On the hunt: Tracking the illegal cheetah trade

Scientists are testing new tools to spot the origin of cheetahs poached from the wild and smuggled for the pet trade.
Cheetah cubs rescued from the illegal wildlife pet trade and brought to Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Rescue and Conservation Center.
Cheetah cubs rescued from the illegal wildlife pet trade and brought to Cheetah Conservation Fund’s Rescue and Conservation Center. Credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

This article was originally featured on Undark.

Patricia Tricorache, an independent wildlife trade investigator based in Mexico City, spends hours each day lit by the glow of her computer screen, trawling social media sites for people buying and selling wild cheetahs. Between 2010 and 2019, she found 2,298 live cheetahs illegally advertised online by 528 sellers, with most advertisements appearing on social media.

“It was like a rabbit hole. I would go to one site and look at one seller, and then on the comments I would find another one,” then another one, she said. “It was a nightmare.”

Such trade in protected wildlife, a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, is considered among the most lucrative illicit commerce in the world. And Tricorache, who is also a research associate at Colorado State University, has collected data that shows the cheetah market has intensified in recent years.

Most cubs are taken from areas in the Horn of Africa — Ethiopia, Somalia, and Somaliland — and sold to wealthy exotic pet collectors and private zoos across the Arabian Peninsula. The cubs can ultimately sell for as much as $50,000 apiece, according to Tricorache, and are usually mixed in with other contraband trafficked on small boats across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Dealers there stash the cubs near animal markets and in private homes until they can be transferred to buyers. The majority of cubs don’t survive the arduous journey, due to malnutrition and poor handling, Tricorache said. “The few that survive to be sold will not live very long.”

All the cubs were likely poached from the wild, Tricorache said, because cheetahs don’t breed well in captivity. Most often, poachers wait until the mother goes hunting and then snatch the babies before she returns.

The trade has had a dire effect on cheetah populations. Estimates show that in the early 20th century, there were as many as 100,000 cheetahs in Africa and Asia. Today, the cats are believed to have been wiped out in nearly 90 percent of their former range. Scientists estimate somewhere between 6,500 and 10,000 of the animals remain, in fragmented pockets of savanna habitat and rural farmlands.

“It was like a rabbit hole. I would go to one site and look at one seller, and then on the comments I would find another one.”

For years, conservationists have worked in collaboration with local partners in the Horn of Africa to protect cheetahs. Yet cheetah distribution and the precise origins of trafficked cubs have long been mysterious. Now, several new scientific efforts aim to unveil the source of the cubs, providing a better understanding of where the cheetah supply chain begins.

One study, led by Geoff Koehler, a geochemist with the federal agency Environment and Climate Change Canada, tested a technique called stable isotope analysis to determine the origin of confiscated cheetah cubs. The researcher’s goal is to create a tool using hydrogen and oxygen isotopes that will one day help law enforcement investigations identify and shut down animal trafficking rings.

Another effort is a three-year project, spearheaded by ecologist Paul Evangelista at Colorado State University, that aims to identify where wild cheetahs still exist and better understand local attitudes toward wildlife and trade. A wide swath of the Horn of Africa hasn’t been adequately surveyed for cheetahs due to a decades-long armed conflict and sheer remoteness, according to Evangelista. He wanted to explore if the volume of trafficked animals indicates a significant population that has gone undetected.

“We can fix this,” said Evangelista, of the significant number of wild cheetahs shuttled through the illicit pet trade. “I think this is a very solvable problem.”

Despite their exotic good looks — tan coats with solid black spots, teardrop patterns trailing from their eyes, a narrow waist, and deep chest — cheetahs don’t make good pets. The animals require a lot more work than a standard tabby. They need ample space, a specialized diet, as well as expert care to deal with common health issues that trafficked cheetahs face, said Tricorache. “Furthermore, while they are gentle in nature and easy to habituate, they are still wild and have the potential of hurting a human.”

For centuries, cheetahs have served as status symbols and stealthy hunting companions. Giuliano de’ Medici, who ruled Florence with his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent, appears in a Renaissance painting riding horseback with a cheetah seated behind him. Akbar the Great, who ruled Mughal India in the 16th century, used trained cheetahs to hunt deer. The Jazz Age burlesque star Josephine Baker performed with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who “sometimes terrorized the orchestra pit,” according to the New York Times.

A few decades later, cheetahs came into vogue for zoo collections. In the 1960s, thousands of cheetahs were captured by farmers who’d been trained by animal dealers to catch the cats in cage traps. Facing pressures from habitat loss and conflicts with humans, the number of cheetahs in the wild declined from an estimated 40,000 in 1960 to fewer than 20,000 by 1975.

