Cheetah population falling due to rising trend of owning luxury pets in Middle East Flickr via Creative Commons/Ma

Wild cheetahs are being smuggled to the Middle East to be sold as exotic pets causing a dramatic decline in numbers, conservationists have warned.

According to a report published by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), the cheetahs are mainly smuggled from the Horn of Africa.

"Huge numbers of cheetahs appear to die in transit," said Nick Mitchell, the Eastern Africa co-ordinator of the Rangewide Conservation Programme for Cheetah and African Wild Dogs, who took part in the report.

Somaliland is the centre for the illegal export of cheetah cubs destined for the Gulf States. The animals are smuggled by boat to the coast of Yemen, and then driven across the Yemeni border by car.

"This whole trade had not been appreciated by the public or by the conservation world," said Mitchell. "If we do not act now on the trade and land-use change, then we can be certainly losing sub-populations in a few years."

Fifteen known cheetah populations with an estimated 2,500 adults are being targeted by the wildlife smugglers.

David Morgan, head of science at Cites, said: "Middle Eastern countries spoke up very clearly and this has been a positive development. Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait all recognised the problem.

"Many Asian countries still want the trade in medicinal products, but the more show-off element seems to be rising," he continued. "It comes with the rising economies of these countries and that drives up demand. But there are so very few animals left in the wild that they cannot afford a big rise in demand."

The largest surviving cheetah population - about 6200 - is in Southern Africa. Here the fastest mamal on earth are threatened by trophy hunters willing to pay a bounty of $10,000-$20,000 (£6,000-£12,000) per animal. This practice is also legal in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. An estimated 200 cheetahs are killed every year in trophy hunting.

The luxury pet trend also threatens the endangered cheetah sub-species of Iran, where there are about 40 to 100 animals living in the wild.

There are currently fewer than 10,000 cheetahs worldwide.