Dr. Laurie Marker is Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) based in Namibia, Africa. Having worked with cheetahs since 1974, Laurie set up the not-for profit Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990, moving to Namibia to develop a permanent conservation research Centre for the wild cheetah. In 1992 the Cheetah Conservation Fund became a registered Namibian Trust. Today CCF's activities are housed at their International Research and Education Centre in the main cheetah habitat of the country. In July 2000 CCF opened their field research station to the public, having developed a Visitor's Centre, a Cheetah Museum and an Education Centre.
In 1988 she developed the International Cheetah Studbook, a registry of captive cheetah worldwide, and is the International Studbook Keeper. In 1996 she was made a vice-chair of the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) Species Survival Commission's (SSC) Cat Specialist Group. In 2000 Laurie was given the Burrow's Conservation Award from Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2001 Laurie was locally honoured in Namibia, receiving the Paul Harris Fellowship from the Windhoek Rotary Club, and in 2002 she received a special award from the Sanveld Conservancy', signifying Namibia's farming community's public acknowledgement of Laurie and CCF's contributions.
In 2000 she was recognised as one of Time Magazine's Heroes for the Planet.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund can be found here: www.cheetah.org.
Since 1974 you have worked in the field of cheetah conservation: what was it that initially drew you to the cheetah and what changes to conservation attitudes have you witnessed during those intervening years?
I was a veterinary technician at a wildlife park in Oregon, USA and the cheetahs along with all the other very special species came under my care. That was when I learned about the problems facing our world’s vanishing wildlife. I realized that no one knew much about cheetahs, and that I wanted to know everything there was to know about them. I focused my research on finding out more about this magnificent animal, and as I learned more about them, people from around the world asked me to share what I could with them.
In 2000 Time Magazine recognised you as one of “Heroes for the Planet.” What exactly did that title confer and how did it impact upon international recognition for your work with the Cheetah Conservation Fund?
Any exposure we can get for the work we do at CCF is important, as it raises awareness about the cheetah’s plight and the efforts to conserve this magnificent animal. Although we don’t have the tools to measure impact from exposure, I am sure that such a prestigious honour by such a prestigious publication must have contributed to our efforts in an important manner.
Your headquarters – the International Research and Education Centre is based in Namibia: please explain why you decided upon Namibia when the cheetah is more endangered within other Southern African countries.
I first came to Namibia in 1977 to learn about the cheetahs here – teaching me that livestock farmers were killing hundreds each year, I came back several times and knew that a conservation program was needed there, as Namibia houses approximately 20% of the world’s wild cheetah population. This may be the largest and healthiest population of cheetahs left in the world, and understanding their biology and ecology is essential for stabilising the population and managing a sustainable population for the future.
In the future, as wild populations become more fragmented, their management will become increasingly necessary in order to maintain genetic diversity, protect against disease, and against further population declines due to habitat loss, demographic fluctuations, and conflict with humans.
I’d like to add that although the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is an international conservation NGO with a headquarters in Namibia, CCF has another permanent field station in Kenya and works on projects in Algeria, Botswana, Ethiopia, Iran, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
What exactly is the work you perform within Namibia and how far within the country does the influence of your work extend?
Through my developmental years I was an avid Future Farmer and learned about agriculture, livestock husbandry and wildlife management. My conservation training began in University where I first studied agriculture and then my studies took me on to zoology, conservation biology that included genetics, animal health and diseases, wildlife conservation, and wildlife management. Thus, in addition to scientific research on the biology, ecology, and other aspects of the cheetah, in Namibia we have a very robust education program to teach people in general how to share their land with cheetahs, and farmers, in particular, to use predator-friendly farming methods that will help minimize human-predator conflict. Our programs extend throughout any areas of the country where wild cheetahs exist.
How was your work initially accepted in Namibia, both by the farmers whom you were trying to educate and the authorities?
Since my arrival here in Namibia I have had some strange things said to me. Many farmers wondered what I was doing here, and some would say “if you like the cheetahs take them all back to America.” I told them I wasn’t going back to the U.S., so they were stuck with the cats and me. This usually got quite a little laugh from them. Several of our radio-collared cheetahs were killed and people took the collars from us, but the people have come around in many ways and we hope they continue. I interviewed farmers about their work and problems encountered with predators and they like my non-confrontational approach and my interest in them from a farmer’s perspective. I deal with all issues directly and not negatively – I believe that I can win them with knowledge versus emotions.
