The rising trade in cheetahs for luxury pets in the Middle East is helping to drive critical populations of the wild cats to extinction, according to new research.
The report also reveals the gruesome toll of the trade, with up to two-thirds of the cheetah cubs being smuggled across the war-torn Horn of Africa dying en route. But the nations at both ends of the trade now agree urgent action is needed.
Cheetahs, famous as the world's fastest land animal, have lost about 90 per cent of their population over the last century as their huge ranges in Africa and Asia have been taken over by farmland. Fewer than 10,000 remain and numbers are falling.
There is an ancient tradition of using trained cheetahs as royal hunting animals in Africa but, more recently, a growing demand for status-symbol pets in the Gulf states has further reduced populations.
Cheetahs are unusually easy to tame, especially as cubs, and the report found instances in Gulf states of the big cats riding as car passengers, being walked on leashes and even being exercised on treadmills.
Other evidence showed cheetahs pacing around living rooms and tussling with their owners, including young children.
"This whole trade had not been appreciated by the public or by the conservation world," said Nick Mitchell, who contributed to the report for the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, the first comprehensive overview of the trade.
"If we do not act now on the trade and land-use change, then we can be certainly losing sub-populations in a few years."
Cheetahs do not breed easily in captivity and the Gulf pet trade is supplied by animals snatched from the wild in the Horn of Africa. The distinct sub-species living there numbers about 2,500. The animals are trafficked by boat from Somalia to Yemen and then by road into the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.
"Huge numbers of cheetahs appear to die in transit," said Mitchell, a coordinator for a conservation programme that is run by the Zoological Society of London and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
"For sure, we are talking about very poor people in the Horn of Africa and they are not too worried about the welfare of the animals," Mitchell said.
Seizures of cheetah cubs often number 30 cubs, with 50 to 70 per cent dying en route. There is also a demand for cheetah-skin shoes in Sudan.
Even more threatened is the cheetah sub-species in Iran, where just 40 to 100 survive. Another seriously threatened sub-species lives in North and West Africa, numbering fewer than 250.
The largest surviving cheetah population - about 6,200 - is in southern Africa. Trophy hunting is allowed in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, totalling over 200 kills per year.