Return to Transcripts main page
Trump Administration Brings Back Death Penalty; Moral Duty of Religious Lives; Sister Helen Prejean, Author, "River of Fire," is Interviewed About Death Penalty. Realizing that Rhetoric Has Real World Consequences; Rev. Rob Schenck, Evangelical Minister, is Interviewed About Violence. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired August 16, 2019 - 13:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:00:00] CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here's what's coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN, AUTHOR, "RIVER OF FIRE": We are counting down the time to die. It's the most surreal thing that you can imagine in the
(END VIDEO CLIP)
The Trump administration brings back the federal death penalty, and America's most famous opponent Sister Helen Prejean joins us with her new
Then why this evangelical minister regrets his incendiary language. Why President Trump's words worry him now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People who have a cheetah as a pet, are causing species to go extinct.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The beautiful endangered cheetah cubs shipped from the wild to the Instagram world of the super-rich.
Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
Sister Helen Prejean has spent her life fighting death. More specifically, the death penalty. As one of the most famous anti-capital punishment
campaigners, she has demonstrated super human levels of compassion to people on death row, often staying with them until the end. It is an
extraordinary life that inspired the Oscar-winning film "Dead Man Walking."
And now, she's putting the religious teachings that guided her down on paper in her new memoire, "River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey." The book
comes out just as her advocacy is becoming more relevant than ever. The Trump administration is reinstating the federal death penalty, a policy
that has been dormant since 2003.
Sister Prejean has gone from wearing a habit as a young nun names Sister Louis Augustin to serving God under her own name and in her own clothes.
She joined me from New York to talk about the moral duty of religious lives.
Sister Helen Prejean, welcome to our program.
PREJEAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.
AMANPOUR: You know, we introduced you as possibly the most famous, most passionate, anti-death penalty advocate in the world. You've written a lot
about that, there's been a whole film about that, and now, you've written your spiritual memoir, "River of Fire."
I just wonder whether when you started as a nun you had any notion your activism would become such a massive part of your life and such a massive
part of our global consciousness?
PREJEAN: Well, first of all, I didn't have much of an idea of activism at all. I mean, confident life or religious life before Vatican II was pretty
much being prayerful and pious and charitable, going out to teach, but I didn't picture activism in the public square at all.
Vatican II changed that for us and actually for the whole church. Or like Pope Francis refers to the church now, it ought to be a field hospital out
there with the wounded. So "River of Fire," my book, is about waking up to the social dimension of gospel of Jesus and being on the side of marginated
poor people, which led me then to move into an African-American inner city project in New Orleans. And that's when I really woke up.
AMANPOUR: So, let me ask you, how would were you when you entered the convent?
PREJEAN: I was a child bride of Christ. I was 18 years old. Cried all the way to New Orleans when I entered the division and left my family home.
But I knew what I wanted. And in the '50s, a life for a woman that where you could be religious and spiritual, you could be with other spiritual
seekers and you can do work and develop your intellectual life as well. We had great nuns that taught us and I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be
one of them and so I did.
AMANPOUR: So, tell me then, you make a delineation between when you joined and then you say Vatican II. For those who don't know what that means,
what is Vatican II? What did it do? And how many years after you joined did that happen?
PREJEAN: Now, well, I joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1957. Vatican II, and so, it was to help the church into the modern world. So, it freed
up nuns to be able to just say, "Let's get out there and meet the people where they are," that freed me up, then to move into the St. Thomas housing
projects. Then I get a letter, write a letter to a man on death row and behold, two and a half years later, I'm witnessing his execution.
AMANPOUR: Well, let's talk a little bit about that because, you know, everybody knows about you from "Dead Man Walking," your book, and also the
film that was made starring Susan Sarandon as you and Sean Penn as one of the condemned men. And we're going to play a little clip of one of the
scenes where you are accompanying one of these people who are about to be executed and then we'll talk [13:05:00] about it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SUSAN SARANDON, ACTRESS, "DEAD MAN WALKING": You did a terrible thing. A terrible thing, but you have dignity now. Nobody could take that from you.
You are a son of God.
SEAN PENN, ACTOR, "DEAD MAN WALKING": Nobody ever called me a son of God before. I've been called me a son of a you know what many times, no one a
son of God.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: Sister Prejean, how close to reality was that scene?
PREJEAN: Right on target. I couldn't have worked with more collaborative people than Susan Sarandon and Tim Robinson and Sean. And that is an
actual statement from one of the men I was with, "And nobody ever called me a son of God before. I've been called me a son of a you know what many
times." So, it's very, very close. They wanted -- Tim Robinson really wanted to get it right. So, I worked with them on every line, every scene
of that movie.
