KUWAIT: Bu Rashid sat down in his dewaniya with a look of concern on his face as everyone in attendance could tell he was anticipating some news. Soon afterwards, he let out a sigh of relief after receiving a phone call in which the person on the other side of the conversation broke to him the good news: “The package you ordered has entered Kuwait.” It was no ordinary package that Bu Rashid had purchased from a Saudi merchant and smuggled into Kuwait. “These were a number of cheetahs smuggled via the border,” he admitted as he felt the need to explain to the people in his dewaniya who were left wondering about the mysterious phone call. An endangered species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty, to which the Kuwaiti government is a signatory, cheetahs are becoming increasingly popular among wild animal trainers in the tiny desert nation located north east of the Arabian Gulf.
Once considered exclusive to Sheikhs (ruling family members) and wealthy businessmen, many Kuwaitis are entertaining the idea of raising cheetahs as these are relatively easier to be domesticated compared to other felines or wild animals. The trend is becoming even more popular with an increasing belief that Kuwait has an ‘open’ route for cheetahs. Cheetahs are smuggled to Kuwait from Saudi Arabia where they arrive from Africa via Yemen.
The Souk Jazan and Souk Al-Khouba at the Saudi- Yemeni border are considered the main markets where the animal is sold. After arriving in Yemen on boats, the cheetahs are transported through land to Saudi Arabia where they are placed in sackcloths before being smuggled into Kuwait. Looking for a cheetah to buy is as easy as searching for a product online. Potential cheetah owners have access to a variety of websites where merchants offer the animals for sale, complete with specifications and pictures, as well as prices that start from KD3,000.
A majority of customers are young people often seen walking their animals at the Arabian Gulf Road or putting them in their convertible cars, according to most traders. Abu Nawaf, an avid Cheetah trainer, believes that raising these animals is no different than raising falcons, horses or even sheep. “It can be both a hobby and a trade at the same time,” he said in a phone conversation with Al-Rai’s reporter after he refused to meet in person “to avoid legal prosecution.” Abu Nawaf does not see any reason why it is illegal for anyone to raise a cheetah “when there are Sheikhs and many celebrities who own them but no one can hold them accountable.” In this regard, environmental activist Abdurrahman Al-Sarhan explains that the CITES treaty the government signed in 2003 imposes upon Kuwait an international obligation to protect the endangered species. The Public Authority for Agricultural Affairs and Fish Resources, the governmental body responsible for implementing such treaties in Kuwait, remains incapable of curbing the rising cheetah trade in Kuwait.
This is because most trainers keep their animals in private properties such as farms and livestock ranches, according to Oudah Al-Bathali who believes that the Kuwaiti government is not doing its job to ensure implementation of the CITES agreement.
Omar Al-Ajmy, who keeps a number of cheetahs at his residence, said that he has been practicing this hobby for years, but insisted that he does not trade “or make any kind of profit” from it. He also expressed frustration with the fact that his phone “never stops ringing” as many people call him with offers to buy his cheetahs. — Al-Rai