Ethiopian Cheetah Cubs May Have Been Rescued

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Two endangered cheetah cubs held captive and abused at a remote village restaurant were to be rescued by an Ethiopian veterinarian and U.S. soldiers, an environmental official said.

Befekadu Refera, an official of the national Environmental Protection Agency, said the veterinarian would take the cheetahs away from Gode on Saturday and hand them to U.S. troops for safekeeping until the animals are flown to the capital, Addis Ababa.

"The U.S. Army will not take the cheetahs without Ethiopian officials being present," Befekadu told The Associated Press. "The vet will give some medical treatment to the animals and then on Monday or Tuesday they will flown to Addis Ababa courtesy of the U.S Army."

The plight of the cubs has gathered international attention since American soldiers, part of the U.S. counterterrorism task force for the Horn of Africa, last month discovered the animals tied up and being forced to fight each other for the amusement of patrons at a Gode restaurant. One cheetah has an eye infection and may be blind.

The soldiers tried to persuade restaurant owner Mohamed Hudle to hand over the cubs to wildlife officials. Mohamed refused, saying he wanted $1,000 for each cheetah — 10 times the average yearly income in this impoverished nation of 77 million people.

The soldiers also contacted U.S.-based cheetah experts as well as Ethiopian authorities, who have intervened. The U.S. military refused to comment officially on the cheetah rescue effort, but its role was confirmed by the restaurant owner, the Ethiopian EPA and the U.S.-founded international Cheetah Conservation Fund, based in Namibia.

In a statement on its Web site, the Cheetah Conservation Fund said that U.S. soldiers learned about the cheetahs when the restaurant owner brought the animals for medical treatment to a U.S. military housing compound in Gode.

The soldiers checked up on the cubs over the following weeks and discovered they were being mistreated. An AP reporter who visited the village saw the restaurant owner's sons, ages 4 and 2, pulling the cubs' tails and dragging them around by ropes tied tightly to their necks. Other children followed, poking and teasing the frightened animals.

"I don't see why I should hand them over," the owner, Mohamed, told AP. "When I was younger I looked after goats and camels, so I know what animals need."

Mohamed, 43, said he bought the cubs from poachers, who had kicked the female cub in the face, blinding the animal.

The cheetah is endangered because of loss of habitat, poaching and other factors, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Keeping wild animals is illegal without a special license, but Ethiopia's wildlife laws are rarely enforced. Mohamed also has a hawk with a broken wing and three malnourished baby ostriches.

Befekadu, of the EPA, said once the cubs are brought to the capital, they would be cared for on the large grounds of the National Palace, home to several Abyssinian lions rescued by former Emperor Haile Selassie.