Chasing the cheetah smugglers


Next month CITES members will get to vote on action to help combat the cheetah smuggling trade.

Next month CITES members will get the chance to discuss and vote on employing specialist consultants to examine the illegal trade in cheetahs. A proposal has been put to the convention by Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda that a study be undertaken to discover the impacts of the illegal cheetah trade.

There are currently an estimated known 7,500 cheetah left in the wild with an estimated additional 2,500 living in areas that are poorly surveyed for this big cat. Two of the five sub-species are critically endangered and the remainder are classed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The trade in cheetahs is predominately driven by the Middle East countries where the cheetah is a status symbol in private zoos or used as a hunting animal in much the same way that some hunts uses dogs.

The cheetah is a CITES Appendix 1 species so it has the highest levels of protection. There is some trade permitted in the cheetah with three African countries having the right to export an annual quote:

  • Namibia – 150 individuals,
  • Zimbabwe – 50 individuals,
  • Botswana – 5 individuals.

While being able to export live cats under the CITES quotas there have been very few live exports since the 1990’s. Most of the exports through the quota have been as hunting trophies or skins. This opens the opportunity for wildlife criminals to provide for the live cheetah trade.

Monitoring of seizures by various organisations show that cheetah cubs in particular are often traded. In 2011 one organisation – Coalition of Wildlife Trafficking – indicated that 70 cheetahs had been intercepted from wildlife traffickers. Many cubs will die during the process of transport and even when intercepted and rescued the cubs have a high likelihood of death.

While little is known about the trade in cheetahs it is thought the the Horn of Africa and Somalia are the major routes used by wildlife smugglers to get the big cats out of southern and eastern Africa which are now the stronghold of the species.

The trade in cheetahs for pets, private zoos and hunting animals is believed to be putting increasing pressure on the wild populations. It is difficult to breed cheetahs in captivity and a study in 2001 showed that the captive population was not self-sustaining with 30% of captive animals having been caught in the wild.

To try and get a better understanding of the impacts of the illegal cheetah trade the three African countries have asked that CITES consider the following proposals:

Directed to the Standing Committee

16.xx The Standing Committee shall commission an independent study, in accordance with UN rules, of both the legal and illegal trade in wild cheetahs, and assess the impact of this trade on the species’ conservation in the wild. The study will research the source of cheetah in illegal trade, transit routes of trafficked cheetahs, and will document the measures taken by Parties with regard to live confiscated specimens. All range States will be fully consulted as stakeholders, and the findings will be reported to the 65th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee.

Directed to the Parties

16.xx All relevant Parties are urged to assist those commissioned to undertake the above-mentioned study in any way possible including through the provision of necessary information about illegal and legal trade in cheetah.
16.xx Parties are further urged to provide reports concerning all detected illegal trade in cheetah specimens to the 65th meeting of the Standing Committee and relevant Law Enforcement Agencies including Interpol Wildlife Crime Unit.

The number of cheetahs estimated to be in the wild in eastern Africa (Ethiopia, southern Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania) is estimated at 2,572 while the stronghold of southern Africa containing about 4,500 adults.  This is broken down as:

  • Angola – present but unknown;
  • Botswana – 1,800;
  • Malawi – <25 (and probably extirpated: Purchase and Purchase 2007);
  • Mozambique: <50;
  • Namibia – 2,000;
  • South Africa – 550;
  • Zambia – 100;
  • Zimbabwe – 400.

By getting a better understanding of the illegal trade and the routes that wildlife smugglers use it is hoped that better conservation management plans for the enigmatic big cat can be developed.


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