Hear more about the battle to stop cheetah trafficking in the Horn of Africa on our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic.
Read the story in Somali: Maqaalkan oo Somali ah ka akhri halkan.
Read the story in Arabic: إقرأ نسخة من هذه القصة بالعربية هنا
Do you know these animals?
The question from the prosecutor is about the five cheetah cubs pressed together in a carrier, and held up for two defendants to see from their barred cell at the front of the courtroom. The cubs’ birdlike chirps of distress echo off the concrete floor and walls.
One of the two, Cabdiraxmaan Yusuf Mahdi, better known as Cabdi Xayawaan, glances at the cubs. “I’ve never seen them before,” he says with a wave of his hand.
A pause, then the second man, Maxamed Cali Guuleed, speaks: They look a little smaller, maybe, but those are the cubs from my house.
The men are on trial in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous republic in the Horn of Africa. They’re accused of taking cheetah cubs from the wild at a time when Somaliland is cracking down on the networks that have made the region a hub for trafficking of the iconic, and increasingly rare, cats.
This case began in October 2020 when police, acting on a tip, launched an operation that led to the discovery of 10 cubs in Guuleed’s home and to his and Cabdi Xayawaan’s arrests. It was the sixth interception of cheetahs in four months in Somaliland.
Guuleed approaches the cell’s bars to address the judge. He says he’d been caring for the cubs as a favor to his new friend, Cabdi Xayawaan, whom he’d met a few months before. When Cabdi Xayawaan had asked Guuleed to store some property at his house temporarily, Guuleed had agreed.
That “property” turned out to be the cheetahs. Cabdi Xayawaan pulled up at Guuleed’s house with the cubs in woven plastic sacks in the back of his silver SUV. He gave Guuleed a few hundred dollars to buy goat meat and milk for the animals, Guuleed says. He insists that he didn’t know keeping the cubs was illegal.
“I welcomed him. He was a friend,” Guuleed says. “Cabdi Xayawaan dragged me into this. I have 18 kids and four wives.” Guuleed pleads for a second chance.
Cabdi Xayawaan, sitting on the bench behind Guuleed, doesn’t react. He has three past cheetah-related convictions and a reputation as Somaliland’s top smuggler of the cats. His nickname, Cabdi Xayawaan (pronounced AB-dee HI-wahn; in Somali, c is silent and x sounds like h), means “Cabdi Animal.” When he stands to give his side of things, he speaks with relaxed indifference.
Yes, I served time in prison for cheetah smuggling in the past, he says, but I’m no longer involved in the trade. The cubs belonged to Guuleed. “There’s no clear evidence I was involved.”
The judge doesn’t look convinced.
Fewer than 7,000 adult cheetahs are left in the wild, according to recent estimates, most in southern and eastern Africa. International commercial trade of cheetahs has been banned since 1975. Even so, from 2010 through 2019, more than 3,600 live cheetahs were for sale or sold illegally worldwide, with only about 10 percent intercepted by law enforcement, says Patricia Tricorache, a researcher with Colorado State University who’s been tracking the cheetah trade for 15 years. Taking cheetahs from the wild has been illegal in Somaliland since 1969.
Habitat loss and retaliatory killings by herders when cats prey on their livestock are the biggest threats to the cheetah’s survival, compounded by the illegal trade in cubs. Babies, often still nursing and dependent, are snatched from the wild while their mothers are hunting or when a lactating mother is tracked back to her den. On foot and by camel, car, and boat, traffickers move the cubs through the Horn of Africa and across the narrow Gulf of Aden to Yemen, a journey of 200 miles or more that can take weeks. Cubs that survive are sold as pets in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Kuwait, and other Gulf countries.
Somaliland is believed to be the center of the cheetah trade because of its easy access to the animals in Ethiopia and Kenya, its nearly 500-mile coastline, and its proximity to Yemen. Trade of all kinds, legal and illegal, has flowed across the Gulf of Aden for millennia. Today cheetah cubs, gemstones, humans, and more are smuggled out of the Horn of Africa, and guns, explosives, and ammunition are smuggled in.
