So­ma­lia’s chee­tah smug­gling ring

Africa’s big cats are be­ing traf­ficked to rich house­holds in the Mid­dle East who want ‘some­thing more ex­otic’

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Louise Red­vers

Cam­paign­ers are call­ing for ur­gent cross- bor­der ac­tion to halt the il­le­gal traf­fick­ing of chee­tah cubs from the Horn of Africa into wealthy Gulf states, where the an­i­mals are kept as pets and traded and pa­raded on so­cial me­dia sites.

In the past two months, 11 chee­tah cubs have been res­cued in three raids by the au­thor­i­ties in So­ma­liland, an au­tonomous re­gion in­side So­ma­lia, which has be­come a main traf­fick­ing route for chee­tahs out of East Africa into the Mid­dle East.

Tech­nol­ogy firms have made pub­lic com­mit­ments to crack down on their sites be­ing used by il­le­gal wildlife traders, but the on­line plat­forms re­main awash with ad­verts for en­dan­gered an­i­mals, in­clud­ing chee­tahs.

“The ris­ing trade in chee­tahs and other an­i­mals for lux­ury pets in the Mid­dle East is help­ing to drive crit­i­cal pop­u­la­tions of wildlife to ex­tinc­tion in So­ma­liland and North and East Africa,” said Shukri Is­mail, So­ma­liland’s en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter.

The res­cued chee­tahs are be­ing cared for by So­ma­liland vets and the Chee­tah Con­ser­va­tion Fund (CCF), a Namib­ian re­search and lobby in­sti­tu­tion, which has 14 cubs in a tem­po­rary “safe house” in the cap­i­tal, Hargeisa.

Since the CCF be­gan work­ing with the So­ma­liland gov­ern­ment in 2011, it has in­ter­cepted more than 50 at­tempts to traf­fic chee­tahs.

But, said the CCF’s as­sis­tant direc­tor of Il­le­gal Wildlife Trade, Pa­tri­cia Tri­co­rache: “We be­lieve as many as 300 chee­tahs are smug­gled from Africa into the Mid­dle East ev­ery year.”

She said the an­i­mals are usu­ally smug­gled across the Gulf of Aden to Ye­men and then taken to Saudi Ara­bia and be­yond.

Lux­ury pets

In the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE), many own­ers of big cats and pri­mates post pic­tures of them­selves and their an­i­mals on so­cial me­dia sites, some­times pos­ing with celebri­ties. In Au­gust this year, for ex­am­ple, a newly opened café in an up­mar­ket sub­urb of Dubai shared videos on its In­sta­gram feed of a chee­tah eat­ing meat off its floor af­ter a cus­tomer brought the an­i­mal in­side.

Tim Hus­band, the tech­ni­cal direc­tor at the new Dubai Sa­fari Park, es­ti­mates there are as many 3000 big cats kept do­mes­ti­cally in the UAE. “It’s a sta­tus thing,” he said. “Peo­ple al­ready have a fast car so they want some­thing else, some­thing more ex­otic.”

The im­ages posted by the UAE’s su­per-rich could not be fur­ther away from the harsh re­al­ity of the cubs’ cap­ture by traf­fick­ers, the grim con­di­tions of their jour­neys and their slim chance of long-term sur­vival.

Daniel Stiles, a Kenya-based in­de­pen­dent wildlife con­sul­tant, said more needed to be done to dis­cour­age peo­ple from keep­ing pets like chee­tahs. “You need to stop the de­mand and that means ad­dress­ing cul­tural as­pects,” he said. “An­i­mals like chee­tahs are sta­tus sym­bols and as long as they are re­garded as such, peo­ple will still want to have them.”

The UAE is tak­ing steps to clamp down on ex­otic pets. Since Jan­uary last year it has been il­le­gal to own, breed and trade chee­tahs and other an­i­mals, in­clud­ing snakes and pri­mates. Fed­eral Law 22 is a re­gional first and has been widely praised by an­i­mal wel­fare cam­paign­ers.

Hiba Al She­hhi, act­ing direc­tor of bio­di­ver­sity at the UAE’s min­istry of cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­ment, said that “crack­ing down on the il­licit wildlife trade is one of the gov­ern­ment’s top pri­or­i­ties” and that it had been part­ner­ing in aware­ness cam­paigns in schools, shop­ping malls and air­ports in a bid to change at­ti­tudes to­wards ex­otic pets.

Dubai’s cus­toms of­fi­cers have re­ceived train­ing and de­tec­tion equip­ment to help them to spot wild an­i­mals be­ing smug­gled into the coun­try.

Al She­hhi said that UAE bor­der of­fi­cers seized 11 chee­tahs (out of a to­tal of 21 big cats) be­tween 2013 and 2017 and that the min­istry was de­vel­op­ing an “in­te­grated sys­tem for re­port­ing and trac­ing wildlife vi­o­la­tion cases”.