One challenge: The cats’ home ranges are large — about 800 square kilometers, roughly 310 square miles — and so they often roam outside conservation reserves, especially since there can be competition there with lions and other predators, said zoologist Laurie Marker, executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Namibia. “The reserves are not large enough.”

Meanwhile, they have to share space with people, too, which may be problematic for the big cats. The cheetahs sometimes eat livestock, and people often retaliate by killing the offending cat. Orphaned cubs are usually sold into the illegal pet trade.

In 1975, in response to concerns about biodiversity loss, CITES banned the international trade of wild-caught cheetahs, except for limited quotas for live specimens and hunting trophies from Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. But even after the ban, cheetah numbers continued to plummet. Research and tracking data showed “farmers were killing cheetahs like flies,” said Marker. Her early research examined the farmer-cheetah conflict in Namibia in the late 1970s. She founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990 in an effort to save wild cheetahs by establishing a research and education center in Namibia, and collaborating with other countries where cheetahs are declining.

Tricorache began working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in the early 2000s, after quitting what she calls “one of the best jobs in the corporate world,” working in public relations for the tobacco giant Philip Morris International. She became the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s assistant director for strategic communications to dedicate herself toward wildlife conservation efforts.

One day in 2005, Tricorache received a phone call from a veterinarian working to rescue two cheetah cubs tied up outside a restaurant in Gode, nearly 400 miles from the country’s capital of Addis Ababa. One of the cats was blind in one eye, suggesting that it had likely been kicked in the face, Tricorache said.

Rumor was the restaurant owner had been forcing the cubs to fight to amuse patrons, but he was offering to sell them for $1,000 each. The veterinarian was considering buying the cubs to donate them to a sanctuary where they could be cared for. “That’s when I went into panther mode,” she said, recounting the conversation. “I said no, don’t do it. If you buy them, then they’ll go get more cubs because they know they can make money.”

Tricorache helped organize a rescue operation. The cubs were seized by Ethiopian authorities and flown by U.S. military plane to Addis Ababa, where they were to live on the grounds of the National Palace.

Both soon died from their injuries. But widespread media coverage of their rescue led to more reports of trafficked cheetahs, and more rescues. “The calls and emails were just pouring in,” Tricorache said. “We never knew that the trade was so abundant.”

That’s when Tricorache began forming networks of informants on the ground. In 2012, she started cyberstalking cheetah traffickers who use social media. She currently works as a volunteer investigator for the nonprofit Alliance to Counter Crime Online, a group of academic researchers and investigators advocating for Big Tech to crack down on trafficking everything from guns and drugs to wildlife and human body parts on their platforms. She’s also assisting Colorado State’s Paul Evangelista’s international effort to find the origin of hundreds of confiscated cheetah cubs taken from the wild.

Ricorache’s recent unpublished data suggest that the illegal cheetah trade from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula has increased by more than 50 percent between 2020 and 2023, compared to the annual average of trafficked cubs during the previous decade.

In December 2023, researchers published a report making a scientific case for stronger protection status for the Northeast African cheetah subspecies, Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii. Genetic analysis had shown all 55 cheetahs confiscated in Somaliland from 2016 to 2019 represented this subspecies. They urged the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, to reclassify the Northeast African cheetah as endangered and called for more research to investigate whether it warrants critically endangered status.

“Somaliland has been a closed geographic region for so long — and much of it still is,” Evangelista said. “We really have no idea what’s been going on there with the wildlife.” With a $1 million dollar grant provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2022, Evangelista has spearheaded an effort to conduct wildlife surveys across certain areas of six African countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somalia, Kenya, and South Sudan. The ongoing three-year project aims to locate where undocumented cheetah populations still persist and learn more about local attitudes toward wildlife and trade. With that information, the researchers hope to help government wildlife departments develop cheetah management and conservation strategies, and raise regional public awareness about the imperiled cheetah’s plight. They want to know: Is there intense human-wildlife conflict? Or is there a level of tolerance suggesting that the humans and big cats can coexist?

“The calls and emails were just pouring in. We never knew that the trade was so abundant.”

The project’s surveyors have been asking pastoralists working on the landscape to examine a series of photographs representing more than 50 animal species, including antelope and other animals that are cheetah prey. They ask, one photo at a time, does this species occur within one day’s walk of here? Early data indicate there are a significant number of undocumented cheetahs and other animal species persisting in remote areas of East Africa, Evangelista said. Even in the face of human conflict, habitat loss, and other environmental threats, he said, nature is resilient.

Muhyadin Abdi Hussein, the bureau head of the Environment Protection Rural Land Administration in Ethiopia, is one of Evangelista’s colleagues working with him on the cheetah trade in his region. He said raising awareness that cheetahs are endangered and that the trade is illegal, combined with better law enforcement, is crucial to protect the species.