The prosecutor, Cabdiraxmaan Maxamed Maxamud, springs to his feet, holding out Cabdi Xayawaan’s phone, which was confiscated after the arrests. He begins to play audio messages the defendant had recorded on his phone and sent to his contacts. One is of Cabdi Xayawaan three months earlier, telling an associate in Ethiopia to find him cheetah cubs. In another, he discusses a money transfer with a contact in Yemen. The prosecutor shows the judge photos and videos of cheetah cubs on the phone—some local, some from Ethiopia—as well as photos of weapons Cabdi Xayawaan had requested from Yemen.
My old contacts keep sending me photos, asking me to find cheetah buyers, Cabdi Xayawaan says, beginning an elaborate explanation. He admits that he sometimes forwards those photos to the Yemeni—but not because he’s trying to broker a deal, he insists. The Yemeni, Cabdi Xayawaan explains, owes him $80,000 for fuel but doesn’t have enough money to settle the debt. If the Yemeni could get some cubs and sell them, he’d have the money he owes me, Cabdi Xayawaan says. “Whenever I ask for my $80,000, [he] asks for more photos. [He] has other buyers, so if he can sell more cubs, he can get the $80,000.”
The prosecutor calls Cabdi Xayawaan a “habitual offender,” telling the judge, “He’s a criminal who has made the illegal wildlife trade part of his career.”
In November, Guuleed and Cabdi Xayawaan were found guilty. Guuleed, who had no criminal record, was sentenced to a year in prison. Cabdi Xayawaan got four years, a record sentence for an environmental crime in Somaliland. It was a milestone for Somaliland’s justice system—one that law enforcement and political leaders hoped would be enough to deter cheetah smuggling.
The 10 cubs now live in a rescue center in Hargeysa run by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a nonprofit headquartered in Namibia that began working with Somaliland in 2011, when the government asked for help caring for confiscated cheetahs. By mid-2021, CCF had three facilities in Hargeysa holding nearly 60 cheetahs and one leopard. Because they were taken from the wild so young, none of these animals are equipped to survive in the wild; they must spend the rest of their lives in captivity.
The appeal of cheetahs is no mystery. As cubs, they have huge round eyes, fuzzy little bodies, and Mohawk-like ridges of fur down their backs. As adults, they’re sleek, speedy, and regal, less aggressive than lions or tigers, and they purr like overgrown house cats.
Captive cheetahs through history
Pet cheetahs today are most likely to be found in wealthy Arab households. But they’ve long been the playthings of high society around the world, from ancient Egyptian pharaohs and Genghis Khan to Italy’s Renaissance nobles, such as the Medicis.
Throughout history, cheetahs have been status symbols. A painting in the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian vizier, shows foreign visitors bringing tributes to the Pharaoh Thutmose III, including a cheetah on a leash. A Renaissance fresco in a Florentine palace shows a teenage Giuliano de’ Medici riding horseback with a cheetah seated behind him. Jazz Age burlesque star and French Resistance agent Josephine Baker could be seen walking her cheetah, Chiquita—an occasional participant in her stage act—down the Champs-Élysées.
Today Instagram is the place to see and be seen with a cheetah. Many public posts of pet cheetahs are from wealthy people in Persian Gulf states who use cheetahs as prestige props. There are photos of cheetahs with Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces, cheetahs alongside sparkling swimming pools, and cheetahs posing with sumptuously dressed owners.
Instagram is also where many dealers post photos of cubs for sale, Tricorache says. (Snapchat, where posts disappear after a certain period, and TikTok, which hosts mainly short videos, are also used now, she says.) Instagram did not respond to requests for comment.
Cheetahs in Persian Gulf countries are photographed as accessories to fancy cars or fashionable alternatives to house cats. Owning a cheetah often is illegal, but people with public social media accounts and tens of thousands of followers post photos of them anyway. Despite the association with luxury, many pet cheetahs are stressed and may be malnourished. Below, Instagram handles are blurred to avoid promoting such accounts.
