Cheetahs are in trouble. With just 7,000 left in the wild in Africa, populations have been in a continuous decline due to trophy hunting, habitat loss, retaliatory killings, and dealers looking to sell them to the wealthy. National Geographic editor Rachael Bale shares what she saw at the trial of a notorious cheetah smuggler and explores how Somaliland is battling the illegal cheetah trade.
(Sound of cheetahs chirping)
RACHAEL BALE (EDITOR, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC): Cheetah cubs, they don’t meow or hiss. They chirp like birds. So as they're coming in, you hear these cheetah cub chirps echoing through the courtroom.
PETER GWIN (HOST): In the late afternoon of a hot day in Hargeysa, the capital of Somaliland, National Geographic animals editor Rachael Bale sat in on an unusual trial.
GWIN: Was the proceeding in Somali—in the Somali language?
BALE: Yes, the proceeding was entirely in Somali, so I had my translator sitting next to me, whispering in my ear all of the translations the entire time.
GWIN: This was the trial of Cabdi Xayawaan, aka Animal Cabdi, a notorious cheetah smuggler.
And the man himself was held in a small metal cell near the Somaliland judge.
BALE: Yeah, it's a prison cell with metal bars. So that's where the defendants sit. They’re locked back there. There's a bench in there for them to sit. And when they address the court, they stand up, they walk to the bars, and they talk to the lawyer, the judge.
GWIN: Ten cheetah cubs, taken from the wild, had been found in the home of Cabdi Xayawaan’s accomplice. Half of those cubs were brought in as a key piece of evidence in the case.
BALE: And after the judge came in and sat down, from the back of the courtroom, a guy walks in with a big pet carrier and five cheetah cubs in it. You can hear them chirping.
GWIN: These cubs now live in a rescue center, with around 60 more cheetahs recovered from other trafficking operations. And that’s where they’ll spend the rest of their lives.
BALE: And then the cubs were brought over to the cell and held up to the bars of the cell for Cabdi Xayawaan and his co-defendant to take a look at. They were asked to identify them—if they recognized the cats or not.
GWIN: Did he claim ownership of these?
BALE: Cabdi Xayawaan did not claim ownership of the cubs. He kind of glanced sideways at them, shrugged his shoulders, and said, I've never seen them before.
GWIN: Once a cheetah cub has been taken from its mother, it can never survive in the wild again because it never learned to hunt. And so it’ll have to spend the rest of its life in some type of captivity.
Think about that for a minute. This is the world’s fastest land animal, and it can hit speeds of up to 70 miles per hour on the open plain.
But these cheetahs will never get to run that fast.
More importantly, though, they won’t contribute to the dwindling wild population.
These cheetahs can’t go free, but Cabdi Xayawaan might.
I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week, we’re following the chain of cheetah trafficking, from the capture of wild cheetahs in the Horn of Africa to the coast of Somaliland. It’s a trade route thousands of years old that’s used for all kinds of illegal smuggling, but the people of Somaliland just might be able to block it.
More after this.
GWIN: Compared to other wildlife trafficking, the trade in cheetahs is relatively small, estimated to be a few hundred per year. But there aren’t many cheetahs in the wild to begin with.
GWIN: So how are cheetahs doing overall, right now, in the world?
SARAH DURANT (CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST): So overall, cheetahs are not doing well.
GWIN: This is Sarah Durant, a National Geographic Explorer and director of science at the Zoological Society of London. And she runs the world’s longest continuous study of wild cheetahs.
DURANT: There’s only around about 7,000 of them left globally, which is—it's tiny. It's a tiny number of animals. And that tiny number of animals is spread across around about three million square kilometers.
GWIN: How would that compare to something like lions or tigers or other cat species that people are pretty familiar with?
DURANT: So compared to lions, their population is around about 30,000 or so. And at the same time, if you look at the protected areas—so if you look at Serengeti, for example—it can support about 3,000 lions, but it can only support around about 300 cheetahs.
GWIN: Wow. The whole Serengeti can only support about 300 cheetahs?
GWIN: Oh my gosh. That’s amazing. Wow.
DURANT: So—and the reason they're at such low densities compared to these other predators is because they have a strategy of avoidance.
GWIN: OK, so once on a trip in the Serengeti I got to see a cheetah kill a Thomson’s gazelle.
The cat went from a near standstill to a blur on the savanna. They really are the hot rods of the animal kingdom.
But cheetahs can’t really defend their kills from other big carnivores like lions or hyenas. And sure enough, a lion showed up and chased the cheetah off, kind of like a schoolyard bully taking a kid’s lunch money.
Sarah explained my cat was probably young, because mature cheetahs generally avoid hunting when lions are around.
