Cheetahs – The New Luxury Pet in the Middle East

Owning cheetahs - a status symbol in the Middle East

Owning a cheetah has become a status symbol in the Middle East, according to the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), who warns their popularity as a “hot new luxury pet” is putting wild cheetah populations at greater risk – and possibly extinction.

People are paying as much as $10,000 for cubs. There has also been an increasing demand for cheetah-skin shoes.

Many of these cheetah “pets” have been illegally smuggled into the country from Somalia. Up to 70% of the cubs die before reaching the Middle East.

There are currently less than 10,000 cheetahs living in the wild – a 90% decline in population over the past 100 years.

Sources:
Extinction fears rise as cheetah becomes new luxury pet in Middle East” (Delhi Daily News)
Cheetah smuggling driving wild population to extinction, report says” (The Guardian)

 

 

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Muslim Leaders Issue Legal Ruling Against Wildlife Trafficking

Fatwa against trafficking - National Geographic

Indonesia’s Muslim clerical body has issued the first fatwa against wildlife trafficking. A “fatwa” is a legal opinion or ruling issued by an Islamic scholar.

“the fatwa itself is merely a call to action. Invoking passages from the Koran, the fatwa…is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.”


First Ever Fatwa Issued Against Wildlife Trafficking
National Geographic
“This fatwa is issued to give an explanation, as well as guidance, to all Muslims in Indonesia on the sharia law perspective on issues related to animal conservation,” said Hayu Prabowo, chair of the Council of Ulama’s environment and natural resources

 

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A View to a Kill

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See the first ever photos of a snow leopard’s successful hunt and read photographer Adam Riley’s thrilling account of the unforgettable experience!

During a snow leopard viewing expedition in India’s Hemis National Park, wildlife photographer Adam Riley was able to observe – and take photos of – a cat hunting and killing a blue sheep. He shares his pictures and story with us here.

Text and photos by Adam Riley (INDRI Ultimate Wildlife Tours)


Snow Leopard peering over a rocky outcrop in the Tarbung Valley, Hemis NP, India

It was our third day in high elevation Hemis National Park, we had awakened before dawn and chugged down a mug of life-giving coffee before ascending a few hundred yards to a knoll above our tented camp in the Rhumbak Valley.

The cat is gathering strength before launching its attack
The cat (center) is gathering strength before launching its attack

At this very spot, on our first afternoon in the park, and within half an hour of officially beginning our Snow Leopard search, our expert local spotter had exclaimed “Shan!!” – the Ladakhi name for Snow Leopard. After a few tense moments and some mild panic, we had all trained our telescopes on a Snow Leopard stalking across a far mountain slope. The distance was extreme, estimated at 2.5-3km, even the cat’s spots were hard to discern, yet we spent an enthralling hour and a half watching it sunning itself on a rock, then rolling like a tabby in loose gravel before setting off, at a remarkably rapid pace, across the mountain slope until it disappeared above a cliff face. Moments later it came barreling down the cliff in a chase, scattering a herd of Blue Sheep in all directions, however it didn’t seem to reach striking distance of any of them. It then disappeared over the mountain ridge, seemingly in disgust!

“High fives” were shared all round, we were elated! We had 9 days in the mountains and by the first day we had already actually clapped eyes on this, the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas, albeit distantly. Seeing a wild Snow Leopard is every wildlife enthusiast’s dream, probably the ultimate and most elusive wildlife experience on the planet. This Holy Grail of sightings was until quite recently, virtually impossible, requiring months of extreme endurance for even the slimmest glimmer of hope. Peter Matthiessen’s famous book Snow Leopard describes such an attempt that proved ultimately unsuccessful in his primary goal of glimpsing a Snow Leopard.

blue sheep, the snow leopard's preferred prey
A herd of blue sheep, the snow leopard’s preferred prey

Knowing this, we were certainly far from disappointed by our experience but we of course all dreamed of a closer view. So the next day we trekked to the Tarbung Valley, lying below our camp. It was on the upper slopes of this valley where our distant Snow Leopard had been observed. By the end of the day our eyes were stinging with the effort of incessantly scanning the slopes surrounding us for another view of this cryptic feline. I hadn’t imagined that there would literally be millions of locations within view at any time where a Snow Leopard could be hiding! By sunset we felt that we were faced with a near impossible task and were grateful for the extreme luck to have obtained our first sighting! However, we were somewhat encouraged by spotting at least 10 herds of Blue Sheep (locally known as Bharal) on the slopes around this lower valley. These sturdy mountain sheep are the preferred diet of the Snow Leopard in this part of its range and the high density of prey was a good indication that a predator should be around!

Our guide explained that camera traps scattered at strategic sites in the three valleys around our camp had revealed that there were no less than 11 resident Snow Leopards in the immediate vicinity! An astounding density for a large predator, especially in such a cold, desert-like environment.