AMANPOUR: Now, beyond the movie, in your own life, what was it you were able to bring to these people? I think you accompanied six people to their
deaths. What were you able to do for them? I mean, did you pray with them at the last moment? Did you hold your hands? Were you in the chamber?
What did you do for them? What were you allowed to do?
PREJEAN: What any human being does with someone who is facing such an exigency in their life like dying or being killed, it was to give them
dignity. It was to be present to them. It was to be able to say to them, "Look, you did a terrible, unspeakable thing, but you are worth more than
the worst thing you've ever done in your life."
I mean, I recognize our country is very far away -- at this point, the United States of recognizing that the death penalty is the torture of human
beings because imaginative, you know, conscious human beings can't help but anticipate being killed. And we are justifying it by saying, "Oh, but look
what they did. So, we're going to do them what they did to their victims." What kind of standard of morality is that?
So, it's to bring people into the human story is what I did with "Dead Man Walking," an eye witness account. And the reader learns with me and in the
movie, you'd follow me. I wasn't sure of myself. I was learning as I go. Tim Robinson all through the making of the movie, the nun was in over her
head. And indeed, that's really, really true.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This boy is to be executed in six days. You must be very, very careful.
SARANDON: Well, Matthew, I made it.
PENN: You've never done this before?
PENN: Never this close to a murderer before?
SARANDON: Not that I know of. I just want to help him take responsibility for what he did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
PREJEAN: What "River of Fire" does is talk about the slow awakening that it was not just a pray to God to solve the problems of the world, but
prayer was to quicken me to be able to roll up my sleeves and reach out to the suffering world and to make a difference. So, it talks about somebody
coming to an awakening.
The gospel of Jesus -- Christianity can be very misused. I cringe at what Christianity does when you have someone like ex-attorney general, Jeff
Sessions, quote Romans 13, an apostle of St. Paul to justify the separation of children from their parents at the border. Saying that if something is
legal, then it's of God, it has the authority of God. These parents are breaking the law by being illegal and so, we are justified in separating
them from their children. They brought it on themselves.
And they actually tried to use the divine authority to justify what they're doing. We got to get Christianity right. It's about justice. It's about
that everybody should have a chance at a decent life and not using it to hurt people, to put people down, to exclude people, to vilify people.
AMANPOUR: I wonder whether you have a view on what the Trump administration is doing and in the words of the current U.S. attorney
general bringing back the federal death penalty after a moratorium or hiatus of about 20 years. Let me just play what William Barr has said
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We will be proposing legislation providing that in cases of mass murder or in cases of murder of a law
enforcement officer, there will be a strict time table for judicial proceedings that will allow the imposition of the death sentence without
undue delay. [13:10:00] Punishment must be swift.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: What do you make of that? And in particularly in the wake of the El Paso mass murder and the Dayton, Ohio mass murder where President
Trump and his associates were calling very loudly for the death penalty for what they call these most heinous of criminals.
PREJEAN: That's supposed to be what the designer death penalty has been from the beginning, when the Supreme Court put the death penalty back in
the Greg decision, they said it's only going to be reserved for the worst of the worst. In the actual practice of who has been executed and who is
sitting on death row, it's always poor people and almost always people who have killed white people.
They're not going to do the federal death penalty any better than they're doing it in the States. And while he may think and the attorney general
might think just by doing (INAUDIBLE) we're going unleash all these executions. I've been talking to federal defense attorneys who are going
to be working might and main to delay, throw monkey wrenches in that machinery of death, delay it and possibly forestall it all the way through.
AMANPOUR: In the moment leading up to their final lethal injection that you witnessed, what do these death penalty inmates feel? What do they go
PREJEAN: What is so surreal about their deaths is that it's imposed on them and there are two red telephones in the killing chamber. One to the
governor's office and one is to the court. So, with their consciousness being (INAUDIBLE) in the last moment, I'm trying to get my legs to walk
across this floor. Everybody I've known on death row has the same nightmare, and it is the guard to come in, "It's my time. They're dragging
me out of my cell," and yelling, "No, no." And then I wake up. It was just a dream. Not tonight but later.
And then to count down the days, "I'm going to be killed at Friday at 6:00 p.m. and today is Tuesday." So, there's Wednesday, Thursday, and you're
counting down the time to die. It's the most surreal thing that you can imagine in the world. And then if one of those red telephones rings when
you are walking into that execution chamber, the execution doesn't happen.
I was with Dobie Williams three times. He was killed on the third try. But twice before, once when he was being served his last meal, the warden
came up to him and said, "Dobie, I don't want to put you on a rollercoaster but we just got a fax from the Supreme Court, you got a stay." And the
stay was like for one week. And then they took him out and killed him.
