In the past few years, wealthy Instagrammers from the Gulf countries have been filling social media with photos and videos of their pet cheetahs – doing everything from playing like domestic cats to hunting gazelles in the desert. These posts are incredibly popular and viewers who want to get in on this fad don’t have to look far to find ads for cheetahs for sale. To fulfil the demand, a business has cropped up trafficking cheetahs from the Horn of Africa into the Gulf states, which is endangering the survival of this species.
In the past century, the number of cheetahs in the world has dropped from 100,000 to just 7,100. The number of illegal sales has exploded and at least 1,500 cheetahs have been sold online since 2012. Despite these numbers, there has been little coverage of this growing illegal trade in wild animals. Yet all you have to do is spend a bit of time on social media from Gulf countries to see just how widespread this market is.
This Saudi Instagrammer, who seems to have a menagerie of exotic animals, has around 28,000 followers. His account is plastered with endless photos of his animals, including several cheetahs.
While some people use social media to post about their own domestic (or semi-domesticated) cheetahs, other people use these platforms to advertise the sale of these creatures in total impunity. A cheetah usually goes for between 25,000 and 35,000 Saudi riyals (€6,000-8,000), but the prices are often negotiated on WhatsApp. Baby cheetahs, who are often just a few weeks old, fetch the highest prices. Females are also more expensive as they are generally better hunters than the males.
This person is selling a six-month-old male cheetah for 25,000 Saudi riyals.
This post is an ad for a three-year-old male cheetah who is up for sale in Riyadh. According to the seller, the cheetah is “domesticated” but “trained to hunt”.
On the same forum, there’s an ad for four two-month-old cheetah cubs. Each cub costs 30,000 Saudi riyals, a price that the seller says is “non-negotiable”.
'Most baby cheetahs who are born in the Horn of Africa are kidnapped'
Patricia Tricorache is the an assistant director at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which was set up in Namibia in 1990. Tricorache works on combating illegal wildlife trade for the organisation.
We estimate that there are about 300 baby cheetahs who are taken each year from the Horn of Africa to be sold as pets in the Gulf states. This number might seem small compared with the thousands of tons of ivory that is poached each year but it is important to remember that there are only a few hundred cheetahs left in the wild in the Horn of Africa. Most baby cheetahs who are born in the Horn of Africa are taken and sold.
The region most affected by this illegal trade is Somaliland [Editor’s note: an autonomous region in eastern Somalia that declared its independence in 1991 but, so far, has not been recognised by the international community] because of its close proximity with the Arabian peninsula.
Cheetahs from Ethiopia, northern Kenya and other regions in Somalia are trafficked from Somaliland into the gulf of Aden. The war in Yemen doesn’t seem to have slowed down this illegal trade.
From there, most of the baby cheetahs are brought to Saudi Arabia, with a smaller number going to Oman. Most of them will end up being sold within Saudi Arabia, though others are brought to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.
All different people are involved in this illegal industry. Some are incredibly poor farmers living in zones affected by desertification. If they are lucky enough to find and capture a baby cheetah, they can sell it for several hundred US dollars, which will feed their families for months.
This trade is all the more appealing because the laws are so lax. Even if they are caught in the act, people who capture wild cheetah cubs run practically no risk of being tried or sent to prison. All of these factors make it a lucrative trade where the punishment in no way reflects the seriousness of the crime.
Some of these people may not even know that what they are doing is illegal. However, there are definitely opportunistic hunters who know that what they are doing is wrong but do it anyway to make money.
Perhaps most surprisingly, there are quite a few videos posted on YouTube showing “pet” cheetahs hunting and catching gazelles. There are also video tutorials where some owners explain how to tame these wild animals and turn them into real domesticated pets.
This cheetah hunts down a gazelle but doesn’t kill it. Instead, he pins it down while waiting for his owner
This Saudi vlogger created an entire YouTube channel dedicated to wild animals. In this 'tutorial', he explains to his viewers how to domesticate a cheetah and get it to eat out of your hands.
"For every cheetah that gets bought, there are three or four who die”
Cheetahs have always been symbols of wealth and power for noble and royal families that use them as pets or hunting companions. They are beautiful creatures and they are also much lighter in weight than lions or leopards – usually cheetahs weigh around 50 kilos, which allow many people to compare them to large cats. They are also less aggressive than many big cats because their bodies were built for speed not fighting. This tradition of keeping cheetahs continues even today.
Owning a cheetah is a symbol of prestige among the wealthy or the slightly less wealthy who aspire to a higher status. Some of these less wealthy owners buy cheetahs even if they don’t have the space or means to care for them – for instance, in the UAE, we came across a cheetah that was being kept in a bathroom.
Other people falsely believe that by buying cheetahs, they are helping to preserve a species that is endangered in the wild. In general, people are clearly attracted to wild animals, as evidenced by the parks set up across Asia and Africa where people pay to take a photo with a baby lion or tiger cub.
The difference is that, in the Gulf countries, there are people who are wealthy enough to buy these animals for themselves. But what they don’t always realise is that these animals were brought into the country illegally and this illegal trade has disastrous consequences for wildlife. They don’t realise that for every cheetah that is purchased, three or four die.
Indeed, the path of illegal trade leaves large numbers of corpses in its wake. Sometimes cheetah cubs are taken when they are as young as two weeks old. In those cases, the cubs either die during the journey or suffer health consequences after being deprived of their mother’s milk.
In any case, these animals are at risk from the moment they are stolen from the wild because they will no longer be living in their natural habitat or getting the food that they need.
Cheetahs are incredibly fragile creatures and they can get sick and die within a matter of hours. Even if they survive the journey, when they are very often not given enough food or water, their health, wellbeing and lifespan depends on the person who buys them. Many cheetahs die after a few months. Those who reach adulthood are often sold at high prices because people think that they run less risk of dying. But the average lifespan of a cheetah in captivity is one year. Many end up with bone deformities or degenerative brain diseases. Others die from viruses that they catch from domestic cats.
Social media helps maintain this illegal trade
Even though people have always tried to domesticate cheetahs, Tricorache says that social media has increased this illegal trade:
We’ve worked hard to raise awareness among owners and veterinarians, especially in the UAE. Unfortunately, most of the owners don’t want to come and see us because they know that having these animals is illegal.
I met an owner in the UAE who was giving his cheetah salt water to drink. I had to explain to him that just as salt water wouldn’t quench the thirst of a human being, it also wouldn’t for animals. People have no idea how to care for these animals.
Social media is extremely problematic in this regard. We have no control over what people post. I have seen hundreds of ads for cheetahs for sale on social media.
In the same vein, the photos that people post of their cheetahs make other people want to get them. All of the likes and the comments help to fuel this illegal trade. It would be helpful if people understood that they should stop applauding this kind of publication and stop going to places that use wild animals as attractions, thus contributing to this fad.