Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) research indicates 300 cheetah cubs were poached from the landscape in the Horn of Africa each year between 2010 and 2020.
In response, CCF has joined with International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Legal Atlas to disrupt the poaching and trafficking of cheetahs between the Horn of Africa and Middle East-North Africa regions through a project known by its acronym, LICIT — Legal Intelligence/Cheetah Illicit Trade.
From 19 to 23 September, IFAW, Legal Atlas and CCF will conduct a five-day training course in Hargeisa for representatives of the Somaliland government involved in law enforcement and the prosecution of wildlife crimes.
With the ultimate aim of reducing poaching and illegal trade in cheetah cubs, the participants will increase their knowledge of Somaliland environmental and wildlife conservation laws, how to properly handle confiscated cubs, and how to carry out efficient criminal investigations involving wildlife.
Made possible by a grant from the UK Government through its Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, LICIT seeks to build capacity with law enforcement agencies, strengthen legal frameworks and create regional networks between four legal jurisdictions – Ethiopia, Somaliland, Somalia and Yemen – identified by CCF as being the biggest stakeholders in this fight. As a source and transit country with almost 800 kilometres of coastline facing Yemen, Somaliland has long been at the centre of the illegal cheetah cub trade.
“The work we are undertaking with LICIT to improve our laws and establish a national unit to conduct counter-trafficking activities is a major step forward in our decade-long fight against illegal wildlife trade here in Somaliland,” said Minister Shukri H. Ismail of the Ministry of Environment and Rural Development (MoERD). “After the arrest of Cabdiraxmaan Yusuf Mahdi, better known as Abdi Xayawaan (Abdi Animals) in October 2020, we have not intercepted any illegal cub shipments in Somaliland. We hope this lull becomes permanent.”
With fewer than 7,500 cheetahs left in the wild, this level of poaching is devastating to biodiversity and threatens the species in the Horn of Africa with local extinction within 10 years.
“Supporting inter-regional collaboration in law enforcement is crucial to successfully counter wildlife trafficking,” said Matt Morley, Director of Wildlife Crime for IFAW. “We have been hosting Detecting Illegal Species Through Prevention Trainings (DISRUPT) across Africa and the Middle East for years, and with LICIT, we are sharing the programming we have developed through our work in these other jurisdictions.”
Legal Atlas Director James Wingard adds, “Consistent application of wildlife laws is one of LICIT’s goals. We have therefore compiled legal frameworks for each of the four jurisdictions. Doing so makes it easier to spot gaps in legislation. Then we can assist the respective governments in strengthening their laws by revising them or by creating new ones.”
The illegal trade in cheetahs is mainly driven by demand for exotic pets in the Middle East, but also by extreme poverty in source countries. Human-wildlife conflict makes coexistence with these predators difficult, and the impact of climate change on agriculture and livelihoods further exacerbates the situation.
“Even after we stop the illegal trade, our work in Somaliland and the Horn of Africa is just beginning,” said Dr Laurie Marker, Founder and Executive Director of CCF.
“We are learning from confiscation events where wild cheetah populations may exist, and we are meeting the people who live with them. In these areas, the confluence of drought, famine, extreme poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of awareness of the law, and conflict with farmers creates a complex web of issues that must be addressed to save the species. We are grateful for the LICIT project, which is enabling us to take giant strides forward in this fight.”
CCF Veterinary staff conduct initial assessment of five-week-old cheetah cub confiscated in Somaliland 6 October 2021 ©Cheetah Conservation Fund.
HARGEISA, Somaliland (28 October 2021) – A team from the Somaliland Ministry of Environment and Rural Development (MoERD) including its Regional Coordinator from the Sool Region, Republic of Somaliland, in collaboration with Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), rescued eleven cheetah cubs taken from the wild in four separate incidents during September and October. The cubs were rounded up during a sweep of Sool and Saraar based on intelligence generated during a conference for Eastern Regions leadership held in Burao, Somaliland, 26-27 July. Eight of the cubs were rescued in Sool, while three were rescued in Saraar. And, as of today, there are potentially four more cubs in need of rescue being held captive in Sanaag, the vast neighbouring eastern region to the north.
