A specialist training programme in Somaliland has been launched to disrupt cheetah poaching and trafficking of animals to the Gulf.
The East African country has been a key area of interest for anti-trafficking authorities in recent years, with cats smuggled out of Somaliland and into the Middle East, where they are sold on the black market.
Experts from the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) said 300 cubs were poached from the Horn of Africa every year between 2010 and 2020.
A five-day training course in Hargeisa is under way for representatives of the Somaliland government involved in law enforcement and the prosecution of wildlife crimes.
Training was supported by the CCF, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Legal Atlas, a legal intelligence firm that provides expertise in enforcement and prosecution.
“The work we are undertaking to improve our laws and establish a national unit to conduct counter-trafficking activities is a major step forward in our decade-long fight against illegal wildlife trade here in Somaliland,” said Shukri Ismail, of the country’s Ministry of Environment and Rural Development.
“Since October 2020, we have not intercepted any illegal cub shipments in Somaliland. We hope this lull becomes permanent.”
The project aims to build capacity with law enforcement agencies, strengthen legal frameworks and create regional networks between legal jurisdictions in Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia and Yemen.
The four nations have been identified by CCF as both source and transit countries at the centre of the illegal cheetah cub trade.
With the ultimate aim of reducing poaching and illegal trade in cheetah cubs, the training course aims to expand knowledge of Somaliland environmental and wildlife conservation laws, and teach how to properly handle confiscated cubs and how to carry out efficient criminal investigations involving wildlife.
Cheetah cubs in the Horn of Africa are often taken from the landscape by rural farmers in retaliation for livestock predation blamed on cheetah mothers.
Sometimes cubs are sold as compensation for lost goats and sheep, but many are stolen by professional traffickers to supply illegal pet markets on the Arabian Peninsula.
Conservationists estimate three out of four cubs poached in the region die within two years due to malnutrition, dehydration and disease.
“Consistent application of wildlife laws is one of our goals,” said Legal Atlas's director James Wingard.
“We have compiled legal frameworks for each of the four jurisdictions, as doing so makes it easier to spot gaps in legislation.
“Then we can assist the respective governments in strengthening their laws by revising them or by creating new ones.”
Traffickers arrested after undercover sting
On September 6 the CCF received four young cubs at its safe house facilities in Hargeisa.
The baby cubs, estimated to be between 2.5 and 3.5 weeks old, were removed by villagers near Las Anod after they accused the mother cheetah of preying on the community’s goats.
Village elders contacted authorities and arranged for the cubs to be voluntarily surrendered.
Before the incident, the centre had seen a 10-month period without any confiscations or interceptions of cheetah cubs.
The downturn in activity followed a wave of rescue missions between July and October 2020, capped by two interceptions in Hargeisa that netted eight traffickers and 13 cubs.
It led to the arrest and conviction of two men in possession of 10 cheetah cubs following a separate trafficking bust on September 23, 2020.
Six others were later arrested in an undercover sting when they attempted to sell on three cheetah cubs.
Research published in academic journal Science Direct revealed more than 1,800 instances of trafficking with at least 4,184 cheetahs moved from Africa to the Gulf since 2009.
Many are sold online via social media or under the counter in pet shops.
In April, Hiba Al Shehhi, acting director of biodiversity at the UAE's Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, said authorities were monitoring sites to strengthen the enforcement of illegal wildlife trade legislation.
In December, the CCF will be in Dubai to celebrate International Cheetah Day at Expo 2020 with a Global Cheetah Summit planned for the first week of February at Dubai Safari Park.
Dr Laurie Marker, executive director of the CCF, said seizures in East Africa are helping broaden understanding of the risks cheetah now face in local communities.
“Even after we stop the illegal trade, our work in Somaliland and the Horn of Africa is just beginning,” she said.
“We are learning from confiscation events where wild cheetah populations may exist, and we are meeting the people who live with them.
“In these areas, the confluence of drought, famine, extreme poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of awareness of the law, and conflict with farmers creates a complex web of issues that must be addressed to save the species.”