By Joe Sheffer, Tarim Kennedy
The dealer and prospective buyer were casually introduced to one another, and two small cheetah cubs were brought into the room. Visibly underweight and with dirty yellow fur, they limped and meowed meekly.
The animals were weak and slow, and their skin hung loosely from their bones. Two other cubs had perished and their emaciated carcasses lay nearby.
Ali, a dealer of rare animals in Beit al-Faqih, a city in western Yemen, claimed to have had eight cheetah cubs in his possession. Four had recently been sold to a Saudi family, he said on the condition of anonymity. It had only taken an hour in the city's Friday animal market to find him. Posing as buyers for a European zoo, nobody questioned why two tall, white foreigners were looking to buy African animals in Yemen. None of the livestock traders who descend on the city each week seemed surprised when asked if they had lions, leopards, or cheetahs for sale.
Yemeni traders know that foreigners wandering though their souk are not simply looking for camels or cheap Ethiopian sheep. The city has become a hub for the lucrative trade in wild animals, smuggled across the Red Sea between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Visitors from the Gulf states looking for exotic animals for private collections and pets have become a common sight in western Yemen.
While the exact numbers are unavailable, the trend seems to have put a dent in the cheetah population across Somalia, whose autonomous Somaliland region - located across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen - is used as a staging ground for the smuggling. In an ironic twist, Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, is now allegedly one of the world's most lucrative conduits for wildlife crime.
Research compiled by the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) suggests that many cubs taken from the wild in Africa die before reaching their final destination in the Arabian Peninsula. More....