So, it's the most surreal thing in the world of this death premeditated, a protocol of death imposed on human beings who try to do the best they can.
And that was the cause of my dialogue with Pope John Paul II. When I am walking with a man to execution and he's shackled hand and foot, he's
surrounded by guards and he kind of turns his head and says, "Sister, please pray that God holds up my legs while I walk." "Your Holiness, where
is the dignity in rendering a human being defenseless and taking him out and killing him? Can you help the church to see that dignity of all life,
not just the innocent but the guilty, as well?"
And Pope John Paul did a lot to move it forward in the -- of the death penalty in the Catholic church and Pope Francis, on August 2, 2018, finally
after 1600 years declared under no circumstance can the premeditated killing of a person for crime be allowed the government to do.
AMANPOUR: Can I ask you, you mentioned the popes and meetings with the popes. You went to meet with Pope Francis personally to deliver him a
letter about your concerns of the way women are treated institutionally by the Catholic church. What precisely were you trying to get out of him?
What was your major complaint?
PREJEAN: It was to conduct dialogue about women in the church, which are not part of policy making, decision making. And I said to the pope in the
letter, "When it's all males making all these decisions, it's not healthy. How are we going to have a healthy church if we don't take seriously that
when women are baptized, they are baptized in the image of Christ just like a man. You can't rely on an accident of biology as to whether or not you
can fully image Christ. And it was to move that dialogue along with women [13:15:00] just as we have done on the death penalty.
So, dialogue takes a long, long time. But when you have been a witness to something as I have with the death penalty, you could bring people there
and keep the dialogue going. To wake up the people, first and foremost, but it's the same thing with women in the church. Any moral issue that has
to do with the inherit dignity of people and treating them with that dignity.
So, I knew I was going to be one part of the dialogue by having this letter to the pope. But you have to keep them -- when you love like I love the
Catholic church, you keep the dialogue coming. I love my country. So, I keep the dialogue coming about why we shouldn't take people and strap them
down and kill them. When you love people, you stay at the table and you keep talking.
AMANPOUR: Sister Prejean, you, obviously, now, in your own clothes and you have taken your own name, this is, obviously, you've been doing this for a
long time. But pre-Vatican II and when you joined the nunnery, you were wearing a habit, you had a different name that you took as a sister. How
is personal life and personal space changed for you in the years, you know, since you -- at 18 and now you're 80, you entered at 18, how has it changed
PREJEAN: That was a seismic change in the Catholic church of what the ecumenical Vatican II did for us.
AMANPOUR: Which was in the early 1960s, right?
PREJEAN: '62 to '65.
AMANPOUR: Yes. Got it.
PREJEAN: Before, we dressed in the habit, which was the original widow's garb of 1650 in France because widows were the only women that could go out
unaccompanied by men. And apostolic orders were the first. It was different from being a cloistered nun. You know, even the line in
Shakespeare, "Get thee a nunnery." If you went to a nunnery, you never went out again. You prayed for the world.
But apostolic religious orders have a life of prayer, deep meditation, community, but then you reach out to the -- and you are free. You're a
free agent to be able to see needs and respond. So, our sisters, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, we had the freedom to do that. And I would be
nowhere without the sisterhood. The sisterhood are under me. The sisterhood helped me grow up.
In "River of Fire" I talk about the growing up years in a convent. And I mean, the thing that sisters would say about me the most, well, with my
half-baked ideas they'd say, "Well, there goes Helen again with her feet firmly planted in midair, with another, you know --" so, to learn to ground
thing and to make them real and that was when I moved into the St. Thomas housing projects.
AMANPOUR: All right.
PREJEAN: African-American people became my teacher who had just been my servants when I was growing up. I didn't know what life was like for
African-American people and they began to teach me.
AMANPOUR: That's wonderful. Sister Helen Prejean, author of "River of Fire," your spiritual memoire, thank you very much for joining us.
PREJEAN: Thank you. It's a joy.
AMANPOUR: The power of words also plays a central role in our next guest's story. Reverend Rob Schenck was a prominent figure in one of the most
aggressive corners of America's anti-abortion movement, that is until he realized that his harmful rhetoric calling abortion doctors monsters and
murderers may have motivated the fatal shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998.
After years of soul searching and a string of hate crimes in the United States, Schenck has written a piece for "Time" magazine titled "My Words
Led to Violence. Now Trump's Are Too." And he told Michel Martin how he realized that rhetoric has real world consequences.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: For people who don't know your story, you became very active in the so-called pro-life movement, the movement to
curtail abortion rights in this country. Can you just tell us what drew you to it?
