Wildlife on the move: from trafficking to rescue and rewilding

Big cats around the world face multiple threats including declining populations, illegal trafficking and inhumane captivity. National Geographic photographer Nichole Sobecki is exploring how there is still hope.

National Geographic CreativeWorks

Khatu looks up for a moment at the small throng of people watching her intently. However, she quickly loses interest in our excited whispering and returns her attention to the eviscerated springbok she and her five cubs are eating. Khatu is something of a phenomenon: A captive-bred cheetah now living on a private game reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, who has already given birth to three litters of cubs—15 in total, 11 of which have survived. The hope is these cubs will eventually go on to play a crucial role in diversifying the gene stock in wild cheetah populations…

Around 115 miles [185 kilometers] away at the Simbonga Wildlife Sanctuary, five lions are acclimatizing themselves to an unfamiliar environment. These big cats were also bred in captivity—not for the purpose of conservation, but to entertain humans. Now, they’ve been rescued from concrete pens and freezing Eastern European winters and transported thousands of miles to a semi-arid veld that enjoys around 3000 hours of sunshine a year. These lions will always need to be cared for— they’ve never learned to hunt or survive in the wild—but they are able to roam free within a substantial game reserve.

Today, wild animals can be found in captivity around the world—often far from their native habitats. They are trafficked for their skin, bones, and organs, to perform in circuses and zoos, or simply to serve as prestige pets. Conversely, conservationists are returning once captive animals across international borders back to their natural habitats, often rescuing them from inhumane conditions—and in some instances potentially contributing to the survival of a species. Such is the case with the world’s fastest land animal.

There are only around 7000 adult cheetahs left in the wild. They face the same threats as many other wild cat species—trafficking, habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict. But cheetahs are especially vulnerable because wild populations, or “metapopulations,” lack genetic diversity—a result of near-extinction events in the past and their relatively low reproductive success.

“So what Ashia is doing is we’re adding genetics,” says Marna Smit. “If we can introduce captive genetics, it’s about seven or eight generations removed by now so we start diversifying what’s already a very close-knit population.” Smit is the conservation director of Ashia Cheetah Center—a captive rearing facility just outside Cape Town that takes captive-bred cheetahs and prepares them for life in the wild. “We focus on corrective diet, so we only feed them wild game, we focus on fitness and we focus on the health of the cats.”

Khatu is one of Ashia’s success stories. Bred at a facility in Pretoria, she was transported to Ashia, then on to a larger rewilding facility where she learned to hunt—and finally to her current home. “One individual captive cat that’s now rewilded has managed to produce 11 cheetahs that will be placed in different game reserves within South Africa… that will get fresh and new genetics,” Smit explains.

Already, six of Khatu’s cubs from previous litters have been transported to nearby reserves—and Ashia also sends cats to reserves in other southern African countries like Mozambique and Zambia. “The transport in itself of any cheetah is very difficult and dangerous. They are a very nervous species and you can’t keep a cheetah sedated for the whole journey… but when I open up that crate and a cat gets released into a reserve, it gives me goosebumps every single time. We’ve released 26 so far and we’ve produced 42 cubs,” says Smit.

Unlike cheetahs, lions and tigers can be kept sedated for long journeys—a fact that Lionel de Lange, founder of Warriors of Wildlife well understands. De Lange has dedicated himself to rescuing wildlife from inhumane conditions, transporting them from zoos, circuses, and even private homes in Eastern Europe to Eastern Cape in his native South Africa. In January 2022, he and his team were able to move five lions: Hercules, Cher, Khaya, Jen, and Aslan—and one tiger, Gina—from a captive facility in Ukraine to Simbonga Game Reserve and Sanctuary. A rescue made possible by the swift actions and longstanding experience of logistics company DHL.

“It isn’t like a human booking a flight,” De Lange explains. “These cats have to go through x-ray scanning machines. And then the vet clearances and customs clearances. I called the Johannesburg office of DHL, and within days I was amazed… it was like super quick; they’d made a decision that they could do this.”

The cats spent 87 hours in travelling crates, with regular stops for health checks and sustenance. They travelled by road and air across Ukraine, to Istanbul, on to Johannesburg, and finally to Jeffreys Bay in Eastern Cape province. Having spent their entire lives in captivity, often in tiny concrete cells, they can never be truly rewilded like the cheetah. “They’ve all got minimum 2,500-square-meter [26,900 square feet] enclosures,” says De Lange. “You know they look content. They know that something good has happened. They’re not dumb animals.”

While hardly everyday occurrences, DHL handles conservation-related wildlife relocation fairly regularly. In 2020, the company made headlines when it helped relocate Kaavan—a then 36-year-old Asian elephant dubbed “the world’s loneliest elephant” after his partner died in 2012. Kavaan was transported from Pakistan to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia, a more species-appropriate environment.

And in July 2022, DHL teamed up with Liberia Chimpanzee Rescue & Protection (LCRP), an NGO that rescues chimpanzees from the pet and bushmeat trades, to transport four vulnerable chimpanzees by aircraft from neighbouring Guinea-Bissau to LCRP’s sanctuary in Liberia.

Wildlife trafficking continues to be among the most lucrative of illegal transnational activities, worth billions of dollars—in fact, it’s one of the biggest illicit trade networks in the world, along with drugs, human trafficking, and counterfeiting. Meanwhile the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has identified habitat loss as a main threat to 85 percent of the species on the IUCN Red List (a comprehensive list of species and their conservation status) as natural ecosystems such as forests, savannahs, wetlands, and reefs are cleared, converted or harvested for human habitation or consumption.

But with informed strategies and concerted action, vulnerable and endangered species can recover. In July 2022, the IUCN reported that tigers are now thought to number between 3,726 and 5,578 in the wild—40 percent more than previous estimates in 2015. But it will require concerted efforts including education, the recovery of wild habitats, legal enforcement, and the strategic redistribution of beleaguered species to well-managed reserves—with the help of companies like DHL—whether that means giving ill-treated animals a chance at a better life or literally saving an iconic species like the cheetah from the brink of extinction.

Find out more about Moving Stories in a Changing World.

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