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(CNN) - Three small leather balls come together to warm up inside a cardboard box. Baby cheetahs are only a few weeks old, but have had a traumatic start.
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A smuggler was trying to get the puppies out of Somaliland, a separatist state in Somalia, when authorities caught him with his hands in the dough.
Two of the 32 cheetahs currently rescued at the CCF shelter in Hargeisa. Felines feed on fresh camel meat twice a day, with a pinch of "predator dust" to give them nutrients that they would only get in the wild.
The puppies, who will soon be taken to a shelter, are lucky. About 300 young cheetahs are marketed outside Somaliland each year, approximately the same number as the total population of adult and adolescent cheetahs in unprotected areas in the Horn of Africa, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).
Despite the prohibition of keeping wild animals as pets, cheetahs parade every so often in social media publications in the UAE.
The trend is "epidemic proportions," according to CCF, an organization dedicated to saving cheetahs in the wild. At current traffic rates, the population of cheetahs in the region may soon disappear.
"If you do the math, the numbers show that it will only be a matter of a couple of years [before] we don't have cheetahs," said Laurie Marker, a biologist and American founder of conservation biologists at CCF.
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Somaliland is the main transit route for cheetah traffic in the Horn of Africa. Animals are smuggled through the porous border of Somaliland, then stored in narrow boxes or cardboard boxes in boats and sent across the Gulf of Aden to their final destination: the Arabian Peninsula.
Three cheetahs rescued at the CCF shelter. Around 300 puppies are smuggled out of Somalia every year.
Status symbol for the rich
Less than 7,500 cheetahs remain in the wild, according to CCF. Another 1,000 cheetahs are held in private hands in Gulf countries, CCF estimated, where many are bought and sold in illegal online sales.
While many of these states prohibit private ownership and sale of wild animals, the application of the standard is lax, even in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
The overwhelming majority of these cheetahs end up in the Arab Gulf mansions, where the most endangered big cats in Africa are boasting, used as status symbols of the ultra-rich and exhibited in social media publications, according to CCF and traffic specialists .
Veterinary student Neju Jimmy lives in the shelter and is the primary caretaker of the rescued cheetahs.
In one of those publications, a video shows a "pet" cheetah watching a National Geographic show and shaking visibly when he sees one of his own on the screen. “She is obsessed with her family,” says the caption. Other publications show cheetahs lying in luxury cars, being pushed into swimming pools, receiving ice cream and lollipops by force and being teased by a group of men. A cheetah is seen being torn apart; Another is dying on camera.
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For cheetahs, a life in confinement can be deadly, if the trip does not kill them first. Many of the smuggled puppies arrive in the Gulf with broken and broken legs after a hard journey. According to Marker, three out of four cheetahs die during the trip.
As the fastest land mammal in the world, cheetahs need room to run and a special diet. Most Gulf owners don't know how to care for cats, and most cheetahs in captivity die within a year or two, experts told CNN.
"People who have cheetahs as a pet are causing the species to go extinct," Marker said.
Veterinarians in the Gulf countries confirm this bleak picture. They spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity due to the delicacy of the subject.
"(Cheetahs) have a terrible time in captivity," said a veterinarian, who has treated dozens of pet cheetahs in the past five years. Many of the caregivers did not survive.
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The veterinarian said he has seen cheetahs suffer metabolic and digestive disorders because people do not know what to feed them with. He has also encountered cheetahs with diseases related to stress and obesity due to confinement.
Captivity is "a dead end for cheetahs," said another veterinarian. The big cat is a delicate species, especially susceptible to infectious diseases, said the veterinarian.
In a statement to CNN, the UAE Ministry of Environment and Climate Change denied that there were cheetahs in the country's private homes and said any cheetah in the country was in "authorized facilities." The ministry also said it routinely tracks online advertisements for the sale of endangered species. According to them, they have removed 800 of those sites so far.
But CNN has seen several publications on Emirati social networks with pet cheetahs in recent weeks, and veterinarians told CNN that they have treated dozens of cheetahs in private captivity, although they said the numbers have declined in recent years. A veterinarian invites more bailouts in Somaliland, stricter border controls on an emirate and more rigorous surveillance of electronic commerce to end this trade.
