Ending the Illegal Pet Trade in Cheetahs

03/01/2013 01:26 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2013

Everyone loves cheetahs. They are elegant, beautiful and graceful predators. People are fascinated by them, and because of that, some people want to own them. For thousands of years, emperors, kings, and pharaohs have kept cheetahs as companions or pets. Akbar, a Mughal ruler of the 16th century in what is now India, was said to have owned 9,000 cheetahs during his 49-year reign.

Some things never change. Today we see pictures in magazines or on Facebook pages, and even YouTube videos, featuring a wealthy heir or powerful magnate with his pet cheetah at his side, driving in his luxury car. Other images feature cheetah owners proudly running and hunting in the desert with their prized pet. To them, owning a cheetah as a pet is considered a status symbol -- just as it was for Akbar.

Many of these cheetah owners believe that their cheetah was captive bred, and sold to them legally. This is, however, not often the case. Cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, and the demand for pet cheetahs outstrips the ability of breeders to keep up. Increasingly, those that supply pet cheetahs (usually cubs) to their owners, obtain the animals from sources that operate illegally, taking the cheetahs from the wild, and in some cases killing the mother to gain the cubs.

I wonder how these cheetah owners, who evidently love cheetahs, would react if they knew the cruelty inflicted so that they could have their precious cheetah pet. Smugglers don't feed and water animals, nor do they provide them adequate housing in the process of capturing cubs and moving them to market in the illegal pet trade. Only one in six cubs actually survives to the point of sale. Smugglers simply want to "make a quick buck," and they don't care how many cheetahs die in their hands every year. In some African countries from which these cubs are taken the cheetah population is very small, and the loss of even one animal is devastating. Last year, the world lost 104 cheetahs to the illegal pet trade, and those are only the ones reported to Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).

We began monitoring the illegal trafficking of cheetahs in 2005, when we received a frantic call from a US Marine asking us to help him rescue two cheetah cubs tied to a rope outside a restaurant in Ethiopia. The cubs were enticed to fight against each other for a few coins. We immediately went to work and contacted everyone we knew that could possibly help, and eventually both cubs were flown to the capital, Addis Ababa, and given veterinary care. One had lost an eye, and both were severely malnourished. Eventually both died. Their names were Scout and Patch, and their short lives were not in vain, as international attention to these small cheetah cubs made possible for us to initiate actions geared towards combating this devastating crime against conservation.

Since then, incrementally, we have facilitated confiscations and kept careful records of every case known to us. We also became founding members of the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking, and through the alliances we have created, we have been able to provide valuable data that helped include the illegal trafficking of cheetah, for the first time ever, on the agenda of the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties 16 in Bangkok, Thailand this month.

The document submitted for the agenda by CITES Parties Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, calls for a range-wide consultation for a detailed CITES-authorized study on the legal and illegal trade in cheetah and for assistance in that process across all range states. This document is the first statement in a major international forum about the serious problem of illegal trade in wild cheetahs. Most crucially, the results of the study could form a solid basis for devising future practical measures to tackle this issue.

Wildlife trafficking as an issue has gotten tremendous attention over the past few months. I am horrified as everyone else by the images of mass unnecessary slaughter of wildlife treasures. Recent steps by the U.S. and other governments to call attention to the issue are heartening. The ban on importation of cheetahs for personal or commercial purposes by the United Arab Emirates is an excellent first step for other nations to follow. Our hope is that with the cheetah as an official agenda item at CITES, the world will be reminded that the illegal pet trade, too, is part of the wildlife trafficking problem, and has potentially devastating consequences to the cheetah if left unchecked. Our hope is that with awareness and better enforcement, the cheetah's future, which is already too uncertain, can grow brighter.