Four cheetah cubs seized at the Saudi border are being rehabilitated at two zoos in the UAE.
The cats were taken by the authorities and handed over to the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment in February.
Two of the cubs, believed to be about six weeks old, will remain at Al Ain Zoo until legal proceedings against the alleged smuggler are complete. The other two have been moved to an undisclosed zoo.
“The UAE continues to crack down on illicit wildlife trafficking in the country and across the wider region,” said Mohamed Al Zaabi, director of environmental compliance at the ministry.
“The seizure of the four cheetah cubs near the UAE-Saudi border is a prime example of the government’s vigilance in combating the illegal trade of dangerous and endangered species.
“The UAE has taken multiple concrete steps to curb the illicit trafficking of wildlife species through tightening controls on the movement and trade of endangered species through its airports, roads and seaports.”
Cheetahs are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Only centres equipped to care for wild animals in a secure environment, such as reproduction and care centres, research institutes, zoos and circuses, are legally allowed to keep them.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List recognises the cheetah as a vulnerable species.
But some researchers say that the status of cheetahs needs to be raised to "endangered".
There are believed to be fewer than 7,500 cats left in the wild, with Somaliland and the Horn of Africa at the centre of black-market trade routes into the Middle East.
A federal law issued in 2016 stipulates that owning, trading and breeding all types of dangerous, wild and exotic animals is a punishable offence. Despite the tightening of the law, cheetahs are often advertised for sale on social media.
Myyas Al Quarqaz, curator of Al Ain Zoo and its life sciences division, said the cubs settled in well to their new home.
“They are growing very fast and recovering well from the poor condition we found them in,” Mr Al Quarqaz said.
“Due to the transport and lack of proper food they were not in a good way, but we have quarantined them and modified their diet so they are getting better all the time.
“We want to spread the message about the illegal trade and why it is so important to conserve this species.”
The cheetah cubs were placed in quarantine for a month and screened for feline infectious peritonitis, a form of coronavirus found in cats. It kills 60 per cent of infected animals within three years.
Although each test came back negative, the virus can be difficult to detect and may lie dormant, only causing symptoms once the cat begins shedding.
The male and female cats at Al Ain Zoo have been placed on an international database, the Zoological Information Management System, so they can be entered into a legal breeding programme in future.
“Adding to the genetic diversity of those animals already in captivity will help with species survival,” said Dr Hollis Stewart, an American vet and wildlife manager in the UAE who specialises in the care of captive wildlife and exotic pets.
"Usually the female cheetah is solitary, while the male cats will form coalitions.
"Cubs in the wild have a low survival rate," Dr Stewart said. "Only about five per cent make it to adolescence. In the wild they live to about 10, but can live to up to 20 in captivity as they have fewer predators."