Upgrade Horn of Africa cheetah status to ‘endangered’, experts appeal to IUCN

Cheetah subspecies facing decline in genetic diversity due to illegal trade in cubs to Arab countries
A Northeast African Cheetah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
A Northeast African Cheetah. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

A group of experts have appealed to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to reclassify the status of the Northeast African Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii), found in the Horn of Africa, to ‘endangered’ from ‘vulnerable’.

The subspecies’ cubs are being heavily trafficked across the Red Sea to Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. The genetic diversity of soemmeringii, which already has a slender population, is thus being further reduced. That is reason enough to upgrade its IUCN status, the authors noted in a research note they published recently.

They also requested global cheetah experts to investigate further as to whether the subspecies was fit enough to be classified as ‘critically endangered’.

The authors — including Laurie Marker of Namibia’s Cheetah Conservation Fund, who helped get the first batch of African cheetahs to India on September 17, 2022 to Kuno National Park — performed a genetic subspecies assessment on samples obtained from 55 cheetahs confiscated from illegal traffickers from 2016 to 2019.

The 55 cheetahs were confiscated from Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia that was recently given political recognition by Ethiopia. Somaliland is on Somalia’s Red Sea coast and faces Yemen across the Indian Ocean inlet. Ethiopia has granted recognition to Somaliland in return for access to its Red Sea ports. Ethiopia itself lost its coastline after the formation of Eritrea in 1993.

The researchers found all 55 individuals were 100 per cent soemmeringii genetically.

“Thus, our findings strongly indicate that most trafficked cheetahs detected in the Horn of Africa illegal pet trade are of the subspecies A. j. soemmeringii and are sourced regionally,” the researchers wrote.

Soemmeringii’s last wild count was 260–590 mature individuals. Since most cubs that are trafficked to the Gulf barely survive, the illegal trafficking “represents a sustained and significant offtake, which will inevitably lead to continued population decline”.

It will add further to loss of genetic diversity already being caused due to mortality caused by human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss.

These circumstances fulfil criterion C2a(i) of the IUCN Red List and thus qualify the subspecies as ‘endangered’ rather than ‘vulnerable’. It may even qualify it for criterion A2 or A3, under which a species is categorised as ‘critically endangered’, according to the researchers.

“We urge IUCN to support reclassification of A. j. soemmeringii, as “endangered,” and appeal to the cheetah community to investigate further uplisting to ‘critically endangered’ to reflect the likely extinction risk exacerbated by the illegal trade,” the authors said.

Uplisting will galvanise the support of stakeholders, provide access to funding restricted to species listed as endangered, and increase national and international protection of A. j soemmeringii against illegal trade, they reasoned.

Genetic support to uplist an African cheetah subspecies, Acinonyx jubatus soemmeringii, imperiled by illegal trade has been published in The Conservation Science and Practice journal.

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