On the morning of November 13th, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service will be destroying the United States' stockpile of ivory, over 6 tons of tusks, in Denver, Colorado at the National Wildlife Property Repository. It is a compelling symbol of the U.S. Government's growing commitment to ending illegal wildlife trade and I applaud it. With a single tusk fetching as much as $130,000 on the illegal market, the destruction of such a large and potentially valuable stockpile is a powerful statement to other nations.
The ivory, most of which has been seized at American seaports, border crossings, airports and other locations as part of the illegal trade, is being crushed in good measure because ivory doesn't burn terribly well. But watching massive rock grinders plow into a pile of ivory worth millions of dollars is more than just an alternative solution or even an interesting visual. It's a stark counterpoint to the massive destruction that's being wreaked on wildlife populations by illegal wildlife trade across Africa.
It is true the elephant and the rhino, being killed in mass quantities by highly-networked criminal enterprises so their horns and tusks can feed a voracious illegal market in the Far East, are the most urgently affected victims of wildlife trafficking. But the fact is that there are dozens, even hundreds of species that are being crushed under the heel of the illegal wildlife trade.
The information gathered by Cheetah Conservation Fund indicates that there are now over a hundred cheetahs, mostly young cubs, taken every year from the wild as part of the illegal wildlife trade, mostly being taken live and shipped to countries in the Arabian Peninsula, where they are purchased as pets. These are only the ones we know about. Journalists covering this story in Yemen have reported as many as 12 cubs a week passing through the hands of a single trader. Our estimates are that 5 out of 6 cheetah cubs that are taken as part of the illegal pet trade die before reaching the point of sale. When there are less than 10,000 cheetahs total remaining in the wild, and many of the populations most affected numbering only in the scant hundreds at best, these kinds of losses are unsustainable.
And while certainly the individuals purchasing cheetahs are paying a lot of money for their pet, the tender age of the cubs and the conditions of transport wreak havoc on the cubs' development and future lifespan. Cheetahs are highly specialized cats, and are subject to unique health challenges in captivity. Even if a cheetah cub survives being shipped in a small crate without food or water across the ocean and along truck routes for several days, the lack of proper nutrition and veterinary care means many cubs do not survive long. Animals that usually have a lifespan of up to a dozen years or more under optimal conditions usually do not survive much past a year or two, often with horrible deformities that drastically reduce their quality of life. The owners of these animals, upon their untimely deaths, will often immediately go back into the illegal marketplace and purchase another cheetah.
It is tempting to believe that the trade in dead animal parts is somehow different than the illegal trade in live animals, because the live animals are being sold as "pets," and as westerners, we associate the term with a life of comparative pampering and luxury. The reality is much more sinister and bleak. The vast majority of cheetahs taken for the pet trade die before even being sold. Those that do go home with an owner are looking at a short, brutal life of malnutrition, deformity and death.
CCF has been very active in working with the US and other governments and NGOs to educate policymakers about the illegal pet trade, and will continue to do so. We urge you as informed members of the public to remember and remind your friends that while cheetahs are beautiful and seem easy to "tame," this instinct to keep cheetahs as pets is actually killing them. Because nobody wants to see a species crushed into extinction.