More than 50 cheetahs rescued from the illegal wildlife trade have been relocated to a compound in Somaliland, East Africa, amid a report that reveals global demand for exotic pets remains high.
Two siblings — Cizi and Bagheer — brought into the Cheetah Conservation Fund as cubs were rescued by the Somaliland government in 2020 and are among the first to bed down in the Somaliland Cheetah Rescue and Conservation Centre at Geed-Deeble.
The government project, the result of a long-standing partnership with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, is one of the first in East Africa.
The siblings have been joined by 50 other cubs at the 800-hectare site, all rescued from the illegal pet trade in recent months.
A further 37 cheetahs — rescued from traffickers and that are currently in safe houses — will join the compound, that will double as a research and training centre, an hour or so outside of Hargeisa.
“We are exceptionally pleased with the results of the move,” said Dr Laurie Marker, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund.
“The cubs we moved stayed in their large management enclosures for a day or two to acclimatise them to their new area.
“Then their keepers watched happily as they were released into their spacious enclosures and [they] have since settled in very well.”
Cheetahs, listed as an Appendix 1 species under the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species, are mostly removed from the wild in the Horn of Africa to supply the illegal pet trade.
Since 2011, the Cheetah Conservation Fund has been assisting the government of Somaliland in caring for cheetahs intercepted from traffickers.
A recent report from the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a non-profit NGO that monitors revenue streams for terrorism and extremism, found illegal wildlife trafficking was experiencing a post-pandemic resurgence.
The illegal trade in animals and their body parts has grown to an estimated annual value of up to $23 billion, devastating animal populations and driving species such as the elephant, rhinoceros and cheetah towards extinction.
The CEP’s Extinction Inc report showed how poachers and smugglers rapidly adapted during the pandemic, exploiting tourist-free national parks while moving marketing and sales online.
The onset of Covid-19 crippled national park budgets, limiting the number of bush rangers in place to protect wildlife.
In Garamba National Park, a 5,000-square-kilometre plot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 25 per cent of rangers had at one point lost their jobs, a familiar pattern seen across Africa.
“Gangs of ivory poachers and porters cross the border with Cameroon, working directly for larger scale traffickers,” Lee White, Gabon's Minister of Water, Forests, the Sea and Environment, told the report’s authors.
“A small number of individuals control the large trafficking networks. Some of these feed money to extremist groups.”
Globalisation fuels smuggling
Anti-smuggling efforts are being completely overwhelmed by the huge growth of international trade and passenger traffic.
In 2019, one million wildlife products were seized at airports around the world, with half plucked from hand luggage.
Ivory trafficking routes from Zimbabwe include couriers flying from Harare to Hong Kong, with ivory hidden inside purpose-made vests and luggage, the report said.
Smuggled goods from the illegal trade are becoming increasingly difficult to monitor.
Global maritime trade has almost tripled since 1990, from four billion tonnes to more than 11 billion in 2021, with similar growth expected over the next 25 years.
Analysis in the CEP report found that only 10 per cent of shipping containers were inspected by operators, while about 2 per cent of all freight was checked by global port authorities.
Despite the challenges, gains are being made.
A month-long Interpol operation in October 2022 resulted in 2,200 separate seizures and the identification of 934 suspects and 141 companies involved in illegal wildlife trafficking.
Aside from financing extremism, the illicit transfer of animal products represents a major entry point for zoonotic diseases that can pass from animals to humans.
According to the US Centres for Disease Control, three in four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.
“The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult to analyse,” said Trang Nguyen, executive director at WildAct, in the CEP report.
“There has been a reduction in cross-border trade. But domestically, wildlife crime has not decreased at all — and may have even increased.”