REV. ROB SCHENCK, EVANGELICAL MINISTER: I spent 30 years as what we then called a prolife activist and that included mobilizing very large numbers
of people to blockade clinics and other facilities where you could find abortion services and that included rallies at those locations, and I often
took the stage as a representative of one group or another. And those rallies could get pretty energetic, and, you know, even a preacher can find
the response of a crowd very appealing.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about what you actually and like what some of your tactics [13:20:00] were.
MARTIN: You know, you wrote about it in your piece for "Time," I mean, you said that you depicted doctors who performed abortions as murderers,
callous profiteers and misery, monsters and even pigs. I mean, did you actually say those words?
SCHENCK: I did.
MARTIN: You called them pigs?
SCHENCK: I did. Yes, I did use those terms. And the whole idea was to kind of cast these people in what we use to term in the abortion industry
as very ugly and nefarious actors. And even, though I wouldn't have admitted it to the time, dehumanize them, make them something other than
MARTIN: You know, the core of your message was supposed to be the dignity of all life, the dignity of list (ph) of this. Did you honestly not see
any contradiction between your dehumanizing doctors and abortion clinic workers and the core of your message?
SCHENCK: I had to convince myself that I was right. I did have doubts. There were moments in the quiet of my head when I was going to sleep at
night where I would rehearse the events of the day, the words I had spoken, the people I had attacked verbally from a stage and I would worry about it.
I would take pause to think about it. Sometimes that was very difficult.
But, you know, certitude was a necessary component of what I was doing. Without it, there was the chance that I would have to admit that I was
wrong and I wasn't in a position to do that. So, it was almost like I had to -- I got carried away. And eventually, I had to just dismiss those
MARTIN: Can I just ask? And was there anybody in your life who said, "Hey, you know what, this isn't --"
MARTIN: And you --
SCHENCK: Yes. There was a very loving wife. I happened to be married to a psychotherapist. So, she had some challenges to offer to me. I wish I
would have listened to her. My children. There were colleagues who said to me, Schenck, I think you're off base here. You may even be comprising
the message we all try to convey, which is the gospel when Jesus was asked what is the greatest of all the commandments, he answered there are two,
love your God and love your neighbor as yourself. You are not loving your neighbor."
MARTIN: And when they would say this to you, you would say what?
SCHENCK: I would have to classify them as weaklings, as cowards who were more concerned with being of politically correct, with being socially
acceptable, maybe looking for what we called the praise of man rather than the praise of God, and the people eventually replaced God for me.
I needed audience approval much more than I needed God's approval. And I had an ever increasing audience that gave me that approval.
MARTIN: And then Dr. Slepian was kill.
MARTIN: Dr. Barnett Slepian was killed in 1998. For people that don't recall, he was a practitioner of abortions at --
MARTIN: -- a clinic in Buffalo. He was one of the targets of your activism.
MARTIN: And he was murdered.
SCHENCK: We knew him as what we termed very pejoratively an abortionist. But most people -- and we now know -- knew him as an OB-GYN, a beloved OB-
GYN, who delivered their children, who took care of women and moms and sisters and aunts. And he was not shy to come out and confront us, which
he did on a number of occasions.
And so, you know, there would be an exchange. And on a few occasions, that was literally face to face between him and me. Our group traveled to his
home. I harassed him and his family in their own driveway. I look back at those things in the moment when he was killed, it's kind of one of those
things where a lot of [13:25:00] scenes flash in front of your eyes and I felt momentary regret, but I had to quickly compartmentalize that and put
it aside because the implications were too great for me personally.
MARTIN: You put roses at this office. I remember you took, what, like seven roses, like one for him, one for his wife, one for his children, his
four children, and one for, what you said, was hope. And his widow basically told you, pardon my language, to go to hell.
SCHENCK: She did, indeed.
MARTIN: She said, you know, "You did this. And you should be accountable for that." Now, you didn't pull the trigger, to be clear. But somebody
you feel inspired by your rhetoric took it upon himself to go kill him in his house where you had been demonstrating. So, everybody knew where it
was. How did you take that when she said, "You know what, Reverend, you did this"?
SCHENCK: It was very, very difficult to read that. She wrote it to me in a note. Returned the flowers, crushed. And today, I realize that was not
just appropriate, it was necessary and I deserved it. Back then I took a deep gulp, swallowed hard, convinced myself she didn't understand my true
intentions. And what about my business? I had convinced myself no one in our movement would ever do such a thing. Would ever pick up a gun and kill
a man, particularly in view of his children. It was an unthinkable event.