Somaliland declared independence from Somalia, its neighbor to the south, in 1991 amid a civil war. Unlike Somalia, it’s a functioning, relatively stable democracy. Still, there are notable challenges. It has informal relations with several countries but officially is not recognized as a nation by the international community—a key goal of Somaliland’s government, now led by President Muuse Biixi Cabdi. Somaliland lacks infrastructure, has a per capita GDP of well below a thousand dollars a year, and depends economically on remittances from abroad. In addition, increasingly frequent droughts wipe out entire herds of livestock, the cornerstone of Somali lives.
Despite these obstacles, the Somaliland government has taken on the illegal cheetah trade with more zeal than most countries have shown in dealing with any type of wildlife crime.
“Although we are a young country, an emerging country, still we are a country that [doesn’t] want to see wildlife suffering and wildlife trade,” says Shukri Haji Ismail Mohamoud, the minister of environment and rural development.
Her ministry is cracking down on cheetah smuggling, working with Somaliland’s coast guard, army, parliament, attorney general, and Ministry of the Interior, which oversees domestic security. It’s a fight to protect Somaliland’s natural heritage, boost peace and stability, and gain international recognition as an independent state governed by the rule of law.
Somaliland’s progress in developing its governmental institutions is occurring against the backdrop of a clan system that long has been the foundation of social organization, community security, and dispute resolution. This sometimes brings clan elders, who retain influence and respect, into conflict with civil authorities working to modernize the justice system and conservation policies.
Resolving disputes in particular has been the domain of clan elders, and they generally resist attempts to submit their kin to the formal legal system. Elders often pressure officials and civil servants to step aside and let xeer, or traditional law, decide the outcome. When it comes to suspected wildlife trafficking, clan interference and corruption can prevent cases from entering the formal legal system, says Erica Marsh, an expert on the Horn of Africa, though this has started to change since the passage of Somaliland’s 2015 Forestry and Wildlife Conservation Law.
Without diplomatic recognition, Somaliland can’t directly access international aid and development funding. This has left law enforcement lacking cars to track suspects, boats to patrol seashores, and radios to communicate with each other. It also makes it difficult for the environment ministry to expand its reach beyond Hargeysa: Few people in the remote, rural areas where the smuggling originates are aware of wildlife protection laws. To pastoralists for whom cheetahs usually are nothing more than a threat to livestock, selling cubs differs little from selling goats.
Mahdi Faarax Dugsiye is 38 years old. He has a wife, seven children, 40 goats and sheep, and a camel. He’s now known in the area around Bown, where he lives, as the “cheetah protector.” But several months earlier, he shot one dead.
Late one afternoon, he heard a commotion. As he ran toward his herd, he saw a cheetah eating a goat. It was the goat that had been providing milk for his youngest son. “I felt so bitter I nearly cried. I had to take revenge,” he says. He rushed for his gun, a rifle he inherited from his father. The cheetah was still there when he returned. He fired a single bullet and hit her in the side. She ran, but he knew she’d soon be dead.
“I kissed the gun. I have succeeded,” Dugsiye says, recounting the day. For Somali pastoralists, wealth is the size of their herd, and losing a goat is like losing cash. Some in that situation would go looking for cheetah cubs—they know there’s a market for them, and selling baby cheetahs can help offset the loss of livestock.
But Dugsiye was satisfied with revenge. When he was young, his father owned 500 cattle, goats, and sheep, a herd of camels, and a farm. If a cheetah killed one of his animals, he’d brush it off, Dugsiye says. It was only one out of several hundred. It was just nature’s way of things, his father would say.
Today Dugsiye’s herd is a fraction of that, and the farm is gone. Drought comes often, and rainfall is erratic. There’s flash flooding when the rain does come, and storms—such as Tropical Cyclone Sagar in 2018—can be deadly. That storm killed at least 25 people in Somaliland and half the livestock in the region of Awdal.
The land can’t support domestic or wild animals as it once did, and because drought has made good grazing and vegetation scarce, prey animals such as antelope and warthogs have become less abundant. That forces cheetahs to look for other sources of food—sometimes goats and sheep that pastoralists have had to bring deeper into cheetah habitat to find good grazing.
