it,, these become domestic animals and does not save the wildlife species

  • Salat Richard

    Let’s us coperrate to be agood stewards of our wildlife.N/B. ido request the concern {bodies} to fund any person willing to voluntier for wildlife conservancy and rescue…

  • Nick Mitchell

    Apologies Lindsay, I’m sure this is now too late for your purposes but
    The best, most up-to-date (2014) and most comprehensive work is the CITES-authorized study found here http://www.cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/com/ac/27/E-AC27-18.pdf it has all the known newspaper sources and refereneces at the end.
    An excellent journalistic effort is from AlJazeera here http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2013/07/20137221059376558.html relating specifically to Yemen.
    Another fair general overview of the cheetah trade is in the pages of National Geographic which can be found here: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/11/cheetahs/smith-text
    I’d be happy to know if you ever publish anything on the subject – best of luck.

  • Christine Wilding

    I think they should really stop doing this! They should know they’re going extinct. May, 8, 2015.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media