In early 2023, Colorado State University co-hosted a five-day workshop in Ethiopia for 23 wildlife officials from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, Somaliland, Puntland State of Somalia, and the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia. It was the first of three planned workshops geared toward learning more about wild cheetah populations, helping countries with cheetahs develop conservation management plans, and halt cheetah trafficking to the Middle East. “These people are coming from different countries that don’t always get along,” Evangelista said, yet they’re uniting to help save cheetahs.

Though he feels confident that it will be possible to reduce the pressure on cheetah populations supplying the trade, addressing the demand from the Arabian Peninsula remains a major challenge. Those countries do not have consistent laws against keeping wildlife as pets, and even when they do, there’s little enforcement. The United Arab Emirates, for example, banned private ownership of dangerous animals, including cheetahs, in 2016. Some owners surrendered their pets. However, plenty of citizens with illegal cheetahs continue to openly display them on Instagram and Facebook, said Tricorache. In some cases, the owners’ estates masquerade as licensed private zoos. “They use their licenses to launder illegal wildlife,” she said.

Most of the cheetahs going to the Arabian Peninsula travel through Somaliland, where it has been illegal to take cheetahs from the wild since 1969. But with a porous border and a 460-mile coastline that offers a direct route to wealthy cheetah buyers in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Somaliland is a central hub for the illicit cheetah trade. And because it is a breakaway state that hasn’t yet been recognized by the international community as an official country, Somaliland lacks resources and support to effectively combat illicit trade.

Only about 10 percent of trafficked cheetah cubs are intercepted by law enforcement, according to Tricorache’s data. Corruption hampers enforcement, too: “Police and customs and army, and even the wildlife departments, they get paid very little,” she said. “It’s very easy to tell an army guy, listen I’ll give you $2,000 and you let me get through with these eight cheetahs.”

Plenty of citizens with illegal cheetahs continue to openly display them on Instagram and Facebook.

A National Geographic feature in 2021 revealed how coast guard officers based in a ramshackle station on Somaliland’s central coast patrol the beaches with only boats, but no cars or radios. Still, those officers once managed to snag Somaliland’s most notorious cheetah trafficker, a man known as Cabdi Xayawaan (pronounced AB-dee HI-wahn). Traveling on foot, the officers concealed themselves on both sides of the road and emerged with their guns drawn when they spotted the red Toyota SUV Xayawaan was driving. They’d prevented him from reaching the beach, where he planned to hand six cheetah cubs to a Yemeni man traveling by boat.

Even though he was caught with the cubs in his car, Xayawaan escaped a conviction for cheetah trafficking that time. On other occasions when he has been convicted, he didn’t stay in jail long. “In the last eight years, he’s been arrested and convicted four times, I think,” said Tricorache. She believes Xayawaan will continue to be a major player in the illegal cheetah trade.

Whenever cheetah cubs get confiscated from a trafficker like Xayawaan, Marker, at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, receives a call asking for help.

Until recently, Marker’s group was caring for cubs confiscated in Somaliland in five safe houses. She said cubs were “coming out my ears.” Then in 2021, the government provided them with 3,000 hectares — roughly 7,400 acres. The Cheetah Rescue and Conservation Center, in Geed-Deeble, Somaliland, is now home to 97 cheetahs. Those are the lucky ones. “Over these five years, we probably had at least 50 more that have come to us dead, basically,” Marker said. “Our research had actually shown that for every cub that made it into the trade, four or five of them died.” She said they’re now able to save more cubs — 80 percent compared to 20 percent before — because they’re getting them earlier.

Her group is trying to raise awareness of the threat to wild cheetahs from the illegal pet trade. Research at the group’s genetic laboratory in Namibia, based on blood samples collected from confiscated cubs, recently helped support the case to raise the IUCN conservation status of the Northeast African cheetah from threatened to endangered.

Samples of fur collected from the cubs have also aided research in faraway Canada, where Koehler, the geochemist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, is attempting to use stable isotope analysis as a “forensic tracer of origin” to find out where the trafficked wild animals are being taken from and to determine if declared wildlife is legitimately sourced legally.

The tool, said Koehler, rests on a familiar principle: “You are what you eat.” Each place in the world has a unique mix of different forms of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon in the local food and water. As animals eat and drink, ratios of these different isotopes come to be reflected in the molecules that make up an animal’s blood, feathers, or fur, providing a kind of geographic fingerprint hidden in an animal’s flesh.

Stable isotope analysis lets scientists read that stamp, linking organisms to their environments. The technique has been used to map the migrations of birds and butterflies. Now, scientists are hoping it will help solve the cheetah trafficking problem, too.

Koehler first heard about the cheetah issue in the Horn of Africa from a colleague working with the nonprofit group Veterinarians Without Borders. He said, “‘these cubs are being rescued, but we don’t know exactly where they’re coming from,’” Koehler recounts. He thought perhaps stable isotope analysis could help solve the mystery.

