Cheetahs Are Being Wiped Out, and Selfies Are to Blame

A report says men in the Middle East are illegally buying the fast feline as status symbols.

(Photo: Saudhunter/Instagram)

John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

You know how some men will use their dogs to flirt with women? Well, in the Middle East would-be lotharios are doing the same with endangered cheetahs. The trend, intensified by social networks, has helped spur a rampant illegal trade in the big cat, driving some cheetah populations to extinction, according to a report issued by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a treaty organization formed by governments to protect wildlife.

Keeping cheetahs as pets is an ancient tradition in the Middle East, but ownership was once restricted to only the richest sheikhs. Today, the oil-rich region’s affluence has allowed more people to afford the cats, which can sell for $10,000. It is now less about tradition and more about looking cool with a cheetah riding shotgun in your sports car or posing on the bow of your speedboat, said Kristin Nowell, executive director of the Cat Action Network and the primary author of the CITES report.

“There are hundreds [of] social media posts, including photos and videos of owners with their cheetah pets, and images taken by passersby of big cats cruising in cars or being walked on leash,” according to the report, which is illustrated with cheetah selfies young men have posted on Instagram.

(Photo: Saudhunter/Instagram)

Most of this illegal trade comes from populations in the Horn of Africa, where about 2,500 of the world's 10,000 remaining cheetahs live. Because cheetahs do not breed well in captivity, cubs are snatched from the wild before being smuggled to the Middle East. But the vast majority of the cubs—five out of six—die in transit because of improper care, the report said. (The African smugglers do not get the lion's share of cheetah profits. They sell the cubs to middlemen for $300 or less.)

This cub snatching has not been observed by conservationists, but Nowell said "one primary method would be for Somali or northeast African trackers to track a mother with young cubs and simply scoop them up."

Although cubs stay with their mothers for a year or two after birth, cheetah mothers don't defend their cubs from big predators such as lions or humans. This means cubs can be stolen without having to fight or kill the mothers. “But the population suffers from the removal of juveniles, therefore threatening the viability of the whole population," she said.

Cheetahs already have a low population density because of high juvenile predation rates, so the spike in smuggling has made things worse for the cats.

As a result of the new report, the CITES’ signatory nations have agreed to study the legal and illegal trade in wild cheetahs and assess its impact on wild populations.

A workshop will address the illegal pet trade as well as ways to reduce the demand for cheetahs and cheetah products, such as skins. The workshop will be attended by representatives from the nations in which cheetahs live, those they are smuggled through, and the countries where they end up.

Meanwhile, the United States has also taken steps to address the cheetah trade by including the cats in a recently announced national strategy to combat wildlife trafficking.

"With such a substantial naval presence still in the Gulf of Aden, there is great deterrent potential if even a fraction of these resources could be directed against illegal wildlife trade,” said Nowell.

For now, though, we can expect to keep finding photos and videos of men showing off their pet cheetahs and other big cats on Instagram and Facebook.

Just don’t “like” them. 

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