When it happened, I convinced myself that it must have been someone very far on periphery, probably an invader, maybe even somebody who was setting
us up in some way to discredit our movement. And then someone sent me a photo of the perpetrator standing in the frame of a news conference that we
had held. I didn't know his name at the time, but there he was. Not on the periphery, but standing very close to the leaders of our movement.
And that told me something is deeply wrong here. But it would take me years to face it and address it. And, frankly, I'll be candid, only in
therapy myself could I do that.
MARTIN: What was it that made you finally see a connection between the violence of your words and the violent actions of one of your followers?
What was it? Was there a moment of epiphany?
SCHENCK: You know, it was a process for me. And it started in moral and spiritual reflection. Continued in professional therapy, lots of
conversations with my wife, later with my children. The real moment came when I sat with an unlikely friend, a pro-choice activist on a grand scale,
filmmaker, Abigail Disney, who invited me to be the subject of a documentary film actually examining my evangelical community's embrace of
popular gun culture.
And as a result of that project with her -- I was very reluctant to say yes. I eventually did. And then over a period of about a year, we forged
a very unlikely friendship. The filmmaker, Abi Disney, told me her own personal story of abortion, which she has spoken publicly about. And by
then, there was a level of trust and a rapport that we had and a conversation I had never had, prochoice people were of a different species
than the people I kept company with.
I had convinced myself that prochoice people were morally defective, that they weren't worthy of the same respect that a prolife person deserved.
But all that was undone in my friendship with Abi Disney.
And the more we talked about this, the more I was forced to look at myself more than I looked at her or looked at my opponents. And when I did, that
was the moment of truth.
You know, the Bible even talks about when, you know, the need for us to look in the mirror and consider what sort of person we are. To linger
there for a little while. Don't just walk away and forget what you saw.
And I took that on as a personal challenge and it lead to what I call another conversion in my life. This time, it wasn't as instantaneous the
first one was.
MARTIN: I don't want to gloss past the fact that throughout our conversation, there's been like a tear at the corner of your eye. And I
just wondered is it that -- isn't thinking about these things, the things that you said, the things that you did, I mean, you know, throwing fetuses
at people. Does that still hurt all these years later to think about it?
SHENCK: You know, it's a whole range of emotions, certainly, it makes me sad. Very sad at times. Very regretful because, you know, for me now I
think the greatest gift that God has ever given to the universe is humanity.
We're all human. Every one. We're all in the same family.
We all deserve the same dignity, the same respect. We're all made of the same material.
And when I think back to contributing in any way to the diminishment of someone's humanity, to the point where his life was taken in the ultimate
act of contempt and in that his own children and his wife witnessed that is an enormous source of pain. It's selfish to even say it because I didn't
lose anything there except my own dignity, by the words that I used.
MARTIN: I wonder if your acknowledgment of this brings any comfort to the family.
SHENCK: My greatest concern in all of this public discussion has been that I may in fact inflict more injury on them by bringing up what had to be the
most painful moment in their lives. And so I was really hesitant to even engage in the public discussion about it. I certainly made no attempt to
communicate with the family because I think it would only add more agony.
MARTIN: But you felt you needed to speak out. In fact, your column for "Time Magazine" was very much directed at President Trump saying your words
SHENCK: I know all too personally that this is not ridiculous, that there is a connection between words and what might be unintended, perhaps
intentional, consequences of those words. I think the president needs to learn the same lesson that I learned and that is that you can never know
the ears that your words are falling on.
Many of those people want to hear permission from a big and powerful figure on a stage and there's no one with a larger or more powerful stage than the
president of the United States. And what they are hearing, whether he knows it or not, whether he intends it or not, is a permission to act on
their most hideous impulses.
And when you dehumanize someone, you devalue them to the point where, in fact, they are an animal to be hunted. Someone will go out and hunt them
and kill them.
We have already seen that happen. We will see it again, and again and again. Until the president stops [13:35:00] dehumanizing and degrading
human beings with his language, as long as he does that, I can guarantee him that there are those out there waiting for that permission to unleash
their murderous impulses.
So we're in for more of this. And the only thing he can do -- I could not take back my words. Very regrettably, I could never take back the words
that I released from those stages but I could stop and I did.
And the president cannot take back his words but he can stop literally giving ammunition to those who will act on those words.
MARTIN: One of the things that I think is puzzling for many people in this country are the fact that white evangelicals continue to support him as a
group but not just continue to support him, they're among his strongest supporters. What do you say to that? Like how do you understand that?
SHENCK: I think we've made a deal with the devil, and I say that quite emphatically as a preacher. What we've sold our principles for political
In one way, we've kind of traded one form of respect for human life, for a degrading of human life. So if you say, for example, well, we embraced
this president because he will eventually give us the court that will end abortion in this country.
