Published Dec. 4, 2021
By Dr. Laurie Marker
Founder/executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund
International Cheetah Day is the annual day of celebration for Africa’s most endangered big cat – the cheetah.
The cheetah is not only the fastest, but the oldest of all the big cats. It has survived over three million years of glaciations and warming periods, and its own lack of genetic variation. Despite its tenacity, cheetahs face extinction due to human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and the illegal wildlife trade. When a species becomes extinct, everyone loses. The cheetah occupies a unique niche within its ecosystem and has an earned reputation as one of the more successful hunters in the animal world. Cheetahs evolved for millions of years to be the sleek, and speedy hunters that they are now. Their smaller, specialized body structure favors flexibility and maneuverability over brute force. If they are threatened after a successful hunt, they tend to abandon their kills and hunt again. This makes the cheetah a provider of easy meals for other larger predators, and an assortment of carnivorous scavengers. They are a keystone species within their ecosystem, keeping the population of small grazers and small mammals in check. They are essential; we cannot lose the cheetah.
Since 1900, the world has lost over 90% of its cheetahs. The cheetah was listed as an Endangered Species in the United States in 1970. It was designated protected status under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1975. In 1977, I saw first-hand how the species was being persecuted and killed in the wild. I travelled to Southwest Africa, now the country of Namibia, to conduct a pioneering research project with Wildlife Safari (Winston, Oregon). I was studying what steps were needed to teach a captive-raised cheetah named Khayam to hunt. The study would determine how much of this essential skill was instinct versus learned behavior.
During the study period, I found that cheetahs were being killed in high numbers as they were blamed for the deaths of livestock, a critical means of income in Namibia and in many rangeland countries. They were being caught in cage traps and then shot on sight. I knew the key to saving the species was to appeal to the farming community. Because I had a farming background and zoological experience, I knew I could work within the farming community to help reduce the killing of cheetahs.
After the study, I thought that if I could tell enough people about the plight of the cheetah in the wild that some organization would take up the cause to save the cheetah. I continued my efforts working to study captive cheetahs and set up the International Cheetah Studbook, a full listing of all the cheetahs held in zoos across the world. During this time there was a shift in zoo culture and an increased interest in wildlife conservation. I worked to raise awareness of the problems that the cheetah faced in the wild. But still no organization took up action, so I decided to do it myself.
A New Era for Cheetahs
In 1990, I founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). In 1991, I moved to Namibia and set up the first global cheetah organization, working with livestock farmers and rural communities, the people living alongside the cheetah. At CCF we developed predator-friendly livestock farming techniques that could be easily deployed on Namibian farms. We use non-lethal predation control methods like Livestock Guarding Dogs. CCF places Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs with local Namibian farmers, reducing the predation rates on the flocks they guard by over 80 percent. Farmers are learning that they have alternatives to shooting cheetahs. Because of our efforts, Namibia’s population of cheetahs has stabilized.
We are also working to restore the landscape from overgrown thickened native thorn bush. The widespread reduction of these megafauna species like rhinos and elephants in the ecosystem has caused an unchecked flourishing of native thorn bush. CCF uses the biomass material created by harvesting the thorn bush to create a clean-burning fuel log called BUSHBLOK®. Biomass energy production has the potential to power much of Namibia if it is scaled up. Cleared habitat creates an opening for wildlife to reoccupy the land which increases the prey base for cheetahs and other predators which also reduces the conflict with the livestock farmers.
Over the years, we have served as the model for others to develop cheetah conservation programs across cheetah range countries. In the Horn of Africa, CCF is working to end the illegal wildlife/pet trade of cheetah cubs that are destined for the Middle East. Thirty years after we began in Namibia, we set up a second base of operations in Somaliland. We work closely with Somaliland’s Ministry of Environment and Rural Development, and (at the writing of this blog) we are caring for over 60 confiscated cheetah cubs. Like our first efforts in Namibia, we began educational outreach and are making progress within the rural nomadic and pastoralist community. We are customizing our successful science-based, research-driven, environmental education efforts to help reduce human-wildlife conflict in Somaliland and Ethiopia. Preventing cheetahs from being trapped and killed to protect livestock, keeps cheetah cubs from being illegally taken and sold as pets.
Zoo partners, like the Indianapolis Zoo, are helping CCF to save the cheetah. In 2010, Indianapolis Zoo’s new exhibit Cheetah: The Race for Survival was opened. I was honored to be involved in developing and designing the 20,000 square foot zoo habitat. One of the exhibit’s most interactive features is the “Race-a-Cheetah” speedway. For a small donation, members and guests test their sprint times against an LED light array that approximates the speed of a cheetah—while real cheetahs watch. 100% of the net proceeds of that exhibit come to CCF and since 2010, we are grateful to have received more than $100,000 in support.
So, what can YOU do to save the cheetah on International Cheetah Day?
One important thing you can do is learn more about the cheetah and its plight. Visit CCF’s website at cheetah.org and internationalcheetahday.com where you will find educational resources about the cheetah and its ecosystem. We also have many fun activities that you can download including a Conservation Passport complete with a Certificate of Cheetah Achievement.
International travel has become complicated due to COVID-19. While Namibia is open to travelers and CCF is welcoming guests, visiting CCF’s Research and Education Centre in Namibia may not be an option for you right now. Visit an accredited zoo that houses cheetahs instead, like the Indianapolis Zoo. Many of the zookeepers and docents working at zoos across the world have been to CCF and received training as an intern or volunteered as a working guest. By learning about cheetahs at an accredited zoo, you will be gaining knowledge built on CCF’s 31 years of researching the species in the wild.
My hope is that by learning about the cheetah on International Cheetah Day you will become inspired. We hope that you will encourage others to learn about the cheetah too, not just on December 4th, but every day of the year.
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