Cheetahs for sale
A CCF study last year documented 1,367 cheetahs for sale on social media platforms between January 2012 and June 2018, mainly from the Arab Gulf states.
Most of those sales were made on Instagram and YouTube. While the announcements of these sales have been registered in 15 countries, more than 90% of them originated in Gulf countries, with 60% of those in Saudi Arabia.
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The three main sellers of pet cheetahs worldwide are based in Saudi Arabia, according to CCF, and those Saudi sellers published a fifth of all the ads.
With a simple Google search, CNN found an online Saudi market with cheetah listings, along with ads for cars and mobile phones. A cheetah vendor based in Riyadh was also advertising lions.
“Any cheetah you want, you request it and we will import it. If you want male or you want female, there is no problem, ”the Saudi seller told CNN by phone.
The seller boasted of having brought more than 80 cheetahs to the kingdom. He told CNN that they had just run out, but that he could deliver a cheetah in 25 days.
“From Africa… we import through a website with a boy, and we have another Saudi merchant. He buys them for us. He buys them in cash and sends them to us immediately, ”he explained.
The seller told the story of cheetahs raised in good condition on farms. He recommended feeding them with chicken, something veterinarians say causes health problems.
He said that puppies were offered for about two or three months, as were older cheetahs. Everything is possible, he said, for prices starting at 25,000 rials ($ 6,600). He said he makes discounts on orders from more than one cheetah.
Other vendors that CNN found online were selling them for more than $ 10,000 each.
The Saudi government did not respond to repeated requests for comments from CNN.
Illegal, but lucrative
Cheetah trade is prohibited in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Still, wildlife trade is big business, and the seller CNN talked to was probably part of a larger traffic network, according to police and traffic experts.
It is estimated that wildlife trafficking has a value of up to 20,000 million dollars per year, according to the UN and Interpol, and is among the top five illicit industries worldwide, along with drugs and human trafficking.
The illegal trade in live animals used to take place predominantly on Facebook and Instagram, but Facebook has doubled its efforts to search for abusers, says Crawford Allan, a wildlife trafficking expert at TRAFFIC, a leading wildlife trade NGO.
Facebook relies heavily on automated algorithms to detect prohibited content. They also have at least 5,000 reviewers who do the work manually, although most deal with other types of problems, such as terrorism and child abuse, rather than wildlife, according to Allan.
In addition, Facebook is among a number of social media, technology and e-commerce companies that join the World Wide Fund for Nature for the Coalition of Nature, which seeks to end wildlife trafficking online, committing to reduce traffic in 80% line by 2020.
"Our community standards do not allow the sale of endangered species or their parts, and we remove this material as soon as we realize it," a Facebook spokesman said in a written statement. Facebook is the parent company of Instagram.
There has been some success in removing illegal wildlife ads, and eBay removed 100,000 illegal wildlife ads in two years, according to Allan. But monitoring practice is a challenge, and criminals adapt to changing Internet surveillance methods.
"There are enough places to hide on the open web," Allan said.
Run to save the cheetah
Somaliland is one of the least developed parts of the world, and poverty pushes people to participate in this illicit and highly lucrative trade. But his government says he has prioritized taking strong action against wildlife dealers in recent years.
At the CCF shelter in Somaliland, 32 rescued orphaned cheetahs are treated in a safe house that is saturated in capacity. The harsh reality of electronic commerce is evident here. When rescued puppies arrive at the shelter, they are barely alive.
International staff and volunteers rush to build a larger shelter, eventually releasing cheetahs in a wildlife sanctuary.
"I love them so much that I don't even see my mother once a week," said veterinary student Neju Jimmy, who lives in the shelter and is the main caretaker of the cheetahs.
Costs are rising, he said, as more cats are brought to the shelter. The expenses currently total $ 10,000 a month, says the CCF scoreboard.
Somaliland's environment minister, Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare, said authorities could not do much to stop the source of trade. "We have to stop the demand of the Arab countries," he told CNN.
Marker has asked the leaders of those countries to increase public awareness of the issue.
"We really need influential people, we need governments, kings, princes or queens to really say that this is not right," he said.
“If we can save them, we will give them the best life they can have, but they should not be in our care. They should be in nature. ”
Saudi Arabia Arab Emirates cheetahs Somaliland