International Cheetah day is marked on December 4. Al Bustan Zoological Centre is the third largest cheetah-breeding centre in the world. Image Credit: Atiq-Ur-Rehman/Gulf News

Sharjah: If you are among those who fancy buying cheetahs and other exotic animals to keep as pets, you are part of the big problem that undermines the survival of the species.

“As soon as you start taking out money for the illegal trade, you are creating the market and you are making the problem bigger,” Rozaan de Kock, Carnivore Curator at Al Bustan Zoological Centre, told Gulf News during a visit for the International Cheetah Day celebrated yearly on December 4.

Considered the third largest cheetah breeding centre in the world, Al Bustan is a non-commercial and privately funded centre in Sharjah that aims to save the species that is now considered the most endangered big cat in Africa and Iran. The centre started its cheetah-breeding programme with 19 cheetahs in 2004 and has so far resulted in more than 50 cheetah births and six king cheetahs.

De Kock said despite government bans on importing big cats for pets in the country, illegal traders still manage to smuggle these animals because there is a huge demand. Cheetahs are among the top five most popular choices for exotic animals as pets.

“It’s an illegal trade. Even if you try to close this door, they will just open another door. So we just have to be as one to try to boycott them and stop the illegal trade,” de Kock reiterated.

Illegal trading of exotic animals, while done privately in the country, is an open secret among residents. Just last month, two undercover Gulf News reporters bought a baby Nile crocodile from traders in Sharjah. The trader boasted he could get our reporters “anything”, cheetahs included.

Having cheetahs and other exotic animals is an “in thing” among some residents. In fact, the more dangerous the animal the more exciting it is for these people to have as a pet, de Kock said.

This is why earlier this year, animal specialist Dr Reza Khan from the wildlife and zoo management, Public Parks and Horticulture Department at Dubai Municipality, called for tougher laws against the illegal animal trade and more cheetah awareness campaigns.

Although cheetahs survived mass extinction during the Great Ice Age when the world underwent drastic changes in climate, the number of cheetahs continuously declines due to loss of habitat, conflicts with livestock farming, competition with larger predators, and the illegal pet trade, according to the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Approximately 10,000 cheetahs exist today, down from 100,000 at the end of the 19th century.