Photo courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Meet “The Cheetah Lady”, Who’s Leading the Charge to Save These Fast Cats in the Wild

In the 1970’s, American-born Dr. Laurie Marker was alarmed to discover that cheetah were disappearing from their African habitat. Since no one was doing much about it, she founded Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990 and moved permanently to Namibia after the country’s independence the same year. She dropped by our Tribeca office last spring when she was in town to chat cheetah with us.

First, tell us a few things about cheetahs that we might not know. Where do they live, what are they like, and how do they differ from other big cats?
Cheetahs are very special cats. They are the fastest of all land animals. They are capable of reaching speeds up to 70 mph. They are excellent hunters, and they feed many creatures in the veld from their efforts. They are the only big cat that purrs, and they have unique vocalizations. Dog-like barks, bird-like chirps, growls and hisses and a noise we call “bubbles.” They also have amazing vision—they can spot predators or prey a mile away across the open savannah—and a penetrating gaze. I consider the species to be highly intelligent. They are also the oldest of the big cats, having been around for perhaps five million years. To me the cheetah is a most mystical creature; I simply cannot imagine a world without them.

How did you get into cheetah conservation?
In the 1970’s, I ran the veterinary clinic at a wildlife park in Oregon, one of the few places in the world that actually had cheetahs. I was fascinated with these animals and wanted to know more about them, but no one seemed to know much, except that they don’t breed well in captivity, they have a very short lifespan, and they’re disappearing in the wild. I went on to start a very successful captive breeding program and helped to develop the world’s understanding of cheetahs.

Not long after, I went to Namibia with a cheetah that had been born in captivity. My job was to figure out if the cheetah could learn how to hunt. Well, I did teach her how to hunt successfully, but while I was there, I learned that people were killing cheetahs in huge numbers, 800 to 900 a year. I asked a farmer why it was happening. Didn’t he know that cheetahs are the fastest and one of the most amazing animals on the face of the earth? I asked. And he said, “They’re vermin. We see them and we kill them.” I felt like someone had to do something to save them. So in 1990 I started the Cheetah Conservation Fund, packed my bags and moved to Namibia. I’ve been there ever since.

What are the main challenges facing the cheetah of Africa and how does CCF address them?
The cheetah’s problems begin with habitat loss. They are the fastest land animal and have huge home ranges—over 800 square miles. A quarter of cheetahs live in protected game reserves, but there are very few reserves throughout Africa that have enough space for them. There are lions, leopards and hyenas in those protected areas, too, and when their numbers grow, there’s conflict with the adult cheetahs—they’ll chase them off their food, or they’ll kill their cubs. And so the cheetah often finds itself outside of these protected areas, where they come into conflict with humans and their livestock. Most of these areas are very rural and poor, with a very arid landscape, and not a lot of prey for the cheetah to eat. The farmers disproportionately blame cheetahs for the loss of their goats and sheep, because cheetahs hunt by day and farmers see them more frequently than other predators. So farmers kill the cheetahs or trap and remove them from the landscape. That’s the human-wildlife conflict that we are involved with.

Another big problem is illegal wildlife trade. In the Horn of Africa, cheetah cubs are being taken from their dens, and sometimes the mothers are killed so the cubs can be live trafficked into the Middle East, where people keep them as pets. Once removed from their mothers at such young ages, poached cubs cannot be returned to the wild, because they did not learn the skills from their mother necessary to survive. Trafficked cubs usually do not survive longer than three months due to disease and improper nutrition. If they do, most die or become sick and disabled within two years for the same reason. CCF has currently developed a safe house for cheetahs in Hargeisa, Somaliland, with over 25 cheetah cubs confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade.

Can cheetahs that have been rescued ever live in the wild again?
Yes, while extremely difficult to achieve, this is possible. In Namibia, CCF has a rehabilitation program for cheetahs that have come to CCF either injured or orphaned and needing assistance. When they arrive at CCF, we evaluate their candidacy for rehabilitation. Over the past 10 years, we have rehabilitated more 60 cheetahs and during our nearly 30 years, CCF has recused nearly 1,000 cheetahs, and put more than 600 back onto the wild landscape. With trafficked cubs, the chances are reduced, due to their compromised and poor health.

"During our nearly 30 years, we've rescued nearly 1,000 cheetahs, and put more than 600 back onto the wild landscape."

Photo courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.

What are some examples of CCF’s successes?
Many of our successes are overlapping. At CCF Namibia, we established a genome resource bank for cheetahs, containing blood, tissue and semen samples from the cheetahs we’ve come in contact with since 1991. Researchers from all over the world access these samples to perform studies, making their findings possible. Our team has built the only fully capable conservation genetics laboratory at an in situ conservation site in Africa, which is used not only to study the cheetah, but many other endangered African species, too. Researchers from organizations outside CCF use the facility to process their samples, which generates an easy exchange of information. Our research team has also pioneered the use of scat-detection dogs to assist with cheetah census, genetic relatedness and demographic research.

We’ve also developed a program that we call Future Farmers of Africa. By understanding how cheetahs live and how farmers farm their livestock, we’ve developed programs that help farmers reduce the livestock loss to cheetah and other predators. In our CCF Livestock Guarding Dog program, we breed and place Kangal Shepherd dogs (a Turkish breed) with the farmers’ goats and sheep and teach farmers how to work with the dogs. The dogs guard farm animals, their large presence and exceptionally loud bark keep predators at bay and alert farmers to the threat. They serve as a buffer between livestock and cheetahs, and they are credited with the lives of hundreds of cheetah and other predators. We are celebrating the 25th Anniversary of our CCF Livestock Guarding Dog program this year. We have bred and placed over 650 dogs since 1994 and the program has been a huge success, with between 70 to 100% reduction of livestock loss for a farmer when he has a dog.

Most importantly, we involve all stakeholders in the conversations and take a community-based natural resource management approach. Today, the cheetah population of central Namibia has stabilized. Namibia and the town CCF is based, Otjiwarongo, is known as “The Cheetah Capital of the World.”

Photo courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund.

What initiatives will the funding from the eye shades go to?
Working with the communities has been a very large part of what we do. The funding from the eye shade will go to help support our CCF Livestock Guarding Dog Program—to support the breeding and placement of these special dogs with our local Namibian farmers. The dogs protect the livestock, and with that, fewer farmers are killing cheetahs and other predators.

You’ve lived in Namibia for a while now. What do you love about it, and is there anything you miss about life in the States?
I love living in Namibia, and I consider this wonderful place with its wide, open spaces and amazing wildlife my home! But I spend so much time traveling. For the past few years I have been perpetually on the road for CCF projects, giving lectures, generating awareness for the cheetah and raising funds to keep CCF going strong. When in the U.S., I try to make time to see family and friends, going to the dentist, doing a little shopping, and eating seafood. I feel very lucky, like I am living the best of both worlds. However, my animals and I in Namibia really miss each other including my dogs, horses and many of our CCF resident orphan cheetahs.


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