Yemen: Arabia's wildlife supermarket

Exotic wildlife is often smuggled from the Horn of Africa through Yemen to rich buyers in the Gulf.

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Beit al-Faqih, Yemen - 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. The secretive nature of the smuggling industry and the volatility of the Horn of Africa and Yemen mean that few statistics are available on the animal trafficking business between Africa and Arabia.

Patricia Tricorache, CCF's project director, believes the Gulf's insatiable demand for wild pets like cheetahs is decimating the species. "The mortality rate for cheetah cubs is a disaster for a population that is already teetering. The species used to thrive across East Africa, all the way across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Now there are as few as 10,000 left, and these are being harvested like a cash crop."

Over the course of a year, each visit to the western coast of Yemen yielded a little more insight into the trade. Animals are snatched from the bush in Kenya and Ethiopia before being passed on through loose networks of dealers over a period of weeks.

From sparsely populated beaches in Somaliland, the animals are shipped across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and arrive on Yemen's western coastline.

Yemeni traders often pay only around $200 per cub on the Somali coast, while the final selling price for each cheetah sold in the Gulf ranges from $4,000-7,000. The CCF and the Welthungerlife sanctuary in Somaliland estimate that about 300 cheetah cubs pass through Yemen each year.

The animals often change hands again, between dealers in Yemeni cities like Haradh and Beit al-Faqih near the Bab al-Mandeb peninsula, before heading north along a wide tarmac road that runs towards the country's northern border. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia's porous frontier has been turned into a wildlife superhighway.

Little enforcement

Lawlessness in Yemen and the Horn of Africa create a profitable atmosphere for the illegal wildlife trade. Yemen's government, which faces major challenges from separatists in the north and south and attacks by al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters, struggles to prevent the trade in wild animals. The country's former environment minister and lifelong conservationist Abdulrahman F al-Eryani is pessimistic about the potential for greater enforcement in the country.

He said apologetically: "Yemen is going through socio-political chaos. It has always had little budget for environmental protection, which makes any expectation of enforcement against animal smuggling unrealistic."

David Stanton, who runs a foundation to protect Yemeni leopards and has lived in the country for nearly 20 years, is one of the few outsiders to have attempted to scrape the surface of the industry in Yemen.

"The feeling that wildlife crime is not really a crime is almost universal," Stanton said. "Yemenis involved in the wildlife trade probably know that it is illegal, but I doubt that many of them feel that it is unethical or immoral."

Yet a recent resolution by the UN's Economic and Social Council suggests strong links between the illegal shipments of guns, people, drugs and wildlife. Regardless of the perceived morality, demand for exotic pets in Dubai, Jeddah and Doha can fund far more serious crime in the region.