Sealed inside a jerry can with three of their siblings, Arapea and Barebera were destined for the Middle East.
Their mother had been killed and ruthless traffickers were taking the cheetah cubs to Somaliland, where they would be shipped off to Dubai to become exotic pets.
The two girls were the lucky ones. Stifling and stressful conditions inside the 25-liter plastic container meant their siblings did not survive.
Now six-years-old, the pair are thriving at Born Free Foundation’s Ensessakotteh project just outside Addis Ababa.
However, their story highlights the problem of live animal trafficking, fuelled by the economic boom and vanity of some in the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries.
Zelealem Tefera (PhD), country representative of the Born Free Foundation Ethiopia said: “Illegal wildlife trafficking has to stop. The trade for live animals, particular cheetah cubs and lions from East Africa to the Middle East and the Arab Gulf, is a very serious threat to their survival.
“Wild animals have feelings, like most of us. Some are social animals and live and hunt in groups, so keeping them isolated sees them develop a variety of emotional and behavioral disorders.
“Wild animals also have a role to play in our ecosystem and removing them interferes with the course of nature and has a serious consequence for the stability of the environment. Wild animals belong in the wild.”
A UN report last year concluded that the illegal trade in wildlife is now the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world, worth as much as USD 23 billion per year.
Every 15 minutes an elephant is killed for its ivory but the problem also includes live animals being captured and smuggled out of countries.
The export of big cats, such as lions and cheetahs, is a particular problem in and out of Ethiopia.
Traffickers will use increasingly sophisticated methods to smuggle them overland to war-torn Somalia. They will then be shipped across the Red Sea to Yemen where they are taken to several countries, including the United Arab Emirates. Tragically around 80 percent will not survive the perilous journey. Many will fall victim to a condition known as capture myopathy, which is when the body shuts down because of extreme stress.
Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund estimates there are now fewer than 7,000 cheetahs in the wild. In the past decade they have also documented around 1,000 being illegally trafficked.
Zelealem continued: “The population of cheetahs is going down at an alarming rate and they are no longer found in areas where they used to roam.”
Cheetahs are the fastest animals on land and can sprint at speeds of 75mph. They are meant for a life hunting on the African plains but are greatly prized as “exotic pets” by the mega-wealthy.
According to Born Free, it is not unusual to see a cheetah on a leash being paraded around the streets of Dubai or strapped in the back of a sports car. They will have been declawed and their teeth filed down to prevent an attack on their new “owner.”
Social media is full of images of wealthy citizens posing with their exotic prizes.
Culturally, the phenomenon is nothing new with ancient Arabs often being pictured with the big cats. However, the Asian cheetah has now been wiped out and so the Middle East has been looking to Africa for their pets.
Earlier this month, the UAE made it illegal to own cheetahs, tigers and lions. Recognizing it as a form of animal abuse, the government announced that people who owned the pets could face six months in jail or a fine of 700,000 dirhams (3.7million birr). Their pets can also be confiscated.
The Born Free Foundation has welcomed the new move but noted that proper enforcement was needed.
Zelealem called the news “fantastic” adding: “As far as our knowledge of trafficked animals is concerned, the UAE is known for this. It is hard to be certain that the live trade will stop but I am sure it will have a big impact on the number of traded animals. It will be interesting if other places follow these measures.
“Proper enforcement of the law is much needed to avoid infringement and other people taking advantage of the situation.”
Arapea and Barebera are among 11 cheetahs living out their days at Ensessakotteh, situated in 77 hectares of fields and forest 30 km from Addis Ababa.
The center is run by the Born Free Foundation, which is currently spearheading the Border Point Project, which aims to stop illegal wildlife trafficking.
Set up in March 2015, it is a three-year-program funded by a 330,000 pounds (13 million birr) grant from the British government. The initiative aims to support improved enforcement at border points in the country. They have been working in partnership with the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority at 59 land border sites and have been educating the police, customs and defense.
Their funding is due to run out in the next few months but they hope it will be renewed, noting there is work to do until trafficking is permanently stopped.
Once an illegally-trafficked or illegally-owned animal is identified, they will often be brought to Ensessakotteh – which means Animal Foot Print in Amharic.
It opened in 2009 and now has 165 rescued animals, including ten lions and 11 cheetahs.
Dolo, a male lion, was their first permanent resident. He had been kept on a chain for four years in a darkened room, which had rendered him blind. He has since been joined by nine other lions including 18-month-old twins Rea and Girma rescued as part of the Border Point Project from Jijiga.
Sadly the big cats will never be released from the center. By losing their mother so young, many of the cheetahs have never been taught how to hunt. Like the lions, they are also too familiar with humans to ever survive in their natural habitat.
Animals that can be released from the center are encouraged to form “social groups” and after several years they are returned together to their natural habitats.
The majority of animals at Ensessakotteh are tortoises and several are over 100 years old. A few have come from Embassy compounds and would have lived through the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie.
The center employs 49 staff and relies on money from international donors. One of its biggest costs is finding the 48kg of meat that the carnivores eat daily.
The project is in the process of creating an education center, which will be ready by the start of the next Ethiopian school year.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is a volunteer at The Reporter.
Contributed by Jane Wharton