Officially, cheetahs disappeared from Somaliland decades ago, but most herders say they see them at least occasionally. Dugsiye spots the cats prowling the outskirts of Bown roughly once a month, he says, sometimes more, and there’s at least one attack on his animals every year.
The day after Dugsiye killed the cheetah, Cabdinasir Hussein, director of wildlife at the environment ministry, happened to be driving through Bown and came upon a dead cheetah on the roadside. A herder identified Dugsiye as the shooter, and he was arrested. It was the first time Dugsiye learned it was anyone’s job to protect wildlife.
Few people in Somaliland are aware of its wildlife law, especially in rural areas. Low literacy rates and nomadism make it difficult to notify the pastoralists, the people most likely to interact with wildlife, says Cabdilahi Xasan Warsame, the mayor of Xariirad, a town near the Ethiopian border where people come to sell cheetah cubs. He says he believes that with education and sensitization about the importance of cheetahs, communities “will become their protectors, not their harmers,” especially if clan elders can be persuaded to take the lead.
Dugsiye was released without charges, after getting a lecture about the law and how cheetahs deserve protection because they’re a vital part of Somaliland’s natural heritage. “I promised I’d never shoot another cheetah again,” he says, adding that he vowed to report anyone who does.
His newfound dedication has been tested. Not long after his arrest, he lost two more of his goats—one that was nursing and another that was pregnant. But, he says, as long as he can feed his children, he’ll remain an advocate for cheetahs.
Poverty drives some people to kill or poach cheetahs, but greed drives top traffickers. “In the smuggling trade, if you have a drop of mercy in your body, this work isn’t for you,” says one cheetah broker, a jumpy khatseller with bloodshot eyes. He’s describing Cabdi Xayawaan. He adds: “He’s a man who doesn’t have a soft heart.”
Sitting under a shady mango tree as baboons scamper down the dry riverbed behind him, the broker explains how he acted as an intermediary between herders, who poach the cubs just across the largely unmanned border in Ethiopia, and Cabdi Xayawaan, who smuggled them to Somaliland’s coast and out of the region. “I was like the pipe,” he says, pointing to a concrete water pipe a few feet away. Just the conveyor of cubs, not the one collecting or selling them.
Cabdi Xayawaan is known among everyone from government ministers and senior military officers to town mayors, fishermen, and farmers. “He’s the worst trader,” says Col. Yuusuf Iimaan Diiriye, commander of the army garrison that oversees the western Somaliland regions of Sahil and Awdal. “He’s the man who is making the cheetah extinct in this region.”
Cabdi Xayawaan often operated near the towns of his childhood in Sahil, people in the area say. He knows the routes where he’d be least likely to run into patrols, the beaches more (and less) likely to have coast guards, and the towns with people he could pay to be lookouts. Law enforcement officers have linked him to more than 20 incidents of cheetah smuggling in Sahil alone since 2012. Even so, before the case last fall, only three prior arrests had led to convictions.
“He’s a politician with a wide network,” says a driver on the Sahil coast who says he runs into Cabdi Xayawaan at least twice a month. Several times, he says, he has seen cheetah cubs—and even occasionally lion cubs—in Cabdi Xayawaan’s car. The driver says Cabdi Xayawaan often travels with young men, some of whom are armed and some of whom seem drunk—a taboo in Islamic Somaliland, where alcohol is illegal.
“To him, nothing is haram,” Diiriye says, using the Arabic word for “forbidden.”
Cabdi Xayawaan got his start more than a decade ago, working with another trafficker, according to Timothy Spalla, a National Geographic Society–funded investigator who with his team has been researching the cheetah trade in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Cabdi Xayawaan quickly established connections with Arab buyers and overtook his former employer.
Described as intelligent and secretive by an army officer who once arrested him, Cabdi Xayawaan had several SIM cards for his cell phone and a satellite phone and frequently changed cars, Spalla says. He knows how to gain loyalty and build his network, relying on charm and incentives—money, mainly.
“When he finds an opportunity in you, he’ll immediately take your name and number,” according to the middleman, who says Cabdi Xayawaan recruited him for his many connections with Somali nomads on the Ethiopian side of the border. “That’s how he grows his network.”
