A phone call from a US Marine in November 2005 set Patricia Tricorache, assistant director for strategic communications of the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), on the path to fighting the illegal wildlife trade.
“He was calling from Ethiopia about two cheetah cubs that were tied with ropes outside a restaurant in Gode, a remote village in eastern Ethiopia. He was a vet and said that the cubs would die soon; he was considering buying them.
“I begged him not to buy them because it would only encourage more poaching. We frantically began calling everyone we knew in Ethiopia, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme and the US Embassy.
One cub was blind in one eye, both were severely malnourished.
“A week later the EPA confiscated the three-month-old cheetah cubs and the US military flew them from Gode and delivered them to the National Palace in Addis, 1000-kilometres away,” said Patricia.
“We then started hearing from people who owned cheetahs or wanted to buy or sell them. It was an eye-opener of how big the cheetah trade was.
“We organised confiscations whenever possible, and I decided to keep track of all the communications.”
By 2010, CCF had the world’s most extensive database of illegal trafficking of cheetahs.
Listed under Appendix 1 by Cites, it is illegal to trade in cheetahs.
But it is okay to trade in captive-born cheetahs under Cites Appendix 2. South Africa, for example, supplies about 70 per cent of captive-bred cheetahs in the world.
“Breeding and raising cheetahs is very difficult and so we believe that many are from the wild. The mortality rate of captive-born cheetahs averages 25 per cent; most die within the first month,” said Patricia, who was enroute to Addis Ababa for a cheetah stakeholder meeting to discuss how to reduce supply of cheetahs from the region.
Reports of cubs smuggled into South Africa from neighbouring countries have prompted conservationists to call for better controls to prove the origin of cheetahs traded.
“The Horn of Africa, where we now have a network of people reporting cases, is of great concern,” she added.
CCF’s research shows that the dealers trafficking cheetah cubs also engage in other endangered species like the great apes.
“All the reporting shows where the trade is rife in cheetah cubs. It is from the Horn of Africa (mainly Somalia, Ethiopia, and northern Kenya). The cubs are smuggled in small fishing boats across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen — a distance of about 200 kilometres.”
Once in Yemen, the cubs are distributed to the Gulf States where exotic pets are a status symbol.
At the start of the 20th century, the global cheetah population in the wild was 100,000 spread in over 40 countries in Africa and parts of Asia.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature figure is 7,500 today in 20 African countries and a small population in Iran. Southern Africa has the highest population, mainly in Namibia, while Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia have 1,700.
Experts estimate that 300 cheetah cubs are illegally trafficked from Africa into the Arabian Peninsula per year — 300 cheetahs completely lost because they can never survive in the wild again.
Poachers wait for the cheetah mother to go hunting and then take the whole litter leaving no survivors to reproduce in a population that is already very thin.
“It’s a huge concern because any cheetah removed from the wild at such a young age can never go back to the wild,” Patricia said.
The future of the cheetah depends on the commitment of governments and wildlife organisations.
“They have to view the trade of live animals as a problem of the same magnitude as ivory, rhino horn and tiger bones,” Patricia said.