Thriv­ing black mar­ket

It is still pos­si­ble — and le­gal — to get a pri­vate zoo li­cence in the UAE, and a num­ber of wealthy fam­i­lies con­tinue to keep ex­otic pets. And, de­spite the new law and its threat of stiff fines (up to R1.9-mil­lion) and im­pris­on­ment, a thriv­ing on­line mar­ket for big cats and other now-banned an­i­mals, such as mon­keys, snakes and crocodiles, con­tin­ues.

A search re­vealed scores of UAE-based an­i­mal deal­ers sell­ing a va­ri­ety of an­i­mals on In­sta­gram and WhatApp groups. For ex­am­ple, a fe­male chee­tah was ad­ver­tised for R156 000, a tiger cub for R156000, a ser­val for R183000, a meerkat for R19000, a slow loris for R11700, a ba­boon for R15 600, a young mon­key for R9 700, a hyena cub for R58 000 and an al­bino python for R7 000.

In sev­eral cases, the on­line posts could be clearly linked by phone num­bers, brand­ing and Google map lo­ca­tions to li­censed pet shops in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other Emi­rates.

An in­de­pen­dent data anal­y­sis of the on­line chee­tah trade by a wildlife crime agency (it can­not be named be­cause the work was done pro bono for CCF) pub­lished in Septem­ber, found that be­tween Fe­bru­ary 2012 and July this year, 1367 chee­tahs were of­fered for sale in 906 ad­verts on var­i­ous web­sites and so­cial me­dia channels. In­sta­gram ac­counted for 77% of all ad­verts, with the rest ap­pear­ing on YouTube and other lo­cal clas­si­fied sites. Al­most twothirds of the ad­verts were linked to Saudi Ara­bia and the top four sell­ers ap­peared to be lo­cated there, and 10.8% were as­so­ci­ated with the UAE.

Al She­hhi said the min­istry had part­nered with the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Reg­u­la­tory Au­thor­ity to mon­i­tor on­line sales, but said that most of the ad­verts were “posted by fake channels

out­side of the coun­try”. She said 60% of “such con­tent” had been taken down. She didn’t say how the per­cent­age was cal­cu­lated.

In­sta­gram and its par­ent com­pany Face­book (which also owns What­sApp) are among the com­pa­nies that, ear­lier this year, joined the Global Coali­tion to End Wildlife Traf­fick­ing On­line, along with or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the World Wildlife Fund, which aims to re­duce wildlife traf­fick­ing on­line by 80% by 2020.

An In­sta­gram state­ment said: “Our com­mu­nity stan­dards do not al­low for poach­ing or the sale of en­dan­gered species or their parts, and we re­move this ma­te­rial as soon as we are aware of it … We have sys­tems in place to pre­vent the sale of il­le­gal goods, and do not al­low ads around the sale of en­dan­gered an­i­mals.”

Last year the photo-shar­ing site launched a pop-up con­tent ad­vi­sory warn­ing trig­gered by hash­tags as­so­ci­ated with the sale of en­dan­gered an­i­mals and an­i­mal abuse. But the sys­tem does not have a set­ting for Ara­bic lan­guage posts, and in two months of mon­i­tor­ing UAEbased In­sta­gram ac­counts, which are mostly in Ara­bic, there were no such ad­vi­sories. There was also no op­tion to re­port posts for their an­i­mal-re­lated con­tent.

In­ter­na­tional ac­tion

Ac­cord­ing to the find­ings of a ques­tion­naire sub­mit­ted at a meet­ing of the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (Cites) in Rus­sia last month, there were only 32 con­fis­ca­tions of chee­tahs glob­ally be­tween Jan­uary 2015 and June last year. The UAE said it made no con­fis­ca­tions dur­ing this pe­riod.

None of So­ma­liland’s 50 seizures have been in­cluded in the Cites data be­cause the coun­try is not for­mally recog­nised as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion and is there­fore not party to Cites.

Recog­nised or not, the gov­ern­ment in Hargeisa is try­ing to stop the smug­glers at source and in Au­gust passed a new forestry and wildlife con­ser­va­tion law, giv­ing added pro­tec­tion to wild an­i­mals as well as new pow­ers to pros­e­cute il­le­gal an­i­mal traf­fick­ers.

Just days af­ter the law was ap­proved, the coun­try recorded its first suc­cess­ful prose­cu­tion of two men who had been caught with six mal­nour­ished and de­hy­drated cubs in El Sheikh near Ber­bera on So­ma­liland’s north­ern coast.

Is­mail called for more in­ter­na­tional di­a­logue, es­pe­cially with Gulf coun­tries, about the trade in en­dan­gered an­i­mals. “We are very con­cerned that if this goes on any longer, the chee­tahs will go from be­ing an en­dan­gered species to be­ing ex­tinct and we will not be able to res­cue them,” she said.

Res­cued: Chee­tah cubs res­cued in So­ma­liland, which is on the traf­fick­ing route from East Africa to coun­tries such as Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates, are cared for at a cen­tre in Hargeisa set up by Namibia’s Chee­tah Con­ser­va­tion Fund. The big cats are in de­mand by rich clients in the Gulf States who post pic­tures of their ex­otic ac­ces­sories on so­cial me­dia (be­low). Pho­tos: Laura Orozco

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