Day three had dawned bright and sunny once again. We opted for a pre-breakfast scan at the knoll above camp from where we had lucked into our first sighting. This time it was our assistant Snow Leopard spotter who uttered the magical word, and after a scramble we were again all watching a much closer Snow Leopard in the Tarbung Valley. The cat actually appeared almost golden in the early morning light and this time we could admire its magnificent thick, blotched pelt, extremely long tail and large head. Snow Leopards are the subject of recent taxonomic debate, sometimes being placed in their own genus Uncia (from their earliest Western name Ounce, an ancient name first given to the Eurasian Lynx; which also occurs in Hemis National Park). However most recent research places them amongst the Panthera. This is the genus of the typical large cats including Lion, Leopard, Jaguar and Tiger. In fact genetic evidence indicates that the Snow Leopard’s closest living relative is the Tiger. Our Snow Leopard sat, quite Cheetah-like, before stalking off and once again rolling in the gravel, apparently an indication of the desire to mask its scent before a hunt. We realized that we could place ourselves much closer to our dream target if we hiked down into the valley where we had spent the previous day, so we left one of our spotters on the knoll with a radio and we descended with bated breath, by-passing camp and breakfast en route!

Half an hour later we were on the slope opposite to where we had seen our Snow Leopard and with directions from our spotter we managed to relocate the cat. It was barely visible at the top of an outcrop about 300m away, cautiously peering over the rocks at us. We settled down and trained our telescopes, cameras and binoculars on the far slope and slowly but surely, our leopard gained confidence until it lifted its whole head and stared at us. As the sun rose and the day heated up, our cat dozed off, all we could see was a paw and the top of its head.

As the shadows lengthened, a herd of ten Blue Sheep made an appearance on the scene. They slowed grazed their way up from the stream cutting through the valley, heading in the general direction of the rocky outcrop in which our Snow Leopard was resting. Closer and closer they approached and our adrenalin levels began to rise, but then the lead sheep changed direction and started moving back down the hill. Seven in total descended but two adults and a juvenile kept moving towards the danger zone…

After an hour the sun dipped over the horizon and the temperatures started to plummet. The three upper sheep stopped grazing and lay down, seemingly bedding down for the night, and we guessed that the show was over. In fact some of our group decided to head back to camp. However after another quarter of an hour these three sheep started grazing again and continued making their way to the lusher grasses growing along the base of the outcrop in which our Snow Leopard was still snoozing. Suddenly the Snow Leopard detected the presence of its prey and sat up on its haunches for the first time since we had relocated it. It began to bob its head from side to side, a clear feline sign of measuring distance and perspective in planning an attack. We could not believe our fortune, could we really be treated to a Snow Leopard hunt – this was beyond our wildest dreams? Then the leopard was moving and it headed along the top of the outcrop, disappearing on the hidden slope opposite to where the sheep were grazing.

unsuspecting sheep before the attack
Unsuspecting sheep before the attack

Two minutes later it appeared half way down the outcrop and slightly above the Blue Sheep. First it sat up trying to relocate its prey and once locked on, the cat slunk low and crept into a fault line that ran across the outcrop towards the sheep. Half way across the rocks, it sunk into a hollow, just the top of its head visible as it kept a careful watch. The two adult sheep now began moving away from the attack zone, did they have an instinct that danger was near, or did they know from experience not to dally near rocks where leopards might lie in wait?

However the young sheep carried on oblivious heading higher up the slope along the edge of the outcrop, and closer and closer to the hidden Snow Leopard. By this stage we were all at our wits end and shaking with excitement, was the Snow Leopard going to charge, why was it taking soooooo long? My shoulders were aching with the effort of holding my camera ready for the pounce.

And finally in a blur, everything happened.

The Snow Leopard leapt from its cover, bounding across the rocks in great leaps towards the young Blue Sheep. All three sheep took to flight, creating dust trails in their wake. The speed at which the Snow Leopard closed ground on the young sheep was remarkable as it barreled off the rocky outcrop to open ground, clearing a large rock en route.

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Within seconds the Snow Leopard was on the hapless sheep. After careful scrutiny of images, it seems that the Blue Sheep lost its footing as it tried to escape but in the process it kicked up a load of gravel and dust, right into the Snow Leopard’s face, temporarily blinding the cat. This gave the sheep a vital break and it was able to pull away from the leopard which kept at its heels but was several critical paces behind.

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The two adult sheep has gone their separate ways, one heading downhill away from the danger and the other, possibly the younger sheep’s mother, scrambling up a steep slope. At this point, our young sheep made a tactical error and instead of fleeing downslope, it tried to follow the upper sheep.

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The slope became incredibly steep, almost vertical, and this gave the Snow Leopard its chance to gain ground on its shorter legged target.

