The Federal National Council (FNC) of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has passed a draft law that proposes to ban the private ownership of cheetahs and other exotic pets. According to a July 2016 article published on Gulf News the FNC, which functions similar to the U.S. Congress, is further reviewing this draft law, which in addition to regulating the trade of exotic and wild animals, states that unlicensed individuals who own such animals as pets will be required to turn them over to the proper authorities. Having worked with the UAE to help improve the care for many of these privately held captive cheetahs, we heartily applaud this initiative. It also leaves us wondering what will become of the cheetahs currently kept as pets in the UAE?
Although cheetahs are not as aggressive or dangerous to humans as other big cats, they are wild animals and do not make good pets. They need space to run and they physically decline if not exercised or fed properly. Cheetahs have nutritional needs that differ from those of domestic pets that have evolved to live in conjunction with humans. Cheetahs need more than just meat to obtain their nutritional requirements. In research from 2014, CCF in collaboration with scientists from the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, the Institute of Animal Nutrition in Zurich and the Center for Applied Biotechnology and Molecular Medicine in Zurich, showed that nutritional deficiencies due to feeding improper diets to cheetahs and other big cats can lead to neurological issues. Diets exclusively composed of chicken or red meat, without properly balanced vitamin, mineral and calcium content, can lead to neurological issues including problems with vision and walking, and in drastic long-term cases, eventually leads to death.
Part of our work with the UAE is focused toward helping educate cheetah owners to learn about the importance of proper nutrition. While keeping cheetahs as pets is certainly not ideal for cheetahs or their owners, it is still important that we try to help save lives by teaching to provide proper nutrition, health care, and facility design. No one wants to hear about the death of a cheetah, pet or otherwise, when their populations are already so small.
The illegal pet trade is driven by taking cheetah cubs from the wild and exporting them to buyers. This process of capturing and exporting cubs has a large impact on already-decreasing wild populations. The critically endangered Asiatic Cheetah, which used to roam across 15 countries in southern Asia, including parts of the Arabian Peninsula, has decreased to a single small population in central Iran composed of less than 100 individuals. In Africa, the largest population of wild cheetah is found in the southern region with just over 4,000 individuals. The North, Central and West African cheetah populations have decreased to less than 500 individuals. In East Africa, less than 2,000 cheetahs, the majority in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, live in small fragmented populations which are not connected. It is from the Horn of Africa region of East Africa that most of the illegally traded cheetahs are taken as cubs, and few of them actually survive the trip to buyers. This means not only are cheetahs being removed from the wild and decreasing the population size, but in order for just one cub to be successfully brought to market, at least 5 cubs are likely to perish in transit.
If this new law passes in the UAE, we anticipate a decrease in the illegal importation and purchase of cheetahs. We hope that many pet cheetahs will be turned over to proper facilities and receive the care they need. How many cheetahs will be relinquished is yet to be seen. We are eager to get information from each of the relinquished cheetahs so they can be cataloged in the International Cheetah Studbook, an international record of captive cheetahs which has been managed for the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) by myself since first compiling it 1988. In 2014, during a trip to the UAE we helped train veterinarians and researchers to collect and bank blood, tissues and sperm samples. From these samples, we are able to extract DNA from the blood samples of the cheetahs to determine their subspecies. The sperm samples are banked (frozen in liquid nitrogen) what is called a genome resource bank (GRB). The samples in the future may be able to help increase and maintain healthy genes in wild and captive populations.
Due to behavioral changes caused by living with humans, and in some cases health problems that need long-term care, release back into the wild is not possible in most cases. Consequently, when cheetahs are confiscated in the UAE, they are sent to zoos, rescue centers, or approved private facilities. With the enactment of this new law, currently awaiting the signature of President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE will have to find housing for a potentially large number of cheetahs within the country. CCF researchers are happy to work with agencies in the UAE to provide any support we can to help ensure their long-term health and proper placement.