A landmark legal ruling occurred in a courtroom in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, in September, when two men were handed prison sentences of three years for trying to smuggle six cheetah cubs out of this breakaway state not recognized by the UN. Though largely unreported in the West, it was the first conviction for cheetah smuggling in the region.
“There are only a handful of cheetahs left in Ethiopia, and probably no more than 300 in the Horn of Africa,” says Sarah Durant, a senior fellow at the London Zoological Society. “So this conviction is a major development. It will create a deterrent and hit the trade. But,” she adds, “the fact that so many cheetahs are still trafficked through Somaliland is still a big problem.”
Trying to estimate how many cheetah cubs are smuggled through Somaliland each year is like figuring out if your sofa will fit in a new apartment using Pythagoras’s theorems. This is an extremely secretive trade, and no hard statistics exist. But Patricia Tricorache, the assistant director of illegal wildlife trade at Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund, the global leader in research and conservation of the cats, estimates that at a minimum 330 cheetahs move through there, and the number may be as high as 500.
From Somaliland, cubs are shipped by boat across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, then driven overland to the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Two-thirds of them die in transit, according to Tricorache. Those that survive are sold, mostly via the Internet, as the ultimate accessory for the idle rich, who post photos of their pet cheetahs perched on the front seat of an SUV or riding in a speedboat. Between February 2012 and July 2018, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 1,367 cheetahs were offered for sale, mostly on Instagram, for tidy sums.
At first sight, Somaliland, which is only about the size of North Dakota, seems an unlikely place to be leading the fight against cheetah smuggling. Its per capita GDP is the fourth lowest in the world, so why would it allocate precious resources and manpower to saving cheetahs?
One reason, explains Mexican-born Tricorache, who gave up a high-paying job in New York City to join the fight to save cheetahs, is that “the illegal wildlife trade affects the abilities of communities to create a safe environment conducive to economic activities like ecotourism or small businesses.” And anecdotal evidence links people who smuggle cheetahs to gunrunning, human trafficking, and piracy, which have plagued the Horn of Africa for years.
The person in Somaliland leading the fight against cheetah trafficking is Shukri Haji Ismail, the minister of environment and rural development. Unlike other countries in the region, Somaliland places few restrictions on women, who have led several other key ministries. For Ismail, combating trafficking is a moral crusade. “To steal cheetah cubs from their mothers is illegal, immoral, and inhumane,” she told me, her voice rising in anger. “This is the world’s wildlife, not just ours.”
As well as handing down stiff jail sentences, Somaliland is ramping up confiscations—not just of cheetahs but also of animals such as dik-diks, a tiny antelope, and gazelles, including two endangered species—that are in demand in the Gulf as pets or yard ornaments. An extremely rare Beira antelope calf confiscated in August in northeastern Somaliland died hours later. “We have to fight this as a government and as a nation,” Ismail says. “It’s a huge problem.”
Cheetah trafficking, like most crime, is exacerbated by poverty. Somaliland is “a very poor country,” says Guenther Wirth, a German aid worker who’s lived there since 2001 and is heavily involved in efforts to shut down the illegal trade. “The coastguard officer who confiscated the cheetah cubs that led to the recent conviction earns about $60 per month. The smugglers offered him $2,000, but he refused.”
Worryingly for cheetah advocates, a new smuggling pathway may have opened up. “Rich Middle-Easterners use private planes to smuggle out cheetahs,” Wirth says. “A prince from Kuwait has a hunting estate near the port of Berbera, with a compound for bringing out wildlife. But his plane is never searched.”
When I asked Ismail about this, she confirmed the presence of a Kuwaiti prince but denied any knowledge of animals being smuggled out on private planes. (Read more about how rich people’s pet cheetahs put wild cheetahs at risk.)
Five of the six confiscated cheetah cubs are now being held in a safe house in Hargeisa. One has died.
“We have eight cheetahs here altogether, from three months to one-and-a-half years old,” says Angela Ionica, 30, a volunteer from a veterinary college in Romania. “They come here in a very bad condition, suffering from dehydration and metabolic and digestive disorders, because they’ve been improperly fed and handled. It makes me really angry.”
Because it’s not recognized by the UN, Somaliland can’t receive funds from organizations like the World Bank. Ismail’s budget, cobbled together from international charities, is so lean that all the costs of caring for the confiscated animals, including the staff and camel meat for the cubs, are covered by the Cheetah Conservation Fund. “It’s expensive to care for the animals,” Ismail says. “It’s expensive to treat them. The know-how is not there, but we’re learning.”
She hopes that one day her government will be able to build a proper wildlife rescue center in the countryside with funds raised from international donors and individuals. She imagines it could also become a tourist attraction. Until then, confiscated cheetahs that survive must live out the rest of their days in the Hargeisa facility.
“The location is classified, and no outside photos are allowed,” Ionica says. “The older animals live in an enclosure outside, but the cubs stay indoors.” Her voice softens. “The cubs spend the day racing around, chewing on their toys. When I feed them, they purr.”
Cheetahs are the only big cats that purr when contented, one of the attributes that have made them objects of human desire since the dawn of time. The pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of ancient Persia kept them as pets. The 17th-century Mogul ruler, Akbar, is said to have owned 30,000 cheetahs, which he used for hunting. In modern times, celebrities like Josephine Baker and Phyllis Gordon have posed for photographs with their pet cheetahs. (Learn more about how Instagram is fighting animal abuse with a new alert system.)
You only have to look at one to understand why. With their long legs, slender bodies, distinctive teardrop markings, and coats that look as if they’d been designed by Louis Vuitton, cheetahs are the supermodels of the feline world. They’re also the least aggressive. Try putting a jaguar in your luxury SUV, and it’ll rip your throat out.
Cheetahs’ comparatively mild nature also makes them easy prey for smugglers. Unlike tigers, cheetahs don’t try to defend their young. Instead, they use deception, hiding their babies and luring attackers away by pretending to be injured. It works with hyenas. But not humans.
According to Tricorache, cheetah cubs and other animals trafficked through Somaliland are snatched from the wild mostly in Ethiopia, a country not as poor as Somaliland and better equipped. Yet not one cub has been confiscated there. The same is true of the United Arab Emirates, she says, despite the introduction of a new law in 2017 banning private ownership of cheetahs.
Last month, delegates from 31 African nations agreed on a joint plan of action to protect lions, leopards, African wild dogs—and cheetahs. It may or may not turn out to be conference hot air. But in Somaliland, at least, action is being taken to save one of Africa’s most splendid creatures.
“Of all the countries in the region that are a problem, Somaliland is the one that’s taken the lead,” Tricorache says. “They have no financial support, so it’s admirable that they’re trying.”
Simon Worrall is a frequent contributor to National Geographic, both the print magazine and online. His most recent book, The Very White Of Love, is a love story set in World War II. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.