DURANT: That's been the key to how they managed to coexist with these predators for millennia. But now it's becoming a problem because there's nowhere left for them to move to.
GWIN: The species’ low density means that losing even a few cheetahs is a big blow to the individual groups.
DURANT: If you think of a cheetah population—which we think in Ethiopia is around about 200, 300 cheetahs—you could think if you had 20, 30 cheetahs going out every year, that would have a massive impact on that population. And we think it's much higher than that.
GWIN: Cheetahs smuggled from all over East Africa tend to pass through one place—Somaliland. Rachael Bale, again:
BALE: Somaliland is the epicenter of the cheetah trade, and in large part, that's because of its geography.
GWIN: I’m going to ask you to play a little mental geography.
Picture the place on a world map where the northeast part of Africa swoops under the Arabian Peninsula.
OK, you got it?
At the tip of the peninsula is Yemen. Facing it is the Horn of Africa, which juts out into the Indian Ocean. That’s where Somaliland is. It’s just a few hours by boat away from the vast and sparsely settled Yemeni coastline and the rest of the Middle East beyond.
That makes it ideal for smugglers trying to get cheetahs to buyers in the Middle East. Somaliland is pretty large, somewhere between the size of Florida and Missouri, but you’d be hard-pressed to find it on a standard political map.
That’s because the international community still sees it as a part of Somalia, not as an independent country.
BALE: Every country in the world still considers Somaliland part of Somalia, even though Somaliland has its own democratic government, they have their own coast guard and army, their own judicial system and laws. It functions entirely independently and far more successfully than Somalia. In fact, it's one of the more well functioning democracies in Africa, period.
GWIN: Somaliland has a complicated history. It was once controlled by the British, while the rest of Somalia was an Italian colony. The two merged into one independent country in 1960, but Somaliland broke away from Somalia 30 years ago, after a violent civil war.
It’s been functioning as an independent state ever since, but it’s not officially recognized by the international community.
GWIN: Does that play any role in the cheetah trafficking story?
BALE: It's made it a lot harder for Somaliland to get the international aid it needs and wants to fight cheetah trafficking. Because Somaliland isn't recognized as independent on the international stage, Somaliland doesn’t have access to most of the funding it needs to be able to fight the cheetah trade.
GWIN: While this lack of recognition makes things more difficult, Rachael thinks that it’s also helping to motivate their efforts to stop trafficking.
BALE: And it seems to me that one of the ways they're trying to demonstrate that they have a functional government subject to the rule of law is by really cracking down on trafficking of all kinds. And by focusing on wildlife, it's just another way for Somaliland to say, like, Hey, look, world: We're paying attention not only to economic development in our citizens and good governance but also to the environment.
It also helps that the minister of the environment, Minister Shukri, is personally extremely passionate about stopping cheetah trafficking. She's the one who really made it a national issue because she cares so much about it.
SHUKRI HAJI ISMAIL MOHAMOUD (ENVIRONMENT MINISTER, SOMALILAND): Yes, I've been a minister for seven years and a half now.
GWIN: When Rachael was covering the trial in the capital, she recorded this interview with Minister Shukri Haji Ismail Mohamoud. And the minister told Rachael that in her first week on the job, five confiscated cheetah cubs actually died of malnutrition in her office building.
MOHAMOUD: Five cheetahs died in here. Yeah. That was my first week as the minister. And I said, why? Why are we—why are people taking the cheetahs from the wild? And they said, They are selling. Selling? They're not goats. They're not sheeps. They are not cows. Why are they selling the cheetahs?
GWIN: Minister Shukri says many of the Somalilanders who come across wild cheetahs see selling the cubs as a way to make additional money—especially if the cheetah mother had killed one of their goats, which is what happened to Mahdi Faarax Dugsiye.
(Sound of bleating goats)
NICHOLE SOBECKI (PHOTOGRAPHER): So Mahdi is a nomadic pastoralist living in western Somaliland, and pastoralism is the dominant way of life for most people across the region.
GWIN: This is Nichole Sobecki, the photographer who went with Rachael to interview Mahdi.
A series of recent droughts in Somaliland has made keeping large herds of animals much more difficult for the people living there.
SOBECKI: So his father had 500 sheep and goats; Mahdi has 40, and that's really not enough to sustain his family of one wife and seven kids. And so he's really struggling. They're living on the razor's edge of survival. And so for his father, when a cheetah took one of his goats, it wasn't a big deal. He was able to just brush it off and move on. With Mahdi, that's, you know, that could mean the difference between being able to feed his family or not.
GWIN: Mahdi’s father might have been able to brush off the occasional cheetah attack, but when he caught a cheetah eating a goat—and not just any goat, but one that his own son was relying on for milk—he felt he had to do something.