MoERD wildlife officials believe the cubs were taken from the landscape in Somaliland and held by persons hoping to trade them for money, but MoERD intercepted the cubs before this could take place. The eleven cubs are estimated to have been between five to six-weeks-old at the time of confiscation. Given the condition of ten of the cubs, they do not appear to have been held for long. But a single male cub in much worse condition than the others appears to have been in the hands of his captor longer. Cubs taken from their mothers at this early age and held captive typically suffer severe impacts from malnutrition and dehydration, and many will perish. In two incidents, the persons holding the animals ran away, evading questioning. But in the case of the single cub, a male community member was arrested. According to information received by MoERD, the man also had two other cubs in his possession, reportedly siblings of the single cub, but they died before confiscation. MoERD and CCF have not been able to verify this claim.
“The Ministry is glad to be working in the eastern regions to raise awareness for the illegal nature of poaching of wildlife. We want to discourage others from taking cheetah cubs and other wild animals from our landscapes; it is against the law for any reason”, said Abdinassir Hussein, MoERD’s Wildlife Director.
Consultation conference on environmental protection and biodiversity conservation in the Eastern Regions of Somaliland brought together leaders from Sahil, Toghdeer, Saraar, Sool, Sanaag, Daadmadhedh and Buhodle to discuss a variety of environmental issues, including charcoal production, establishment of new settlements and illegal private enclosures in the communal range land. CCF co-sponsored the conference, and Dr Laurie Marker, CCF’s Founder and Executive Director, travelled to Burao to speak. Dr Marker gave a presentation on the illegal nature of poaching, possessing and trading cheetah cubs and the detrimental impacts to the Somaliland landscape, the wild cheetah population and people. She also addressed the issue of human-wildlife conflict and the role it plays as a driver and root cause of illegal trade. Minister Shukri H. Ismail of MoERD spoke about the importance of communication and network building.
“We are exceptionally pleased by the collaboration between the local leaders of Sool with our Regional Coordinator and Ministry in Hargeisa during this operation, which led to its success. Our goal is to sustain this level of dialogue and cooperation on all environmental issues important to the eastern regions of Somaliland now and in the future”, said Minister Ismail, Somaliland’s Minister of Environment and Rural Development.
No information on human-wildlife conflict or livestock predation was collected during the sweep. However, in the case of four cubs confiscated in September, community members pointed to livestock predation as the primary motivation for taking them. Evidence CCF has gathered during other missions indicates conflict between pastoralists and predators is a key driver of offenses against wildlife in Somaliland’s rural areas. Future CCF interventions include animal husbandry training for livestock farmers and wildlife education for young learners, to support law enforcement and instil a cultural appreciation for Somaliland’s wild species.
MoERD’s Regional Coordinators and Wildlife Director Hussein recently participated in training held under the Legal Intelligence for Cheetah Illicit Trade (LICIT) project to increase Somaliland’s capacity to stop illegal trade in cheetahs and other wildlife. During a week-long training held in Hargeisa in September, the MoERD officers learned about intelligence gathering, how to conduct confiscations, proper handling of cubs, and the importance of establishing a chain of evidence from the field. This sweep enabled the officers to gain practical field experience using their new skills. LICIT is funded by the UK government through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund and implemented by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Legal Atlas.
“CCF commends the Ministry and its staff for its good field work and follow up finding these cubs. We are fortunate to have rescued them, giving them the best chances for survival. With so few cheetahs remaining in the wild, each is vitally important to the survival of the species, because we learn so much from them”, said Dr Laurie Marker, CCF’s Founder and Executive Director.
With the intake of the eleven young cubs from eastern Somaliland, the number of cheetahs CCF is caring for in its three Hargeisa-based Safe Houses rises to 65. CCF is developing a new centre for cheetahs on the outskirts of Hargeisa that is based on its Field Research & Education Centre in Otjiwarongo, Namibia. This new facility will be set on 800-ha adjacent to 50,000-ha the Somaliland government plans to develop as its first National Park. It will include large enclosures for cheetah in a natural habitat with conference facilities for programming. CCF intends to break ground on the CCF Somaliland Cheetah Rescue & Conservation Centre before the end of 2021.