But if, in fact, he's contributing to the suffering of those children as they grow older, and there are many ways he's done that by trimming all
kinds of social support systems for those children, how is that pro-life? That contradicts the pro-life ethic. All of this, to me, comes Down to a
bid for political power.
MARTIN: I've seen you make this argument in groups of those who share the commitment. I've seen you talk to other pastors about this, who are
And I've seen a lot of them basically tell you to go to hell. I mean, they said you're an idiot or you're arrogant or who do you think you are or why
do you think your judgment supersedes that of all of us?
SHENCK: I would like to answer them in the words of Jesus, who said you shall know a man by his fruit. You look at what a person's life produces.
When I look at my life of activism produced, I don't think it's fruit that anyone would want to eat. There was contempt, there was pain, there was
fear, there was certainly a dismissal of the complexities of people's lies and there was worse.
People were being shot and killed. That's enough to say maybe we were wrong.
MARTIN: Reverend Shenck, thank you so much for talking with us.
SHENCK: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: And we turn to another appeal to end actions of having a devastating impact on wildlife. There are only about 7500 cheetahs left on
the planet. The other supermodels of the Savannah.
Their sweet nature has made them the prime target of a new threat, poaching for the Persian Gulf superrich who are buying up the wild animals as pets
to show off on social media. The cubs are easy pickings because cheetahs hide their young when they go to hunt. It's a trick that fools many
But our Jomana Karadsheh reports from Somaliland in East Africa, it doesn't fool the poachers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOMANA KARADSHEH, CORRESPONDENT, CNN: Nearly a couple of weeks old, Galas is clearly in desperate need of his mother but the orphan cheetah is one of
the lucky ones, rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Across the horn of Africa, if the mothers aren't killed, the cubs are snatched from them.
Smuggled in crammed crates and cardboard boxes. By the time they get to the shelter, they're barely alive.
According to the Cheetah Conservation Fund, some 300 cubs are smuggled out of this region every year. And for every one that makes it into captivity,
another three die on the way.
That valley down there is becoming known as the cheetah supermarket. That's because many of the trafficked cheetahs are being smuggled across
this border [13:40:00] with Ethiopia into Somaliland.
This breakaway state from Somalia is the main transit route for the trafficked cats out of the horn of Africa, smuggled across the Gulf of
Ayden to the Arabian Peninsula. The survivors of the rough journey become an exotic accessory like designer bling, as rich Gulf Arabs compete for
social media clicks.
At least a thousands of cheetahs are estimated to be in private hands in Gulf states. According to exports, most die within a year or two in
Although private ownership and trading of wildlife is banned in most Gulf states, enforcement is lax. Illegal online sales are starting to be
policed but if you really want a cheetah, they're not hard to find.
This is an online Saudi marketplace. And when we search for cheetahs, several listings came up. Some advertising two to three old cheetahs.
Others selling young cubs.
This man in Saudi Arabia is eager to sell.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whatever cheetah you want. You want male, you want female, it's not an issue. From Africa. We import through a website with
a guy and we have another Saudi trader. I got more than 80 from them.
KARADSHEH: $6,600 seems to be the starting online price in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government did not respond to CNN'S repeated request for comment.
There are only 7,500 cheetahs left worldwide. Half the number from almost a decade ago.
LAURIE MARKER, AMERICAN BIOLOGIST: People who have a cheetah as a pet are causing the species to go extinct. It's leading the way toward extinction.
This bottle is one of the favorite toys that we found.
KARADSHEH: American biologist Laurie Marker in her Cheetah Conservation Fund are racing to save the species from extinction.
MARKER: This is not how a baby cheetah should be living. They need to be living out in the wild instead of the safe houses.
KARADSHEH: They've set up the safe houses in Somaliland for the rescues. It's bursting at the seams.
MARKER: Seeing them here, it breaks my heart.
KARADSHEH: You can see why people call them cats that cry.
MARKER: It's our responsibility to give them the very best care that they could have and to try to save every single one of them.
KARADSHEH: Ten-month old Kitty is in intensive care. The last survivor of his three sisters.
MARKER: She's not one of our healthiest cats. And it probably does have a lot to do with where she started in life.
KARADSHEH: Despite the team's efforts, Kitty didn't make it.
MARKER: These animals are smaller population, very rare population. And from that, each one of them do carry a different genetic code. This one is
KARADSHEH: Every cub gets microchipped. Their DNA is recorded. Without a mother, they have to be taught how to hunt and survive in the wild.
MARKER: It takes sometimes months to try to get one cheetah to get on its feet.
KARADSHEH: Neju Jimi, a soon to be vet, is their main care giver.
