Hargeisa, Somaliland CNN  — 

Three tiny balls of fur huddle together for warmth inside a cardboard box. The baby cheetahs are just a few weeks old, but they’ve had a traumatic start to life.

A smuggler was attempting to spirit the cubs out of Somaliland, a breakaway state from Somalia, when he was caught red-handed by the authorities.

The cubs, who will soon be taken to a safehouse, are the lucky ones. Some 300 young cheetahs are trafficked out of Somaliland every year – around the same number as the entire population of adult and adolescent cheetahs in unprotected areas in the Horn of Africa, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).

The trend is of “epidemic proportions,” according to CCF, an organization devoted to saving cheetahs in the wild. At the current rates of trafficking, the cheetah population in the region could soon be wiped out.

“If you do the math, the math kind of shows that it’s only going to be a matter of a couple of years [before] we are not going to have any cheetahs,” said Laurie Marker, an American conservation biologist biologist and founder of CCF.

Somaliland is the main transit route for cheetah-trafficking in the Horn of Africa. The animals are smuggled across Somaliland’s porous border, then stowed away in cramped crates or cardboard boxes on boats and sent across the Gulf of Aden towards their final destination: the Arabian Peninsula.

Two of 32 rescued cheetahs currently at CCF's safehouse in Hargeisa. The cats get fed fresh camel meat twice a day, with a sprinkling of "Predator Powder" to give them nutrients they would only get in the wild.

Status symbols for the rich

There are less than 7,500 cheetahs left in the wild, according to CCF. Another 1,000 cheetahs are being held captive in private hands in Gulf countries, CCF estimated, where many are bought and sold in illegal online sales.

While many of these states – including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – ban the private ownership and sale of wild animals, enforcement is lax.

The overwhelming majority of these cheetahs end up in Gulf Arab mansions, where Africa’s most endangered big cats are flaunted as status symbols of the ultra-rich and paraded around in social media posts, according to CCF and trafficking specialists.