In Geed-Deeble, Somaliland, the hunt for water has begun! CCF with the help of Build Vast Drilling has started the all-important hunt for water to supply our new Cheetah Research and Conservation Center in Somaliland.
We hope the drilling process will only be about 10 days in total and that our depth will not have to exceed 150 meters. All our surveys and available data tell us this, but exploration is still just that exploration.
Once a suitable water source is found we still need to excavate and install almost 3 kilometers of pipeline to supply water to the center. Because of the landscape we are in, digging by machinery and by hand will be a laborious project. But the project is necessary for us to move forward with our work. When we have water, we will then be off and running with the construction phase.
Across Africa, states that deal with China often trade short-term financial infusion for their long-term fiscal health. Leasing fishing rights to China, for example, might win corrupt leaders grants or kickbacks worth millions of dollars but the unsustainable practices of Chinese fishermen often leave shoals permanent maritime deserts. Chinese miners often dump waste and chemicals in rivers, poisoning the water supply for thousands. Too often, African leaders lower environmental standards to attract Chinese investment.
There are exceptions. Rwanda had become the poster child of conservation and environmental mindfulness; it has largely kept China’s investment contained and has even turned to alternatives like Turkey in recent years. Leslie Stahl, a correspondent with the prestigious American news show 60 Minutes, recently documented Rwanda’s success conserving its mountain gorilla population while efforts in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo flounder because of poaching, encroachment on habitats by farmers, and generally weak rule-of-law.
In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland has also made great strides in environmental protection. Whereas China sometimes approaches the region with the environmental sensitivity of a swarm of locusts, Somaliland’s Taiwanese partners have worked to promote sustainable farming and agriculture.
Environment Minister Shukri Haji Ismail has been fearless in pursuing her mandate. The United Arab Emirates is an important diplomatic and trade partner of Somaliland, but Shukri refused a lucrative request to allow Emiratis to use Somaliland as a hunting ground, especially when the sport could harm endangered species. She has even refused to stand down when visitors connected to the Emirati royal families seek to use their wasta to ignore local conservation laws.
Somaliland’s efforts to preserve the region’s native cheetahs have earned the country international acclaim. Many smuggling networks target the region’s cheetahs. There remains a huge market for the cheetahs in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and East Asia where the rich and elite see exotic pets as status symbols. Other times, farmers worry that cheetahs will prey upon their livestock if not their family members.
When smugglers take cheetahs, it is often a death sentence for the animals even if they want to keep the animals alive for trade. Smugglers have separated unweaned cubs from their mothers and boxed others up for transport by land or sea without any sense of care; many do not survive. The arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of smugglers show that Somaliland puts its laws above clan connections.
Enter the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Founded in Namibia in 1990, the Fund now operates directly in Somaliland where its veterinarians care for confiscated cheetahs in collaboration with the Environment and Rural Development ministry and the local university. CCF also works to educate the public about the importance of conservation; this is already apparent in growing sensitivity of the younger generation to environmental concerns. CCF rightly keeps its operations professional and often private so that locals understand they assist injured or orphaned animals but are not a zoo operating for profit or entertainment.
CCF, however, is a victim of its own success; its facilities are quickly running out of space for its cheetah rescue. Somaliland does not yet have a refuge or a national park into which rescued and rehabilitated cheetahs can be released back into the wild. This should change.
Across the African continent the South Africa-based African Parks is one of the biggest managers for game parks, with operations in Angola, Benin, Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The non-profit organization promotes private-public partnership to give local communities incentive to respect protected areas. This is crucial to successful conservation. When I visited Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda earlier this year, for example, guides and park rangers might have been poachers in a different situation. The tourist income, however, that eco-tourists brought their families obviated the need for such activity and, indeed, created an incentive for them to participate in conservation.