NEJU JIMI, LEAD CARER, CHEETAH CONSERVATION FUND: I love them so much. I don't even see my mom once a week.
KARADSHEH: According to Marker, there are only about 300 adults in unprotected areas in the horn if Africa.
MARKER: If you do your math, the math kind of shows that it's only going to be a matter of a couple of years that we're not going to have any
cheetahs in this region left.
KARADSHEH: Many have already been lost to conflict with humans. Somaliland Wildlife Authorities are busting traffickers. It's illegal here
along with private ownership.
But in the capital, a popular restaurant advertises burgers and captive lions pacing in the background for selfies. For three years, this cheetah
on a short rope has been the star attraction for paying clients to pet, poke, and pose with. The owner insists it's legal.
ABDIRASHIQ ALI MOHAMED, LION RESTAURANT OWNER: We have a license. Plus, there's only one cheetah here and he has a lot of space to run around.
KARADSHEH: Why it was tolerated in plain sight went unanswered by the authorities. More are hidden behind walls.
Even as we're leaving Somaliland, two more cheetahs have been confiscated from a house here. Three more received just a few days later.
As long as there's a demand by the rich, creating a lucrative trade for the poor, the cheetah's future hangs in the balance. Time is not on their
[13:45:00] Jomana Karadsheh, CNN, Hargeisa, Somaliland.
AMANPOUR: For more on this shocking report, I spoke to Crawford Allen, the senior director of traffic. He works with the Worldwide Life Fund to
prevent the illegal trade of exotic animals. Crawford Allan, welcome to the program.
CRAWFORD ALLAN, SENIOR DIRECTOR, WORLDWIDE LIFE FUND: Thank you. It's great to be here.
AMANPOUR: So, look, you've just seen and heard Jomana's package, her report on the cheetahs in Somaliland. She reports that time is not on the
cheetah's side. Tell me, from your perspective, how dramatic it is.
ALLAN: It's something that is really true. With fewer than 7,000 cheetahs left in the world, and this really large burgeoning growth in demand for
live cheetahs as pets, particularly sent viral via social media, the clock is ticking for cheetahs, particularly in areas like Ethiopia or the horn of
And it's a population and a range of -- they just cannot afford to lose even a single cheetah.
AMANPOUR: You are, obviously, on the front line of trying to stop this kind of trafficking. But I just want you to again put it in perspective.
Because, you know, obviously, we've done a bit of research and we find that cheetahs have long been an accessory.
Whether it was the pharaoh, whether it was Josephine Becker, or whether it was the American actress who was living in London, you know, walking them
around on a leash. Cheetahs have been photographed as pets for a long time. What is different now?
ALLAN: I think the difference now is the explosion of access to the Internet, to social media and to e-commerce sites. And the fact that there
are systems in place where anybody in the world can connect to anybody else regardless whether you're sitting in Tokyo, whatever it is, you can at the
click of a button be aware that somebody is selling a cheetah, or you can be aware that somebody has got this incredible super car that you really
admire that person but they've also got a cheetah sitting on the bonnet.
And if you look right now on any social media site, and search for cheetahs, you'll see those images yourself. You'll see videos like that
where people have literally the cheetah hanging his head out of the window of some incredible super car particularly in the Gulf states.
AMANPOUR: So, OK, the Gulf states are the worst offenders. Even though there's a law there against owning this kind of wildlife but it's not
really enforced, is it?
ALLAN: It certainly depends on the country. Some countries are already trying to clamp down like the United Arab Emirates, which in 2017
prohibited possessions of live cheetahs.
But, of course, these things still happen. And what do you do with the cheetahs that are already in possession?
Some of the countries like Saudi Arabia are still trying to get there and get things right. They still have a demand and the laws are not quite as
resolute as they should be and enforcement is still needing great improvement to clamp down on this problem.
AMANPOUR: Let's take it from the sort of trafficking hub, if you like, and the smuggling hub which as our reporter points out is in Somaliland.
That's one of the main hubs.
Give me the sense of the route, where do they get the cheetahs from? How do they travel to these destinations? Why is that so perilous.
ALLAN: They can be easily captured. Cubs can be easily collected on the ground because their parents are wide ranging.
They're outside of protected areas and the parents will leave the animals rather than protect them. They'll hide those cubs.
And so o people can find those cubs. Criminals can target where the ranges are.
They can collect them and then they're stuck into boxes and crates and suitcases. They're stuck on the truck. They're taken on rivers on boats.
It takes very a long time. And quite often because of the nature of improved enforcement at major airports, they're kind of trying to find
other routes to avoid detection because it's difficult when you've got a live animal.