It’s an extensive network. When law enforcement increased pressure in western Somaliland, Cabdi Xayawaan nimbly shifted his trade routes to the east. He mainly trafficked cheetah cubs, but he also smuggled an occasional lion or leopard cub and brought weapons and khat into Somaliland, according to eyewitnesses, associates, government officials, and law enforcement. He often took cubs to the beach himself to hand them to smugglers aboard boats bound for Yemen, say the driver and others who have seen him.
The coast guard station in Ceel Shiikh, a small town on the central coast, looks abandoned. A building with peeling paint stands in a large yard strewn with mechanical equipment. Officers posted there have no vehicle to get them from the station to locations along the beach used by smugglers. They have no radios and no satellite phones, and cell phone service can be weak, especially offshore. Their few small patrol vessels are really nothing more than fishing boats.
The coast guard officers and local leaders in Ceel Shiikh say they’ve known for years that Cabdi Xayawaan smuggled cheetahs by way of the town’s beaches. He’s well-connected, district commissioner Maxamed Jamac Colaad says, but so are those who aim to stop the smuggling.
“The nomadic community are like the radio and antennae,” he says. “We work with them to get to know what the situation is.” And one day four years ago, the situation was this: Cabdi Xayawaan was on his way to Ceel Shiikh in a red Toyota SUV with cheetah cubs, apparently planning to pass them to a boat just offshore that night.
With no car, the coast guard mounted an operation on foot. Officers knew from informants which route he’d be taking, so they lay in wait in the shrubs on both sides of the road. If he reached the beach, he’d carry the cubs across the sand and into the warm surf of the Red Sea to hand them to Yemeni men who’d waded to shore from the boat. If the coast guardsmen couldn’t stop Cabdi Xayawaan before the handoff, they’d have little hope of rescuing the cubs: The coast guard’s boats are no match for the ones Yemeni smugglers use.
When Cabdi Xayawaan’s car came bumping over the dirt and thorny brush, says the coast guard station’s deputy commander, the officers drew their guns, jumped out of the bushes, and blocked the path. Searching the car, they found six cubs. Cabdi Xayawaan claimed innocence but was arrested. The case later was dropped; why is unclear.
Not every town in Somaliland is as underresourced as Ceel Shiikh. In Berbera, which is home to a commercial port in development by the Emirati company DP World, a large coast guard presence has decreased cheetah smuggling significantly, says Col. Haaruun Saciid Cali, the commander of the Berbera coast guard, the largest sea command in Somaliland. “I can’t say nothing gets out, but it’s not common.” When his troops go on patrol, it’s in a 65-foot naval ship with two smaller skiffs for security.
“Our coastline is long, porous, and hard to police,” says Axmad Maxamad Xaaji Du’ale, the governor of Sahil, and there aren’t enough checkpoints on roads to the coast to stop illicit trade. In Berbera, though, the coast guard and police informant networks have helped improve security in recent years, forcing smugglers to find other exit points. The port is crucial to the Somaliland economy and to gaining future foreign investment, so “we’re very, very serious about security,” Du’ale says. “We are all seeking the goal of gaining recognition of the country.”
The government also has commissioned an army unit to fight trafficking. The 18th Battalion, named after Somaliland’s independence day, May 18, 1991, is based in the coastal town of Lughaye, another place Cabdi Xayawaan had used to move cheetah cubs out of Somaliland. The unit is tasked with preventing the trafficking of humans, wildlife, and, mainly, weapons.
One fisherman, who has been working along the coast for 30 years, says he’s seen all kinds of smuggling out of Lughaye: humans, fuel, gems, cheetahs, leopards, lions, gazelles.
Not long ago, he says, when he was chasing a fishing net that was blowing away, he ran into three men with several cheetah cubs on the beach. Nearby were two wooden boxes with air holes and open padlocks. The pickup boat was delayed, the fisherman says they told him, so they’d let the cubs out for fresh air.