Both in Namibia and on an international level, what challenges have you faced - are you currently facing - and can you foresee in the future?
When I began CCF, all I started with was just a little dream – to see if I could help this beautiful misunderstood predator survive into the future. I wanted to know what problems the farmers were facing and why they were killing so many cheetahs. Today, I am seeing that to save the cheetah we need to change the poverty, ignorance, the degradation we have on Earth and with this, maybe, we can have an Earth that we can live on for future generations. Today, I know that we can save the cheetah and ourselves for the future, but in order to this we need to change the world, to make it better.
How much time do you personally spend in Namibia and explain your day to day activities within the Trust.
I spend a lot of my time in raising the funds needed to keep CCF’s programs moving forward. I visit the U.S. twice a year, in the spring and fall, and Europe once a year. In addition, I some times travel to participate in or lecture at conferences relevant to CCF’s work.
When I am at home, my days here are never the same. Normally, I would start my morning by trying to meet with the staff to discuss our plans for the day. I also have to check my email; I get hundreds of them every day! Our staff takes care of the animals: we have goats, sheep and dogs because we are a teaching farm, and then there are the cheetahs that cannot be released because they were orphan or injured at a young age. They need to be checked on and fed every day, and their pens have to be cleaned. My job keeps me by my desk most of the time, writing scientific papers, reviewing research data, making contacts with our supporters, and always trying to raise funds so we can continue to do our work.
Since the foundation in 1991 of the Cheetah Conservation Fund as a registered trust, what have been its greatest successes?
One of the most important successes is that many Namibian farmers have learned more about how they can live with cheetahs through employing good livestock management and good sustainable wildlife management. We know that training is a very important way forward for our farming community, so we will continue to develop appropriate programs for our Namibian farmers. Today, many more people see the cheetah as an asset versus just vermin.
In 2006 the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) will spend over N$7 million within Namibia on salaries, goods and services. CCF employs 45 Namibians at its International Research and Education Centre headquarters near Otjiwarongo, and the CCF Bush factory in Otjiwarongo. Additionally, CCF attracts hundreds of eco-tourists who spend monies for goods and services while in country. Through CCF’s efforts over the past 16 years, Otjiwarongo is now known as the Cheetah Capital of the World. Overseas CCF acts as an unofficial “champion” for Namibia as a tourist destination, which also benefits the Namibian economy. For instance, just this past year there have been international TV programs about CCF on CNN, the Animal Planet, French TV, BBC, ABC-TV, Sky News, and National Geographic TV just to name a few.
By what means do you attract sponsorship / donations and how is this money spent?
CCF is a Section 21 not-for-profit company and is supported through grants and private donations. Our entire budget necessary for our research and education/conservation programs comes from donations and grants.
In addition to offering cheetah sponsorships, memberships, general donations, and grants from various foundations and corporations, we obtain support in a variety of ways. For example, much of what we do would not be possible without the passion and expertise of many people from around the world who come to Namibia or Kenya to participate as paying volunteers, directly or through organizations such as Earthwatch. We also have volunteers around the world who help us from their home countries with fundraising or administrative tasks. I invite everyone to visit our web site at www.cheetah.org to learn more about CCF’s work and how to make a difference. Our web site is full of information, materials that can be printed out, and other tools for anyone who wishes to help save the cheetah.
Please outline for readers the The Livestock Guarding Dog Program, and why it has been so successful.
CCF began a Livestock Guarding Dog programme in 1994, using the Kangal (Anatolian Shepherd), a breed of dog that has been used in Turkey for several thousand years to protect sheep from wolves. These dogs were chosen in preference to the other livestock guarding dog breeds available as they are able to work unsupervised on vast open spaces, are short-coated--making them well adapted to working in a hot, arid climate, and are large, imposing dogs that bark loudly to chase away potential predators.
CCF implements its Livestock Guarding Programme by breeding, donating and monitoring Livestock Guarding Dogs on Namibian farmlands. They provide a method of non-lethal predator control that protects the farmer’s livelihood, while conserving predator species.
The CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dog programme has generated much interest among farmers, communities, tourists and the media since its inception in 1994. At the end of 2006 there were 120 livestock guarding dogs working in Namibian communal and commercial farms. Adult dogs are monitored by CCF in a bi-annual evaluation, and monthly for puppies during the first six months. As a non-lethal method of predator control, the dogs become the guardians of the flocks, and through loud barking, and attentiveness to the herds, predators avoid these protected flocks. On farms where dogs are working, livestock losses have been eliminated or reduced (farmers have reported up to an 80% decrease in livestock losses post-placement. The burden of convincing a farmer not to kill or harass a cheetah is greatly reduced when the farmer does not perceive the cheetah as a threat to his/her livelihood.
Of all the big cats the cheetah is the most persecuted, both by other predators and more so by man, especially livestock farmers in Southern Africa. What makes the cheetah so susceptible to such harassment both from the other big cats and us humans?
The cheetah cannot compete with predators such as lions and hyenas because it is a light animal. Its narrow, lightweight body is one of its adaptations for speed. Naturally, a cheetah generally chooses flight instead of fight when faced with larger predators.
Competition from more aggressive predators decreases cheetah survivability in protected game reserves. Thus, a greater percentage of cheetah now live outside protected areas. This puts them in increasing conflict with humans and their agriculture interests, even if the conflict is only perceived due to their diurnal habits that make them more visible than other predators. Thus, as human populations change the landscape of Africa by increasing the numbers of livestock and fenced game farms throughout the cheetah’s range, addressing this real or perceived conflict has become the most important factor in their conservation.
If cheetah vs human conflict / human persecution is the fundamental reason for its decline in the wild (outside of gazetted national parks and reserves), other than education by what type of management can these occurrences be prevented / reduced?
Cheetah numbers decline due to the loss and fragmentation of habitat, killing and removal by livestock farmers and a declining prey base. CCF’s strategy to save the wild cheetah is a three-pronged process of research, conservation and education. It begins with long-term studies to understand and monitor the factors affecting the cheetah’s survival. Results of these studies are used in developing conservation policies and programmes to sustain the cheetah populations. Then, CCF actively works with the local, national and international community raising awareness, communicating, educating and training.
CCF’s programs include research on the health and genetics of the cheetah – we have developed a very large database on the cheetah that contains information on the cheetah's health, morphology, genetics, movements, range and territories. CCF collaborates with scientists throughout the world in analysis of the data. In addition, we have been working on a census of the Namibian cheetah population though various research techniques like using camera traps and spoor tracking.
CCF’s conservation programs include reducing livestock loss for farmers. One of such programs includes the breeding and donating of Livestock Guarding Dogs to farmers. Farmer training programs teach about the role of a predator in the ecosystem and how to farm using predator-friendly techniques, like having breeding seasons for livestock or having enough wildlife so predators don’t have to catch livestock. Other programs have included the development of a factory in Otjiwarongo that uses harvested encroached bush and turning it into a fuel log, thus putting a lot of people to work while clearing habitat and marketing a product – called BushBlok.
CCF’s education programs raise awareness about the cheetah internationally. Locally, we teach how to live with a cheetah and other aspects of environmental education and natural recourse management that are unique to Namibia.
CCF’s Mission statement is “to be an internationally recognised Centre of Excellence in research and education on cheetahs and their eco-systems, working with all stakeholders to achieve best practice in the conservation and management of the world’s cheetahs.”
You helped identify the cheetah's lack of genetic variation as a threat to its overall survival – by what means have you been able to preserve its gene pool? Perhaps this is somewhat a naive question but as with human sperm banks and egg harvesting is a similar project for cheetahs viable and how successful would I.V.F be, both in captive conditions and in the wild, if indeed this was at all possible?
You are right. One of the key challenges to the survival of cheetahs is their low genetic variation, which leads to a low rate of survival, poor reproductive potential, and greater susceptibility to disease. To this end, CCF monitors resident captive cheetahs and conducts research on all cheetahs handled. CCF collects semen samples and where possible banks them in the Genome Reproduction Bank, which at the end of 2006 contained 165 samples from 62 captive and wild cheetahs in Namibia.
Captive cheetahs not only represent an important gene pool, but also form a safeguard in case of disaster among the wild populations. An important pioneering reproduction project on CCF’s captive female cheetahs began in July 2006, in alliance with the Smithsonian Institution and University of California Davis. The team used ultrasound to examine the reproductive organs and then performed egg extraction. Semen samples were then extracted from a resident male cheetah and used for in-vitro fertilization (IVF). This was the first time that this intricate research has been conducted, and it will serve to develop and assess techniques that will improve captive cheetah reproduction worldwide especially as cheetahs are notoriously difficult to breed.
