By Keir Simmons, Sigi de Vos and Henry Austin

HARGEISA, Somalia — A baby cheetah named Vickey, plucked from her mother when she was just a few weeks old, was among hundreds of big cats taken by traffickers to be sold as pets in illegal online markets.

One of the lucky ones, Vickey was rescued from traders in the East African self-declared state of Somaliland. She would otherwise likely have been shipped to the Middle East, where many cheetahs are kept as pets — status symbols for the rich, who flaunt them on social media, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, or CCF, a charity dedicated largely to rescuing and rehabilitating the animals.

She would have been worth thousands of dollars on the open market. And even though the traders from whom she was rescued would only have seen a small percentage of that, it would still have been a small fortune in Somaliland (which, despite a declaration of independence, is internationally recognized as part of Somalia).

The traders in Somaliland make only a fraction of what the online brokers make, but it’s still a lot of money to them.

“When they hear the cheetah is expensive, they say, ‘Wow, we must catch them and sell them,’” Muse Saed, a veterinarian based in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa, told NBC News earlier this year.

So the mothers are killed and the cubs taken from their dens, some of them only a few days old.

Saed, who works for the CCF said he cried when he saw Vickey for the first time. She was imprisoned in a small enclosure of rocks, and was “physically very poor and dehydrated.”

Many stolen cheetahs end up in Middle Eastern countries.
Many stolen cheetahs end up in Middle Eastern countries. Sigi de Vos / NBC News

For the first five months of her life, she was fed meat just once a week on a starvation diet that stunted her growth. Her diet consisted primarily of camel milk. She barely survived.

The conservation fund believes she was destined for a buyer on the Arabian Peninsula. The cheetahs, stored in cardboard boxes or crates, are shipped across the Gulf of Aden, often to war-torn Yemen, before being transported to their final destinations.

Many end up in Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where their owners often brag about them on social media, despite laws forbidding their ownership.

Fewer than 20 percent survive, the conservation group estimates.

Laurie Marker, an American who founded the CCF in Namibia in 1990 after years of researching cheetahs with the Wildlife Safari in the United States, said Vickey’s survival was “a miracle.”

“Her’s is the worst story ever,” Marker said. “She’s a sweetheart, which is amazing after what she’s been through.”

In May 2018, the Cheetah Conservation Fund began operating in Somaliland, on the Horn of Africa, where it estimates between 300 and 500 of the creatures remain.

Somaliland effectively broke away in 2000 after an internationally backed government struggled to wrest control from clan-based fiefdoms that emerged following the overthrow of the military regime of President Siad Barre in 1991.

Although it has been inching toward stability since another internationally backed government was installed in 2012, the new authorities still face a challenge from Al Qaeda-aligned al-Shabab insurgents.

Confusion surrounding Somaliland’s status means it does “not really have foreign investment,” according to Minister of Environment and Tourism Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare.

That, she said, was hindering progress in the region.

However, Somaliland’s government, which made trafficking the creatures illegal in 2015, was putting “much effort and time to save the cheetahs,” she said.

“It’s a huge challenge because, as the demand is there, the supply will be there,” she said. Confiscating the cheetahs from traders, she said, takes “time, effort, money, everything.”

She said it was “beyond imagination” to think of how the baby cheetahs suffered due to the trade. “You can hold them in the palm of your hand,” she said. “They are our heritage. … They could become our future if we can save them.”

The scars of Somalia’s violent past are easy to see along Hargeisa’s dirt roads, which are lined with high walls, often pockmarked with bullet holes.

Behind one of them, the conservation fund has set up cheetah “safe houses.”

“Safe House One,” a yellow single-story building lined with razor wire, has been partially turned into a clinic. Shelves are packed with syringes, eye drops and other veterinary essentials.

“Clinic supplies to buy: feeding tube,” read one of the many notes written on a white board.

In the wild, cheetahs, the fastest land animal in the world, reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour. Keeping them behind walls strikes cheetah experts as torture.

“This is an animal person’s worst nightmare,” Marker said.

In Somaliland, the cheetahs often come to them younger, which makes it harder — and, in many cases, impossible — to “rewild” them, she said.

Vickey is among the cheetahs that cannot be rewilded. If she survives into adulthood, Marker said, she will be used as an ambassador for cheetah conservation.

Still, some of the areas in which cheetah trafficking is taking place are too dangerous for Marker to visit. Her volunteers move around in nongovernmental organization vehicles, identifiable by their red license plates. They are banned from driving at night.

“The one thing this region needs is peace,” Marker said. “And I can’t control that.”

Image: Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, feeds a cheetah rescued by the organization.
Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, feeds a cheetah rescued by the organization. Sigi de Vos / NBC News

The organization, which has an annual income of $3.5 million to $4 million, hopes eventually to create a reserve for the cheetahs.

It also aims to educate people about the dangers of the illegal cheetah trade.

“We have to educate people; we have to show them the value of wildlife,” Saed said. “You have to explain the law that bans the wildlife trade.”

In the meantime, the organization will continue to care for 41 cheetahs, eight of which it helped to rescue alongside Somaliland authorities in three separate missions over the last two weeks.

“Many people ask us if wildlife trafficking is still happening through COVID-19, and we know the answer is yes,” Marker said in a July 30 news release.

“We’ve become more aware of how coronaviruses can spread, which includes wild animals moving across international borders, so we must stop people from taking animals from the landscape,” she said. “For their health, and ours, too.”

Sigi de Vos and Keir Simmons reported from Hargeisa, and Henry Austin reported from London.