MAHDI (VIA TRANSLATOR): I felt so bitter I nearly cried. And then I decided to revenge on and definitely shoot it. I rushed for my gun.
SOBECKI: He talked about kissing his gun after that, and, you know, feeling vindicated, feeling revenge, that he had been able to, you know, kill the cheetah that had killed the goat that his young son had been relying on. And that was, you know, in his mind, not only justified but the right thing to do.
GWIN: But the cheetah carcass was discovered, and Mahdi was arrested.
MAHDI (VIA TRANSLATOR): After that, the body was pulled to the road. I was arrested. And despite me not knowing that there was an organization or ministry that was protecting it.
GWIN: Getting the word out to nomadic farmers is part of the challenge of cheetah conservation in this area. Mahdi didn’t know that cheetahs were endangered or that it was illegal to hunt them. So he was let off with a warning, and he promised not to harm cheetahs in the future.
SOBECKI: Since Mahdi promised not to kill any more cheetah, he has actually suffered several losses of goats, but he has stayed firm to his promise. And he has convinced other friends of his to call in and to work to release cheetah that they have taken from the wilds.
GWIN: But the choice between conservation and illegal commerce isn’t always easy. In her reporting, Rachael found that powerful incentives to sell cheetah cubs remain.
BALE: When a cheetah kills a goat and you only have 50 goats, that is a huge blow to your income. And you need to try to recoup that loss. All pastoralists know there's a market for cheetah cubs. They know there's somebody who's going to pay money for those cheetah cubs.
GWIN: Who's buying the cheetahs?
BALE: So it's people who own private menageries of all kinds of animals. Think about like a wealthy Saudi prince or somebody in Dubai who has, you know, a cheetah, some lions, some ocelots, maybe a monkey. You know, it becomes part of a collection.
GWIN: Interesting. So what are they doing with a cheetah?
BALE: That's a really good question. So cheetahs are in between big cats and small cats. Because they're not so big and they're not particularly aggressive—at least in comparison to a lion or a tiger—you know, people will bring them into their house. You have—there are pictures on Instagram of people lounging in their living rooms, watching TV with their cheetahs.
GWIN: Cheetahs have a long history as exotic pets. They’ve been kept by Egyptian pharaohs, Renaissance nobles, and more recently, Instagram influencers.
BALE: Social media definitely drives the trade, particularly Instagram. You get people who have public accounts—tens of thousands of followers—who post pictures of them and their pet cheetahs, and it's in many ways, a sign of not just wealth but of privilege and influence, because in most places in these Gulf countries, it is illegal to own a pet cheetah or any big cat. So by posting openly that you have one is sort of like saying, Look how important I am: This is illegal, but I still have it.
GWIN: So since Instagram—you mentioned specifically Instagram—but since Instagram is such a driver for this illegal market, have they—what's their—been their response to this?
BALE: Instagram has not responded to my questions or requests for comment. In theory, you know, illegal activity isn't supposed to happen on the platform. And Instagram isn't just a place where people show off their pet cheetahs; it's also a place where people sell and buy pet cheetahs. So those ads are against their policy. But as we've seen with social media platforms—not just Instagram, all social media platforms—you know, you get a little creative and it's easy enough to get around those restrictions.
GWIN: But someone needs to connect the farmers, who might happen across wild cheetah cubs, to the people who might want to buy them as pets. And that brings us back to Cabdi Xaayawan and the trial in the Somaliland courtroom.
BALE: We spent 10 days traveling throughout western Somaliland. Every single person I talked to—whether they were a fisherman in a beach community, or like a driver, local khatseller, or law enforcement—had heard of this guy.
GWIN: Really? Oh my gosh. He's that notorious.
BALE: So notorious. Yeah, it was—it was frankly amazing. Nobody would mention him right away when we started talking about cheetah trafficking, but halfway through the interview and I'd be like, So have you heard of this guy, Cabdi Xayawaan? Oh yeah. Yeah, he's the worst of them all. He's the one who's making cheetahs extinct in the region, is what one guy told me.
GWIN: Catching Cabdi Xayawaan was a huge priority for the Somaliland authorities. One coast guard unit painted his name outside their building as a reminder that he was still at large.
BALE: Cabdi Xayawaan himself is a bit of a mystery. I think he's about 40 years old. Again, this is being pieced together by multiple sources who know different pieces of the story and have slightly varying stories. But it sounds like Cabdi Xayawaan got his start working for another cheetah-trafficking network. He had begun as a lower level guy, definitely not the top of the chain, doing the grunt work, stuff like that. And he's, as we've learned, extremely resourceful and charismatic. He knows how to get what he wants and build a network. So he started building his own network. He made direct connections with buyers in the Gulf, and essentially overtook the syndicate he was working for. In that way, he managed to build up his own massive network that now seems to be the top network supplying cheetah cubs out of the Horn of Africa.