Finally the young sheep realized the leopard was almost upon it and bravely pulled a u-turn, heading back down the slope in the direction from which it had come. Snow Leopards have extremely long tails, up to a meter in length and besides storing fat, the tail is utilized as a ‘scarf’ in the winter. This tail is also a valuable rudder and balancing device, thus the Snow Leopard was easily able to perform its own abrupt u-turn and track the sheep back down the slope.

The young sheep cleared a massive jump, but it was the beginning of the end as it could not match the 15m (50ft) jumps that a Snow Leopard can achieve, and within moments the cat was right on its heels.

Extending a paw, the Snow Leopard seemed to ankle-tap the sheep and as it rolled, the cat leapt onto sheep and immediately latched onto its throat. This take at such high speed and on a steep slope meant gravity took its affect and the cat and sheep tumbled over and over each other until the Snow Leopard took control of the situation. The Snow Leopards’ thick pelts have long been highly sought-after artifacts by the people who share its Central Asian range, providing amazing insulation in the cold, but another reason their pelts are so thick must be to protect the leopard when it takes rough tumbles across its rugged, rocky environment.

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For at least 3 minutes the Snow Leopard lay alongside the young sheep, firmly attached to its throat as it suffocated its prey, the Blue Sheep feebly kicking its hind legs intermittently.

Only when it was certain the sheep was dead did our predator finally release its fatal grip and rest alongside its upcoming meal for several minutes catching its breath after such an extreme effort. For the first time in minutes, the Snow Leopard became aware of us again, ensuring we had not moved and were posing no threat on the opposite slope.

Finally the Snow Leopard picked up the Blue Sheep and dragged it across the open area, pretty much following the route of the chase, back to the fault line in the rocks and finally over the rocky outcrop and out of our view where presumably it feasted on its well-deserved meal!

By this time the light was fading fast and we arrived back in camp half an hour later in the pitch dark, still not quite believing what had unfolded before our eyes!

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This was truly an incredible encounter we had been so, so fortunate to witness; a full Snow Leopard hunt from beginning to end including the take and kill. Our Snow Leopard spotter had been working in Hemis for 16 years and he had never seen this happen before nor knew anyone else who had been as fortunate as us. Film crews and professional photographers have spent months and sometimes even years following Snow Leopards and although several thrilling hunts have been captured, as far as we are aware, no successful hunt has ever been photographed! I am exhilarated therefore to be able to share my images and story of this hunt with you.

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This event was observed during a tour arranged and guided by INDRI – Ultimate Wildlife Tours (www.indritours.com). INDRI offer Snow Leopard expeditions annually in October and February, combined with a Royal Bengal Tiger and Indian One-horned Rhinoceros extensions. They also arrange and guide other wildlife tours globally to the world’s last remaining wildernesses in search of iconic wildlife.

Thanks to Adam Riley and Simon Bellingham, INDRI – Ultimate Wildlife Tours

A View to a Kill was originally published here.

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Doom for Africa’s cheetahs? (LionAid)

doom-for-africas-cheetahs-1

African cheetah populations are small and fragmented. From Pieter’s Blog at LionAid.org, a report on the illegal trade of cheetahs and their “uncertain future.”

LIONAID: A recent poster by the Rangewide Conservation Program for Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs (RWCP) and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) presented at the recent Symposium on International Wildlife Trafficking has some very worrying statistics on the illegal trade of live cheetahs and cheetah products.

The organizations estimate that about 10,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa, many in small, scattered populations with an uncertain future. Most of those wild cheetahs occur in Namibia, and most of those on private land. Other organizations say about 7,500.

Let’s begin with the illegal trade in live cheetahs. The above organizations estimate 118 cheetahs (largely cubs) were involved in 2012-2013 alone. Forty of the cases were recorded from northeastern Africa, where there is a well-recorded smuggling route involving Somalia and Yemen as transit countries for a ready market in the United Arab Republic. There have also been cases of live cheetah smuggling in the Middle East itself, and also in southern Africa – perhaps to supply the captive cheetah breeding industry in South Africa.

Now let’s look at the “legal” trade in live cheetahs. Based on official CITES records, South Africa exported a total of 817 live cheetahs between 2002 and 2012 (records for 2012 are not yet complete). Major importing countries included UAE (130), China (101), Japan (79), Mexico (49) and, surprisingly the USA (110). Why the USA is importing that many live cheetahs is a mystery, but cheetahs do not breed well in captivity.

The other major exporting country for live cheetahs is the UAE. During that period they exported 77 animals – to Armenia (14), Great Britain (14) and France (10) among the leading importers. So the UAE is both a major importer and a major exporter of live cheetahs…

However, another major legal CITES export category of cheetahs is hunting trophies and these all derive from Namibia. The numbers are quite staggering.  From 2002-2012 (again, the 2012 numbers are still being compiled) Namibia exported 1,219 cheetah trophies. Such trophies are likely to all be adult males, though such details are not available.