In addition, I am the keeper of a register of all known cheetahs in captivity around the world: the International Cheetah Studbook (ICS), which has the purpose of registering all cheetah in the world held in both zoological gardens and private facilities. It provides information about existing animals to create the preconditions for selecting breeding animals. The register is updated on an annual basis. The studbook data, which averages about 1,300 animals in 165 facilities in 65 countries at any given time, is used to manage the captive population. Demographics of the population and causes of deaths, birth rates etc. can all be tracked to monitor this population in order to identify problems so that these can be addressed in a timely basis.
I have recently read that there are only circa 45 cheetahs left remaining in the Masai Mara - to what factors do you attribute such a low number and what hope have you of numbers increasing?
Land use changes and an increase in human population and activity levels throughout Kenya, including the Masai Mara region, affect land use by wildlife. Both within and outside of the parks, cheetah sightings and signs of cheetah (tracks, kills...) are decreasing. People do not always differentiate one cat species from the other and many people see all predators as a threat to their lives and livelihoods.
While pocketed populations of game are still strong on large commercial farms and on unsettled public land, these populations are changing over time. Subdivision of land, disease, human-wildlife conflict and poaching has reduced prey base throughout ranchlands. Livestock loss to cheetah is typically viewed as a minimal threat compared to that of lion, leopard, jackal and hyena, however localized cheetah problems are reportedly increasing in settlements where cheetah populations exist in close proximity to people.
The current status of cheetah in Kenya is believed to be on a continuing decline. Past population estimates are based on calculations from studies mainly focused within Parks and Reserves. CCF Kenya has been conducting a Nationwide Cheetah Census, in collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the East Africa Wildlife Society (EAWLS). While information on behaviour and demographics is interesting and necessary for cheetah survival, we cannot apply conservation actions until we estimate cheetah numbers and determine where our efforts will have the most impact on future cheetah survival. The study was initiated in 2004 with the aims of 1) mapping conflict through analysis of KWS predator conflict reports; 2) evaluating cheetah presence through field data collection; 3) identifying areas of cheetah sustainability or unique situations in assisting KWS in identifying areas for further studies.
Interviews show conflicts between people and other predators to vary from region to region. The main focus of CCF’s research in Kenya is the evaluation of farmland ecosystems for the long-term habitat viability for the cheetah. A case study in the Machakos Wildlife Forum (MWF) was launched in January 2004 utilizing community participation in cheetah monitoring. The MWF case study includes telemetry monitoring of a female cheetah and her cubs, and a community development project that involves improving livestock dips.
CCFK’s supplemental programs in cheetah education and awareness are given in school and the community. Education is also imparted by request in the tourism sectors to raise awareness of the fragile ecosystems of Kenya. Awareness and educational programs offer participatory involvement for mutual information sharing. Volunteers and student interns assist in program development and activity participation where possible.
Following the death of a cheetah known as "Honey" in the Masai Mara (made famous through the B.B.C's Big Cat Diary) three young male cubs have been left orphaned. What is your opinion regarding human intervention in cases such as these, where a species is highly endangered in such an eco system? I.e. should the cubs be left to fend for themselves and possibly die through starvation or predation, or should they be fed and cared for therefore providing them with a better chance of survival?
Generally, when animals suffer due to natural causes, it is better to let nature follow its course. However, when humans cause an animal to die, become injured or orphaned, intervention is deemed necessary. For example, because cheetahs are viewed as threats by Namibia’s livestock and game farmers, wild cheetahs are sometimes shot or caught at play trees as a perceived threat vs. actual losses. CCF rehabilitates these cheetahs and then releases them into the wild whenever possible. In 2006, CCF tagged and released 12 cheetahs into their natural home. Yet, CCF does take in orphaned, old or injured cheetahs that do not have the skills or physical capabilities to survive in the wild. Although not a typical sanctuary, part of CCF’s land and programs now accommodate and care for these cheetahs, of which there are now over 40. These cheetahs provide important biological and ecological information and also act as resident ambassadors to visitors.
