Djibouti Refuge Shelters Endangered Cheetahs
DJIBOUTI − Working with cheetahs, the world's fastest land animal and now an endangered species, is a bit different from treating cats and dogs, but Bertrand Lafrance felt he had little choice.
Five years ago, the Djibouti-based French veterinary surgeon found Tessai the cheetah on sale in a local restaurant and was immediately moved to action.
In 1992, Djibouti signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) -- an international agreement to ensure the survival of wild animals and plants.
But until a recent government crackdown, the country was at the center of a booming trade in illegal animal products, including cheetah cubs and skins, smuggled in from Ethiopia and Somalia.
"We caught the first ones together with the police," said Lafrance. "And we sent them to a special center in Dubai. But then the (government) decided to keep the animals here (in Djibouti)."
At one point, Lafrance had seven cheetahs living in his garden until he built a special refuge for them.
Confiscating the cheetahs prevents their sale and, he hopes, discourages supply.
"Animals that are confiscated in Djibouti should not leave the country -- all this trade has to stop. (Djibouti) has to be a dead end," said Swiss-based Christine Breitenmoser, co-chair of the Cat Specialist Group, a network of cat conservation experts.
Young men on Djibouti's Brazzaville Street still plead with passing foreigners to look at knives and carvings, mounted scorpions and traditional clothing.
Few cheetah skins have been confiscated recently and Lafrance attributes this to police vigilance and the animal's increasing scarcity.
"Maybe there is (still) some trade. But how much, how big it is, I don't know exactly -- it is very difficult to know," said Lafrance, who still hears occasional rumors of big cats for sale.
He dreams about a big Djiboutian park for the cheetahs and other indigenous species -- Grevy's zebra, oryx, and kudu.
"The cheetah needs a large expanse of land to survive, but with the expanding of the human race this area is becoming smaller and smaller," said the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).
According to Laurie Marker, CCF executive director, the average cheetah home range in Namibia in southern Africa is about 618 square miles per cat.
The main advantage of Djibouti -- one thirty-fifth Namibia's size -- is its very lack of population, Lafrance says.
Official figures suggest that 77 percent of the country's 500,000 people live in the main towns. Djibouti has one of Africa's highest rates of urbanization.
Western soldiers might even discourage poaching.
More than 1,000 U.S. troops have been based at Djibouti's Camp Lemonier since the end of 2002, while a large French military presence remains from colonial days.
Cheetahs need large amounts of prey, and Lafrance admits they can attack herds of goats and sheep, bringing them into conflict with Djibouti's rural population.
In one week, a group of two or three cheetahs might hunt a similar number of antelopes or other animals.
A game park of several thousand acres with self-sustaining numbers of cheetahs and antelopes may or may not be feasible, but any conservation effort is invaluable given the cheetah's rarity.
Experts think less than 15,000 remain in the world, though no one knows how many are in the Horn of Africa.
"It is impossible to know how many cheetahs there are in Ethiopia and Somalia. There might even be some in Djibouti, but nobody has the time to look," said Lafrance, who still runs his veterinary practice in the middle of Djibouti town.
His refuge helps, not just by raising awareness of the issues and providing a home for confiscated animals. It might also provide extra genetic lines, said Marker.
Breeding cheetahs is not easy, and Lafrance has tried.
Tessai is currently sharing an enclosure with Tigrou, a gentle male. Lafrance has been advised to use a stronger, more dominant partner.
"There will be lots of fighting," he said. "But you have a better chance of babies."