‘There’s a lot of hatred for predators’ 

The Republic of Somaliland, which declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but is not internationally recognized, is a nation of farmers, with livestock production accounting for 60 to 65% of the gross domestic product. Many farmers follow a nomadic lifestyle, traveling across the desert with herds of sheep and goats. But climate change has brought unprecedented challenges to farmers in this small Horn of Africa nation.

A seemingly endless drought has dried up the land, making it difficult for livestock to find food.

“Early in the morning, they [the farmers] release their animals, so they … go looking for pasture and grazing,” Bile said. “They [the animals] can walk … two hours, three hours, just to look for grass.”

With no one keeping a close eye on the livestock, cheetahs can be quick to find them.

“If the animals are in a cheetah’s territory, the cheetah just doesn’t know that it’s any different than wildlife coming in,” Marker said. “It’s an easy meal and that’s what the predator wants.”

This doesn’t put the cheetahs in a favorable position with the farmers. “There’s a lot of hatred for predators around the nomads and their livestock,” Marker said. In retaliation for harming livestock, farmers may kill the cheetahs, or they simply chase them away, which is surprisingly easy to do, she said.

“They [the farmers] can just yell at them — wave your hands and they’ll run away,” she said. “Of course, they have sticks and they can go after them in a pretty aggressive way, and cheetahs are not an aggressive animal, so they’ll run off.”

If there are cubs, the farmers will often take them into captivity, supposedly for the benefit of having them as “pets,” even though doing so is illegal under Somaliland law.

Locals offering two captive cheetah cubs some goat milk near Erigavo, Somaliland. Image by Dr. Asma Bile / Cheetah Conservation Fund

Bile, who has interviewed several nomadic farmers on the subject, says farmers keep the cubs with the purpose of taming them. “What they told us is that they want to keep this animal as a pet for a while, and then by the time they grow up, they will not eat the [livestock] animals,” she said.

However, Bile added it’s also possible they’re keeping the cubs for the opportunity to sell them to wildlife traffickers, and that they’re just telling the MoERD-CCF team what they think they want to hear. In fact, a few farmers have admitted to keeping cubs to sell to traders.

Whatever their intentions, the farmers and their families cannot properly care for the cheetahs in most instances.

“They don’t want to feed them the amount of food that they need … so they’re basically starving,” Marker said. “They’re small animals, and if you understand their metabolic needs, you know they can’t go very long without food or water, because they’re little.”

Nearly all rescued cheetahs are undernourished and dehydrated, and their condition deteriorates the longer they’ve been held in captivity, Marker said.

“We got a [cheetah] that was about eight months of age, and I think they were feeding her twice a week only, throwing her a little piece of maybe camel or goat meat, a little bit of camel milk,” Marker said. “And so these animals … if we don’t get them when they’re young, and they stay with them, they are stunted. We’ve had animals that have had horrible bone malformations from not having enough calcium.

“We call it ‘cheetah hell,’” she added.