Major importing countries were Germany (318), France (145), Austria (119), Spain (79), Poland (57), Hungary (51) and Denmark (43). The USA does not allow cheetah trophy imports as cheetahs are a listed species on their Endangered Species Act. Why then does the European Union not prohibit imports?

How many cheetahs are there in Namibia to support such offtake? The CCF does not know but was working on it according to a report in 2012 . Informal estimates arrive at a total of “about 3,000”.

Let’s say there are 3,000 – 4,000 cheetahs in Namibia. What percentage are adult males? Let’s be generous and say 20% (the rest being females, subadults and cubs). That would mean 600-800 males in Namibia, being hunted at a rate of about 116 animals per year.  How can this be in any way “sustainable”?  CITES actually allows an export quota of 150 cheetahs annually – live, skins, trophies. This level of exports was negotiated by Namibia.

So overall, the picture looks very worrying for cheetahs. Involved in illegal cub smuggling is only one concern. It is also disturbing that so many cheetahs are involved in the “legal” trade – many to dubious destinations. And then, Namibia is supporting a highly contentious level of trophy hunting to say the least.

If cheetahs are going to be conserved, it seems that conservation plans are in considerable disarray. Agonizing over the illegal wildlife trade is not convincing when the legal trade is undermining and confusing conservation efforts. The CCF supports cheetah trophy hunting as a conservation measure but must surely need to convince the Namibian authorities to bring their export quotas well down from current levels.

Cheetah protection will demand carefully considered conservation measures. Right now it seems a formula bound to fail, and until proper assessments can be made there should be an immediate moratorium on all cheetah exports from Africa – live, skins and trophies.

Photo credit:  http://bit.ly/1mirsmN   and Steve Bloom Images

If you have not already signed up to our mailing list, you can add your name here and keep up to date with our ongoing work and, most importantly, DONATE to support our work to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you.

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Silver Lining for Lions of West Africa (Panthera)

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It was recently reported that there are less than 400 wild lions in West Africa. In this story, Panthera talks about a possible “silver lining” for this critically endangered species. The Silver Lining for the Lions of West Africa was originally published at Panthera.org on February 13, 2014.

PANTHERA: In a press release published last month, Panthera outlined the results of a new report confirming that lions are now Critically Endangered and face extinction across the entire region of West Africa.

Led by Panthera’s Lion Program Survey Coordinator, Dr. Philipp Henschel, the study required a massive survey effort extending across 21 parks and 11 countries over a six year period. The results, unfortunately, are somber: today fewer than 400 lions remain in four isolated populations in West Africa, with only 250 of these being breeding adult lions.

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Canned tigers? (LionAid)

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Tiger “farms” in South Africa – where tigers are bred for trophy hunting. In this article, Pieter Kat from LionAid talks about captive-bred tigers. Canned tigers? was originally posted on January 27, 2014 at LionAid.org.

LIONAID: Many of you will probably know about the “tiger farms” in China that breed tigers to supply skins and potions like tiger bone wine. There is considerable outrage about these farms internationally, not only because of the conditions under which the tigers are kept, but also because of the ethics of breeding animals for their body parts.

I wrote a short blog on the issue in September 2012.

Earlier that year I also wrote a blog about the tiger breeding that goes on in South Africa.

Despite these blogs, and raising the issue at various meetings with UK Members of Parliament and Defra, there continues to be silence and complacency about the SA tiger farms. There, tigers are raised for live export to a number of countries including the United Arab Emirates, Myanmar and Vietnam. During the ten years 2002-2011, a total of 170 live tigers were exported to such dubious destinations. But perhaps more strangely, tigers in SA are also available to be trophy hunted.

It is the only place left in the world where you can go and trophy hunt a tiger. I have not been able to determine how much a tiger hunt costs, but it would appear to be substantial. Over the ten years 2002 – 2011, CITES records indicate that 17 tiger trophies were exported (not re-exported) and that the source was captive-bred tigers.

Who would want to hunt a captive bred tiger? The trophies went to the United Arab Emirates (6), Norway (3), Poland (2) and one each to Spain, Germany, France, Lebanon, Pakistan, and an unnamed country.

Apart from needing a CITES export permit, these trophies do not need the usually necessary import permits required for a species listed on CITES Appendix I as they are hunting trophies and therefore “personal and household effects”.  Also, since these are privately owned exotic animals in South Africa, they further escape much regulatory notice.

Meanwhile, tiger breeders must be enjoying their “niche market” in South Africa out of the public eye?

Picture credit: http://bit.ly/19XfsF2

If you have not already signed up to our mailing list, you can add your name here and keep up to date with our ongoing work and, most importantly, DONATE to support our work to conserve the remaining fragile lion populations. Thank you.

 

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