He says he first saw cheetah smuggling in Lughaye around 2005 and that it became a hot spot, peaking around 2013. At the time, he saw cubs smuggled out at least once a month, sometimes once a week. The 2014 outbreak of war in Yemen and the Saudi-led blockade of its coastline, followed by the Somaliland government’s crackdown on cheetah smuggling, temporarily slowed the trade, he says.
The fisherman recalls that he got to know Cabdi Xayawaan when the latter’s car broke down one day in 2014, and that the two have crossed paths frequently. “He was one of the first smugglers I met,” the fisherman says. “He’s an open, sociable man who is often very generous.”
The day Cabdi Xayawaan was stuck in town, they talked about their work. “Your food is from the sea, and mine is from the cubs,” the fisherman says Cabdi Xayawaan told him. “So don’t interfere.” Then Cabdi Xayawaan gave him money.
In the cool of the concrete-walled court in Hargeysa, the prosecutor repeatedly brings his argument back to the evidence on Cabdi Xayawaan’s phone—especially the messages between him and the Yemeni. On one day, bank records cited by the prosecutor show, the Yemeni sent Cabdi Xayawaan nearly $4,000. Not long after that, he received photos and videos of cheetah cubs. The prosecutor hits “play” on a video, and once again, cubs’ chirps echo through the room.
No one knows where those cubs are now—whether they were some of the 10 brought to Guuleed’s house and later rescued, whether they were put on a boat to Yemen and now live in a private menagerie at a villa, or whether they died where they were. Most cubs in the trade are fed only goat milk and meat as a substitute for nourishment from their mother, and it’s likely many die of malnutrition and other illnesses along the way.
The routes smugglers use to move cheetahs from Yemen throughout the Persian Gulf aren’t well known, but many cubs probably are driven across Yemen into Saudi Arabia, according to Tricorache. From there, they’re distributed to buyers in-country or in Kuwait or the U.A.E.
The laws on keeping wildlife as pets in these countries can be hard to parse. The U.A.E., for example, banned private ownership of “dangerous” animals such as cheetahs in 2016. Some people surrendered their cats, but five years later many Emiratis still own them, a search of Instagram indicates. Some, it seems, use a loophole that exempts research centers, wildlife parks, and zoos—including private zoos, such as those owned by the ultrawealthy—from the ban. The U.A.E.’s environment ministry says it sets rigorous standards for zoo licenses and works with local authorities to “devise a coordinated, swift response to reports of illegal possession.” Penalties include up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $136,000.
In Kuwait, several cheetah owners declined to talk with National Geographic on the record for fear of getting into trouble with the law, even though they publicly share photos of their cheetahs with their thousands of Instagram followers.
Regardless of what it looks like in those photos, cheetahs have not been domesticated. Domestic animals—such as cats, dogs, sheep, and horses—arise out of generations of selective breeding, for companionship, food, or work. But cheetahs don’t reproduce easily in captivity, says Adrienne Crosier, the biologist who manages the cheetah breeding program at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, in Virginia. Inconsistent reproductive cycles and the fragility of cheetah cubs make breeding them more of an art than a science, she says, adding that the majority of pet cheetahs “are coming out of the wild.”
Cabdi Xayawaan is in prison now, but it’s not certain for how long. Last spring, months after the legal period to contest his conviction had passed, his case was reopened, for reasons that remain unclear. Also last spring, Guuleed, who paid a fine and served just part of his one-year sentence, died at home in Hargeysa shortly after his release, according to the Ministry of the Environment.
If Cabdi Xayawaan’s conviction is reversed, one of Somaliland’s biggest wins against the illegal trade in cheetah cubs will end instead, as so many wildlife crime cases around the world do—quietly and with little consequence.
As of late June, at least 150 cheetahs have been listed for sale this year.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, helped fund this story through Wildlife Watch, an investigative reporting partnership with National Geographic Partners. Learn more about the Society's nonprofit mission and support of Explorers, and support Wildlife Watch by donating. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to email@example.com.
Rachael Bale is the executive editor of National Geographic’s Animals desk and reports on wildlife crime. Photographer Nichole Sobecki, a National Geographic Explorer, focuses on humanity’s connection to the natural world.
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.