And also Cubs are more portable than the adults. So it's the cubs that are traded. And they're much more vulnerable as well to and susceptible to
overheating, for dehydration, and disease and other things and getting injured and dying.
And the situation is perilous because there's no control. And the traffickers have got a number of animals and they know that if they can get
one to market, they've made a profit.
AMANPOUR: So we've been hearing these terrible stories of trafficking, poaching, and the like. We've been seeing species like elephants and
rhinos are, you know, being killed for their tusks and their horns.
And yet in other areas, the populations are coming back. Give us a sense of the overall picture of trafficking and the survivability or renewal of
some of these animals that we're really, really watching and worried about.
ALLAN: Yes. I mean it sounds really, really bleak. And of course, in many places it is and for many species but there are a lot of positive
signs of hope.
There's a lot of attention now on this issue. There's a lot of resources being put in place. A lot of [13:50:00] systems that are needed to save
and protect the species are starting to build up.
I would say probably over the last six or seven years, this issue has become a top priority in the environmental scene and people are aware. But
you've seen some species now coming back, coming back from the brink, species like tigers which there were less than 3,200 left in the world.
The estimates now around 3900.
We're seeing some recovery. If you give them space, if you give them prey, you protect them from poaching which is one of the predominant things and
they'll breed like cats and they will come back.
And countries like India, have just announced success in their population surveys showing tigers circle coming roaring back as the Indian government
would say. So we do have signs of hope.
And we do see areas where populations are starting to regain a foothold. One of the fundamental things is that they're protected from poaching for
trade, poaching for both live animals and for their body parts and for medicine and for food, for fashion.
And if we can do that, if we can stop that poaching and trafficking and give them that specie to breed and breathe, then we can see some success.
And in theory, the same could happen for cheetahs.
AMANPOUR: And we've seen some success with rhinos in parts of Africa, right?
ALLAN: Yes. Rhinos were particularly a success story coming back from the brink from decades ago for really to depleted populations in Africa. And
thanks to dedicated Conservation programs and breeding programs and private parks and so on coming together and collecting, we've seen recovery of
But you also have seen that over the past 10 years, there have been a surge in the demand for rhino for their horn in countries like Vietnam and China
for traditional med and aphrodisiacs.
So with the good news story, there is a sweet and sour element where of course, the challenge has surged again. We've seen the peak. We think
we're past the peak of the poaching and we think that the efforts of demand reduction in Asia working with those governments closely and the
enforcement on the ground in Africa and anti-trafficking methods cross that range from source to consumer are really getting somewhere.
So we're seeing the decline now again in the poaching. But it's a constant fight. And nobody can ever let down their guard.
AMANPOUR: So tell me, how helpful are programs like David's massive work or his planetary explorations and his dedication to showing the natural
world. How much help do you think that is to your efforts?
ALLAN: Well, you know, if you look at shows like "Our Planet" and work they've done massively worldwide on platforms, on streaming platforms, it's
incredibly helpful. It starts to create a new generation of people that have a depreciation for nature, for wildlife in all places.
This is going to help us in the future in the longer term understand the value of nature and make them realize it's not just about keeping that
animal alive for the sake of that animal. It's for the sake of the planet. It's for the sake for all of us.
And we rely on nature. We just don't realize how much we rely on nature and the services the nature provide to people are basically going to keep
us alive for the future as a human population.
And so seeing social media evolve in that way, something we also want to see happen. It's vital for species to survive through a movement. And the
front line of conservation and certainly for wildlife trafficking now has moved online.
Social media is a place in which the faith of the world is reliant because it's about people's attitudes and opinions and awareness. And media shows
like "Our Planet" can really reach people and change the way they think and change their hearts and make them aware.
We also have to have that spill on to social media where everything tends to happen nowadays.
AMANPOUR: Yes. Well, it's incredible. Hundreds of millions of people are watching those shows online and on television.
Let me just finally ask you, the Trump administration has made changes to its endangered species rules and regulations and laws, making it somewhat
easier to take some of them off those lists. Have you noticed that? What do you think about that?
ALLAN: I think the Endangered Species Act has been one of the most successful conservation laws in the U.S. and the U.S. government is highly
commended for that law over the years and what it's done in helping bring species back from the brink, protecting habitats.
So, of course, as a conservation organization, WWF is looking very closely at any changes. And, obviously, anything that would weaken laws and
undermine conservation is going to be a concern. And WWF is looking very closely at that right now.
AMANPOUR: Crawford Allen, thank you very much for joining us.
ALLAN: Thank you very much.
AMANPOUR: So much needed optimism for our precious wildlife to end our show.
Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at amanpour.com. And you can follow me on Instagram and Twitter.
Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.