GWIN: And he’d finally been caught again, and Rachael and Nichole, the photographer, were there for the last day of his trial in Hargeysa.
In a quiet moment before the judge arrived, Nichole took his picture. Rachael never got to interview him, but she got a snapshot of her own.
BALE: Every person I interviewed, I said, Tell me what Cabdi Xayawaan is like—totally open-ended question. And I posed this question both to, you know, his opponents, like the police and military, but also to people he's worked with, like the middlemen who helped broker sales, or to, you know, fishermen in a village who have benefited from his generosity—i.e., payments to keep their mouths shut. And everybody just about described him in the same way: as cold blooded, charismatic, and having a hard heart. I wanted to find that sympathetic angle, and I haven't been able to yet.
GWIN: In the courtroom, Cabdi Xayawaan claimed he had never seen those five cheetah cubs before.
But that was difficult to believe when the prosecutor brought out Cabdi Xayawaan’s cell phone. It was filled with pictures of cubs and voice messages negotiating what he wanted in return for them.
Rachael says he seemed unconcerned about this evidence.
BALE: So the trial ended with him giving his closing argument because he was representing himself. So he walked up to the bars of the cell, faced the judge, and made his final argument, which was essentially, I'm not guilty. These were the other guys’ cubs. I don't know. Don't blame me. The end. He was very casual, very confident. And that was it. The case was closed. The judge excused everybody, and we all left to wait for the verdict.
GWIN: So Rachael came home and began writing the story not knowing what would happen next.
BALE: For the next couple of weeks, I was constantly checking my WhatsApp to see if anybody in Somaliland had texted me updates from the case. And all of a sudden I got a link to a press release that said he was found guilty, and he was given the longest ever sentence in Somaliland for an environmental crime. It was very exciting. It was a big landmark. Everybody was celebrating.
GWIN: Cabdi Xayawaan was sentenced to four years in prison. And it seems to have made a difference.
BALE: From what I've heard, cheetah smuggling in western Somaliland has dropped off a lot since his arrest.
GWIN: But that conviction might not stick. He was granted an appeal and is awaiting a new trial—leaving the possibility that his conviction could be overturned.
As notorious as Cabdi Xayawaan is, though, this problem isn’t just about one cheetah smuggler. Somaliland’s environmental minister is looking at the bigger picture.
SHUKRI: We are a country that don't want to see wildlife suffering and wildlife trade.
GWIN: Minister Shukri is working to educate a new generation of Somalilanders about taking care of the region’s wild cheetahs.
(Sound of classroom)
GWIN: Her office teamed up with a nonprofit called the Cheetah Conservation Fund to help with public outreach.
Rachael got to visit a classroom of 10-year-olds where a guest speaker explained the cheetah’s role in the environment—and what the students should do when they saw one, even when it was threatening their family’s livestock.
(Sound of classroom)
BALE: Somaliland used to have lots of cheetahs, leopards, elephants, giraffes— animals that are nowhere near the area anymore. And even right now, nobody has any idea how many cheetahs are in Somaliland. And being able to protect it— and even help bring them back—would be such a win, both, I think, for Somaliland’s pride and for recognition on the international stage.
GWIN: And because of all this, there is a chance that when these kids grow up, their kids will have a chance to see a wild cheetah.
To see Nichole’s pictures and read Rachael’s reporting, check out their article “Cheetahs for Sale.”
We’ve included a link to the story in our show notes.
We’re also including links to a few other resources including a short video about the basics of cheetah biology and conservation as well as an article about how drought is affecting Somaliland.
Meanwhile on the other end of the continent, I’d like to share another podcast in the National Geographic Family. Guardians of the River, produced by Explorer Catherine de Medici Jaffee.
The eight-episode series follows scientists and members of the local community as they strive to protect the Okavango river system in southern Africa.
All this and more can be found in our show notes, they’re right there in your podcast app.
And while you’re there, be sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts. It really helps other listeners find us.
Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Laura Sim, and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our senior producer is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer.
Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.
Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Sarah Durant.
Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.
Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.
And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.
To see Nichole’s pictures and read Rachael’s reporting, check out their article “Cheetahs for Sale.”
Can’t learn enough about cheetahs? Our Cheetah 101 video lays out the basics of cheetah biology and conservation.
In Somaliland, droughts are a major driver of human conflict with wildlife. You can read more about the effects of these droughts here.
If you enjoyed this episode of Overheard, you might also like Guardians of the River, winner of first-ever Tribeca Film Festival Podcast Award.
The eight-episode series—produced by National Geographic Explorer Catherine de Medici Jaffee—follows scientists and members of the local community as they strive to protect the Okavango river system in southern Africa.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.
The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.