Act now or risk losing cheetahs from the wild within a decade, a leading conservationist has warned.
Dr Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, visited Dubai last week to share the latest findings on a virus which has decimated populations of big cats both in the wild and in captivity.
Feline Infectious Peritonitis, a form of coronavirus found in cats, has mutated and spread within populations of cheetah around the world.
Although not transferable to humans, as many as 60 per cent of animals infected with the virus die within three years.
"FIP is a coronavirus that becomes infectious and we have seen outbreaks all over the world," said Dr Marker, who spoke to The National during a visit to the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Zabeel.
“When we see this virus mutate there is a high mortality, anywhere from 50 to 60 per cent.
“The virus was identified in the early 1980s and we learned cheetahs are particularly susceptible.
“We have since seen it in Namibia, Ireland, the UAE and now Somaliland. It could come from the soil or be carried by domestic cats.
“When you have exotic animals as pets interfacing with domestic pets that carry viruses, you end up with disease transmission like this.”
Feline Infectious Peritonitis attacks the spleen, brain and kidneys of cats and bears similar hallmarks to lymphoma.
Animals with the virus suffer fever, weight-loss and lethargy before their chest cavities fill with fluid and the victim dies from drowning.
As a result, the virus can be difficult to diagnose. There is also no effective treatment.
Scientists believe a mutation has transformed a relatively benign form of coronavirus to a virulent "hot" strain of the disease, making cheetahs particularly vulnerable.
Paired with their increasing demand as an exotic pet, cheetahs are facing their greatest challenge for survival yet.
Conservationists in Somaliland, where the Cheetah Conservation Fund has established a rehabilitation centre for animals rescued from traffickers, said illegal trade routes into the Arabian Peninsular from the Horn of Africa remain a major threat to the future of the species.
With fewer than 7,500 cheetah thought to exist in the wild, Dr Marker predicted a grim outlook for nature’s lightning-fast hunting machine.
“Even within this population, 20 of these 31 communities are less than 100 individual cats,” she said. "So two-thirds will be in-breeding, so become genetically compromised.
“From that you end up with a lack of resilience to environmental changes and reproductive abnormalities.
“We need to stop the mentality of having these animals as pets. Unless something is done drastically, we will see the cheetah disappear.
“We are at a critical stage. At the rate we are going in the Horn of Africa, extinction could be within 10 years.”
Although trade in wildlife is regulated by both international and national laws, illegal markets are estimated to be worth up to US$150 billion (Dh550bn) annually.
Cheetahs, listed as an Appendix 1 species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), are often killed in the wild for their body parts or captured for the illegal pet trade.
The CCF first became actively involved with issues involving the illegal taking of live cheetahs in November 2005 and holds the most extensive database for illegal cheetah trafficking worldwide.
Since then, it has been conducting research to support wildlife enforcement agencies by collecting genetic samples of animals for analysis, allowing specific animals to be tracked.
The fund works to educate the public about illegal trade in collaboration with the Somaliland Ministry of Environment & Rural Development.
Despite the challenges of collecting reliable information on an underground market, the CCF has recorded hundreds of cases involving nearly 2,000 cheetahs.
The Somaliland centre has created 23 jobs for local people, but monthly running costs have tripled to $15,000 (Dh55,000) with 40 cats currently under supervision.
Often undernourished and reliant on their mother’s milk for sustenance, few cubs taken from the wild survive the journey into the Arabian Peninsular.
Of those that do, experts said less than 30 per cent survive into adulthood.
While cheetah can still be found for sale in the UAE via social media, Dr Marker said the country was showing signs of changing attitudes.
“The laws the UAE government has put in place to prohibit people holding these animals have been successful,” she said.
“Much of the rest of the Middle East is slipping behind, so the UAE can show what can be achieved through better professional polices about exotic animals.
“It will take a joint effort from these countries working together to stop this altogether.”