UAE at the centre of global trade in smuggled cheetahs

Easiest of big cats to tame ‘creates potential for organised crime’.

Al Ain Zoo became the new home to cheetah cubs that had been smuggled into Dubai in 2010. Ten of the 15 died.  Sammy Dallal / The National
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DUBAI // The global trade in cheetahs is fuelled by demand, and the UAE is at the centre of it.

“Almost overwhelmingly that goes to the UAE,” said Dr Richard Thomas of Traffic, the network that monitors the international trade in rare animals and plants. “The trade is carried out illegally and it creates the potential for organised crime.”

The easiest of the big cats to tame, the cheetah is a long-time human companion, as its other name – the hunting leopard – suggests.

It is the fastest mammal on Earth, and smaller than lions and other big cats – two factors that account for its popularity.

Historically, cheetahs have not been able to breed well in captivity and the demand for wild-caught animals has placed additional stress on populations.

With an estimated 7,500 adults left in the wild, they are named on the Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction.

They are also included in Appendix I of Cites, which means commercial trade in the animals is not allowed.

A report submitted to Cites in July this year by Kuwait says the UAE confiscated 32 cheetahs and four cheetah skins from smugglers between 2007 and last year.

In the first half of 2014, 11 cheetahs were confiscated at the Ghweifat border post with Saudi Arabia. Most of the confiscated animals came from Somalia.

An analysis of Cites data by Traffic shows, the UAE declared the import of 151 cheetahs between 1991 and 2011. Of those, 121 were bred in captivity and one was declared as captive-bred but did not meet Cites’ criteria.

Two animals were found to have been taken from the wild, 20 were confiscated and seven were of unknown origin.

In the same period, the UAE also declared the import of 169 African lions, of which 138 were bred in captivity. Another 25 lions were brought from the wild but six were confiscated.

Most of the 80 tigers imported were captive-bred, with only two declared that did not meet the criteria. Of the 37 leopards imported, three were confiscated.

Dr Thomas said that besides big cats, the UAE was also an important demand centre for falcons.

Demand from the UAE and other Arabian Gulf countries was putting pressure on populations of wild species such as the saker falcon, said Dr Thomas.

To eradicate wildlife smuggling action is necessary all across the trade chain, he said.

Source countries need to exercise better control in areas where animals are poached, and better customs and border surveillance.

In countries that feed the demand, the way forward is to educate collectors to change their behaviour.