In the past African Parks may have avoided operating in Somaliland less because the country remains unrecognized—after all, many other international companies—Coca Cola and DP World, for example—and non-profits like the CCF work in the country without any diplomatic complications—but rather out of concern about the country’s willingness to honor its political compacts and contracts. Elections in May 2021 should put an end to such concerns. Electing a new parliament (albeit 15 years late) demonstrated that the system would triumph over personalities and their desire to maintain their positions of power.
That an opposition coalition defeated the president’s preferred candidate for parliamentary speaker underscores Somaliland’s maturity further. Simply put, Somaliland’s demonstrated ability to combine democracy with consistency of law across administrations surpasses that of most other African states. That does not mean Somaliland’s business climate has no room for improvement: Political micromanagement of airline schedules, for example, undermines the reputation of Somaliland’s broader business climate. This problem will decline as the integration of Somaliland into the international community proceeds.
Somaliland is an ecological treasure that, like the Sultanate of Oman or Rwanda, could encourage high-end tourism as a means to both further its conservation effort, reduce unemployment, and pump much needed hard currency into the local economy and government’s coffers. Both countries—and Bhutan in Asia—often encourage niche tourism rather than the budget or backpacking crowds also because it is easier to ensure respect for local society. It is a model that works.
It is time for Somaliland to take the next step. It should set aside a broader preserve and invite African Parks or a like-minded organization to manage it. Just as the follow-on impact of DP World has transformed Berbera and given birth to new hotels, new restaurants, and improved infrastructure, a game preserve that showcases cheetahs in their natural habitat, gerenuks, elephant shrew, desert tortoises, antelope, ibex, leopards, and even potentially giraffes, could transform northern, highland portions of the country. Camels may be commonplace for Somalilanders, but tourists pay high dollar for camel treks in the deserts of Oman; there is little reason why they could not in Somaliland. Nor is Somaliland’s flora and fauna its only attraction. Tourists might also pay significant fees to visit Laas Geel, money that could be reinvested into efforts to preserve and excavate other Neolithic sites.
Somalilanders know their country is special; it is time the broader international community did as well, no matter what the position of cynical or shortsighted diplomats in Mogadishu or Washington. Not only CCF but also the leaders of Somaliland’s three major political parties have all shown that Somaliland has the political capital and will to succeed.
Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), together with its partner, the Somaliland Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, late last year broke ground and laid the cornerstone for a new facility, the CCF Somaliland Cheetah Rescue and Conservation Centre last month.
The event marked the official launch of construction, which will take place in several phases unfolding over this year.
When complete, the centre will provide a permanent home for cubs rescued from the illegal pet trade or human-wildlife conflict situations by the ministry and placed in CCF’s care. The new facility will feature vast outdoor enclosures that provide a naturalistic environment for the animals, plus the Centre will have a fully-equipped veterinary clinic and professionally trained staff that will live on-site to provide ongoing, world-class care.
Dr Marker, CCF’s Founder and Executive Director said when disrupting illegal wildlife trade in cheetah cubs for the pet trade, one of the problems conservationists must address is how to manage confiscated animals.
“The centre has been designed to meet the needs of this unique population. It will be the first facility of its kind in the Horn of Africa, the region where most cheetah confiscation events occur. The Ministry in Somaliland has been CCF’s best partner in addressing the illegal trade in cheetahs, and the development of the Centre is a testament to the progress we are making,” Dr Marker added.
The centre is based on CCF’s world-renowned centre in Otjiwarongo and is intended to become a must-see destination in Somaliland.
The new centre is set on more than 800 hectares at Geed-Deeble, a forest reserve about an hour’s drive from Hargeisa. Once complete, in addition to the cheetah sanctuary and clinic, the centre will include education and vocational training facilities that will benefit students, teachers, pastoralists, wildlife caregivers, eco-rangers, and local centre staff.
The centre will be open for public tours, with the purpose of educating Somaliland people and international visitors about the country’s ecosystems and indigenous wildlife.
The CCF and Somaliland’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change have signed a 30-year deal for CCF to develop the CRCC at Geed-Deeble. CCF is building the facility, and for three decades, will operate the Centre while training Somaliland people to work there.
At the end of 30 years, CCF will hand over the facility to the Somaliland government for its people to operate into perpetuity.