Through the Cheetah Conservation Fund one can volunteer to work in Africa. What do you look for in a potential volunteer and what qualifications are necessary? How close with the cheetahs does a volunteer work and what would be their responsibilities?
No qualifications are necessary. However, we expect our working-guests/volunteers and student interns to participate in a variety of general tasks and operations of the program, in addition to a focus area. A focus area will depend on individual backgrounds, areas of interest and length of stay at CCF. The best qualification for our program is a willingness to help out wherever needed.
We particularly need help with administrative, education and business related functions! We need people who are versatile and can work long hours, seven days a week. We aim to balance the volunteer experience, allowing everyone some exposure to working with cheetahs. However, because our hands-on work with the cheetah can be sporadic, volunteers are required to help with general tasks.
For more information about volunteering for CCF Namibia or Kenya, please visit our web site here..
How has the internet, and namely your website, www.cheetah.org help bring a wider recognition to the Cheetah Conservation Fund?
The Internet is a wonderful tool to reach audiences all over the world that we, with our limited resources, could not reach. Every day we receive inquiries from students working on cheetah projects, or people asking us how they can help. Thanks to our web site, we have received donations from places as remote as Isle of Man or Taiwan!
In over thirty years of research work, what mistakes, if any have you made and how have you addressed such failings?
There are many difficult tasks and problems one must face when working in conservation. Past mistakes are probably many to list here. However, I think our achievements outweigh our mistakes, and more importantly, we look at those mistakes and try to come up with solutions so that they will never happen again.
Does the cheetah still maintain secrets from you or has it given up everything to your dedicated research? What is it about them that still stimulates you on a daily basis?
Working with and for the fastest land mammal is amazing –they can reach speeds of up to 110km per hour. The cheetah’s athletic ability as well as its family and social bonds are so special. I think that people could learn a lot about cooperative living from watching the cheetah!
Understanding more about how a cheetah lives and behaves keeps me going daily, even though I know more about cheetahs than any other human on this earth, I haven’t stopped learning from them.
Did you know that the cheetah is one of man’s oldest companions? It was revered as a goddess by the Egyptians Pharaohs and its likeness portrayed in their tombs. It was even a pet of the royal courts of Europe and the Middle East and for 3,700 years was trained to hunt for man. However, they are not domesticated (that takes hundreds of generations of captive breeding and cheetahs have never bred well in captive environments). One of the major highlights of my career with cheetahs includes getting to know many of them personally – as I have raised several orphan cubs. My personal favourites include Chewbaaka --who has just turned 12 years old and is known to most who visit CCF, and Kanini – a year old cub who is very small (her names means little one). When we got her in February of 2006 she had been tied to a tree for a couple of months and was in poor mental and physical health. And then there are the Hogwart’s trio – Harry, Ron and Hermione – three orphans that we have raised for the past year. Each of these orphan cheetahs teaches one more about the uniqueness of the species.
The most endangered of the big cats – without further intervention from entities such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund, what hope for the species do you see outside of National Parks and reserves?
Cheetahs are running out of time in and outside National Parks and reserves. The world cheetah population has gone from 100,000 to less than 15,000 in just over 100 years. Humans have loved them to extinction. They have been worshipped as symbols of speed; they have been used as hunting animals, and have been kept as royal pets for centuries. The world population is not getting smaller, and thus all wildlife is losing ground to people.
CCF believes that it is people, and not the governments, who can save the cheetah. Hence, its vision is to have an educated community that actively participates in the cheetah’s long-term survival.
Conservation is a never-ending task. So far we have achieved important results in our efforts to save the wild cheetah from extinction, but we still have much work to do. Cheetahs still live in 26 countries, and most of these countries face poverty and hunger. We need to find ways in which we can help people to solve those problems while also protecting wildlife. We must alleviate poverty and educate using a multi-disciplined and integrated approach. We need to do this through training and creating entrepreneurship opportunities for Namibians and other nationals where cheetahs still exist.
Without the land and the people, we will never have conservation. Without conservation, the earth’s ability to sustain life will be severely compromised; our resources will be depleted, our animals will die out, and so will we.
Breaking News: 9 September 2007
Cheetah Conservation Fund, Breakthrough in Cheetah Reproductive Research
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.
Dr. Laurie Marker and Chewbaaka appear courtesy of © The Cheetah Conservation Fund.