As animals eat and drink, ratios of these different isotopes come to be reflected in the molecules that make up an animal’s blood, feathers, or fur, providing a kind of geographic fingerprint hidden in an animal’s flesh.

Very few isotopic studies had been done before with cats, he said. There was one from the early 2000s, after a cougar wandered into the city of Saskatoon, where Koehler lives. The police shot the cat to protect the public. Koehler’s lab examined the stable isotope ratios in the cougar’s whiskers and claws. “As hair grows, it gives you a time series,” he explained. “Like tree rings.” By evaluating the isotopic ratios in the rings, they showed the hydrogen isotopes were consistent with the route that the radio-collared cougar traveled from Montana.

Another previous study at Koehler’s lab collected feline and canine hair samples from animal shelters across the country. When the scientists analyzed the hair, they found that they could match the stable isotope ratios with the locations where the shelters were located. Based on those two studies, Koehler believed it might be possible to do the same origin tracing with rescued cheetah cubs.

From 2015 to 2021, the Cheetah Conservation Fund collected patches of fur from incoming confiscated cubs, ranging in age from three to seven months old. The hair samples were shipped to Saskatoon, where they were cleaned with a solvent and analyzed. The isotopic ratios were then compared to a map, revealing the cubs were likely sourced primarily from northern Ethiopia, western Kenya, and possibly along the Somali border with Kenya.

Going forward, Koehler hopes to see the technique further developed into a tool that can be used by law enforcement and conservation agencies to combat the illegal trade of all sorts of species, from pangolins and parrots to tigers.

So far, the technique seemingly has not been used to capture any cheetah traffickers. But stable isotope analysis did recently aid an illegal wildlife investigation in Canada. Back in 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada wildlife agents found suspicious information about a polar bear mount and two hides in export permits filed by an Ontario taxidermist sending the bear to China. Stable isotope analysis, DNA, and microchips used to track polar bear parts combined to provide compelling evidence that helped yield his conviction.

In September 2023, the taxidermist pled guilty to violating Canadian wildlife trade law and was sentenced to pay a $60,000 fine and forfeit the polar bear mount and rugs. “That was, for us, a very successful story, Koehler said.

As new tools to help crack down on wildlife trafficking develop, Tricorache hasn’t given up on combing through social media sites for posters illegally selling cheetahs. Currently, she spends about four or five hours a day keeping an eye on dozens of accounts, in addition to her other work with Colorado State and ACCO. “This is me trying to retire, because I am 68,” she said, laughing.

Gretchen Peters, founder and executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online, described Tricorache as a “force of nature” in an email to Undark. But while Tricorache has had some successes, Peters said, “she’s up against a rich and powerful industry that spends more time working to cover up and deflect attention from the problem it creates, rather than fix them.”

Peters believes social media platforms have greatly amplified the capacity of illicit actors to sell all sorts of illegal products. “Other than in the EU and the UK, tech companies still carry no liability for most user-generated content and criminal conduct they host,” Peters said.

She said Meta should block search results when users combine endangered species terms with sale terms (such as “rhino horn for sale” or “buy cheetah cub”). Furthermore, she said the company should “monitor and remove Closed and Secret Groups on Facebook that are widely known to be the epicenter of illegal activity, including the illegal wildlife trade,” and should work closely with authorities, rather than — as she sees it — cover criminals’ tracks. “When Meta moderators identify pages and groups where there is credible evidence that endangered animals are being trafficked, or animals are being abused, they should turn the evidence over to law enforcement,” she said, “not simply delete it.”  

Meta’s policy prohibits attempting to buy, trade, or sell, endangered species or their parts, as well as gifts, donations, or “asks.” In statements to media outlets the company has said that content violating its policies is removed. Meta did not respond to requests for comment from Undark.

“Other than in the EU and the UK, tech companies still carry no liability for most user-generated content and criminal conduct they host.”

Tricorache does not alert tech companies when she finds criminals selling wildlife on their platforms. “If you report it, they either ignore you or they remove everything,” she said. “It’s like they’re disposing the gun that was used to kill somebody.”

Afterward, the trafficker, she said, “just opens another account with a different username.”

Lately, the cheetah traffickers are getting wiser about advertising out in the open on Instagram and Facebook. They’re moving to Snapchat or using Instagram stories that disappear, she said, which is more difficult to monitor. Rarely do the traffickers now say they have animals “for sale,” she said. These days, they just post pictures. Currently, one of the accounts she’s trying to keep tabs on is a guy on Instagram whom she believes to be the biggest cheetah trafficker in Yemen.

The volume and variety of animals illegally for sale online is dizzying, Tricorache said. “It’s nonstop.”