Cheetah Conservation Fund – Saving the Cheetah means Changing the World (and perhaps saving ourselves in the process…)
Let me start by saying, we have made three safari trips to Southern Africa in the past five and a half years (to South Africa and Botswana) and on only one of those trips were we fortunate enough to see a cheetah. We were visiting Great Plains Conservation’s Selinda Camp for three days (the last of three camps on our trip) when we got our first (and to date, only) glimpse of this magnificent creature. Our guide, Moses, sat down with us before we went out for our first game drive and asked us what we were most interested in seeing. We had been extremely fortunate at our first two camps (Mala Mala in the Sabi Sands of South Africa and Duba Plains in the Okavango Delta, Botswana) to see extraordinary action on the lion, leopard and wild dog front) so anything that Selinda could offer us was going to be icing on our Africa cake. Without hesitation we replied, “a cheetah”. We then double-downed our request by telling Moses, “we don’t care if we see another living thing here, just find us one cheetah”. And that’s exactly what Moses did. Evan and I are forever grateful. Thank you Moses for your keen determination and incredible eyesight. As Evan likes to say, “Moses parted the grasses and led us to cheetah salvation”.
Fast forward to May 2014 at the Explorers Club in New York: Evan and I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Laurie Marker discuss her life’s work focused on saving the endangered cheetah, or as she describes the revered creature, “the cat who’s been loved to death”. The cheetah is considered the oldest of the African big cats, having taken four million years to develop into the animal we know today. Unfortunately, it has taken mankind (perhaps we are more aptly described as “manUNkind”) only 100 years to bring the cheetah close to extinction – since only 10,000 are left in the wild today. Cheetah numbers have suffered a 90% decline in the past 100 years and the cat is now extinct in 20 countries. Cheetahs can still be found in East Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Namibia is estimated to be home to 4,000 of the 10,000 left in the world and this is where Dr. Marker put down her roots and founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990. Dr. Marker estimates that there are only ten reserves left in Africa that are viable and large enough to maintain healthy cheetah populations. This makes sense when you understand that a female cheetah ‘s normal home range is 100 square miles and a male cheetah’s home range is 800 square miles (800 is NOT a typo!). Dr. Marker and her team know this to be true based on extensive radio collar data they have collected, as well as the daily mining of “black gold”, ie., scat. The team has also grown to learn that female cheetah will cover multiple home ranges for the purpose of (1) needing to relate to other females overlapping their home range and (2) needing to introduce their offspring to other males in surrounding territories. They have determined that viable cheetah density is approximately 4.1 cheetah per 1,000 square kilometers.
Protecting wild cheetah populations is CCF’s foremost goal. Dr. Marker’s early research on the planet’s fastest land mammal began in Namibia, Africa in 1977 with her studies on how to reintroduce captive born cheetahs back into the wild. This work led to her appreciation for the complexities and conflicts that naturally exist between livestock farmers and the big cats that live amongst them. For close to 40 years, Dr. Marker has been conducting cutting-edge research on these big cats and is considered one of the foremost cheetah experts in the world. Her research and that of her team, has been all encompassing, including aspects of cheetah health, reproduction, mortality, evolution and genetics. The genetics lab is an extraordinary technological feat unto itself; Dr. Marker and her team have developed their own electricity source to safely protect the 2500 genetic samples procured from more than 900 cheetahs. The researchers have worked on over 1000 wild cheetahs collecting sperm samples and maintaining a sperm bank for these specimens.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund is located in the north central part of Namibia, a democratic country about 2.5x the size of California. While Namibia did not become independent until 1990, Dr. Marker had been working in/out of the country since the 1970’s. In those early days, Dr. Marker said 1000 cheetah each year were being caught and killed. Today, the CCF operation holds court over a 100,000 acre research and education center. It is a sanctuary for orphan cheetah cubs (there are 42 cheetahs at the center right now), as well as a vet clinic, genetics lab, training facility and research center.
The cheetahs’ penultimate adversary is man. The African population is growing exponentially and is expected to reach 2.4 billion people by 2050 (UNICEF estimates that in 2050, one of every third child born will be an African). Given their own dire living circumstances, most Africans see only limited benefits of wildlife conservation. As this human population grows, so does its need for food, and there lies the conflict between man and the general big cat population. There’s a bit of irony in the second reason why wild cheetah numbers are declining. Unlike the lion in Africa or the tiger in Asia who are being trophy hunted or killed for their parts, cheetahs are falling victim to a huge illegal exotic pet trading market in the Middle East where their docile nature lends them to be sold as status symbols to the extremely wealthy (cheetah cubs can fetch $10,000). I had originally been surprised to hear about their docility, but as I watch more and more YouTube safari videos of cheetah jumping onto the hoods and roofs of safari vehicles, I can appreciate this potential aspect of their personality.
So how does CCF put into action what they have learned from their cheetah research?
Human/Wildlife Conflict Resolution education is carried out through CCF’s Future Farmers of Africa program. Here, farmers are coached on “cheetah friendly” methods of livestock management. One very successful program has been the Livestock Guarding Dog program, which uses Anatolian Shepherds and Kangal dogs (both Turkish dog breeds which have been used for 6,000 years to protect sheep from wolves). These are not herding dogs, rather, they are guard dogs who grow up amongst the livestock and because of their size can actually protect the grazing animals. They are trained to stand between the livestock and the predator. Their significant size and loud bark are usually enough to discourage a predator, but if not, the dog is also trained to attack. CCF has placed hundreds of these dogs on Namibian livestock farms where farmers have reported a significant decrease in livestock losses, in some cases up to an 80%. (I recall in a conversation with Laly Lichtenfeld, founder of African People & Wildlife Fund in Tanzania that they are also considering using these dogs).
Habitat Restoration is another key focus of CCF. Dr. Marker chairs the Conservancy Association of Namibia. Through education and collaboration with local farmers and landowners, conservancies have been formed to provide thousands of contiguous acres of land where cheetahs can roam safely. By encouraging groups of farmers to remove their separate game fences and instead manage their livestock and wildlife as a whole, the cheetahs’ large habitat ranges are being restored.
Another key focus of CCF’s habitat restoration is to harvest the fast-growing thorn bushes that quickly encroach and destroy the native grasslands. Cheetahs need open grasslands to safely run and bring down their prey. CCF has taken the “bush by the thorns” and is harvesting 3,000 tons a year of these thorn bushes to make “Bushbloks”, an ecologically friendly fuel log that burns very hot with low emissions.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund today is run on an annual budget of $1.5 million with 90 staff members on a large ranch. The ranch houses 300 goats, 15 guard dogs, hundreds of cattle and right now about 42 cheetahs. The ranch is open to the public. Over 35,000 school children visit each year where they learn the importance of biodiversity and the possibility of living harmoniously with these big cats. Dr. Marker tells the Cheetah’s story every chance she gets. To learn more, please check out their website cheetah.organd please consider donating to this great organization.
National Geographic also ran a very informative article on the cheetah in November 2012 written by Roff Smith with photographs by Frans Lanting called “Cheetahs on the Edge”. The irony of the title is not lost on me – they are running the ultimate race of survival. I choose to support them, not stand by as an idle spectator.
Some Cheetah Facts to make you sound smart around the Big Cat Water Cooler
- Belongs to its own genus – Acinonyx
- Only cat that can’t roar
- Mortality rate is 95% amongst cheetah cubs raised in the wild
- Cheetahs are much more delicately built than lions and so can be “bullied into the margins” by lions who are larger in both stature and numbers – Where you have a big lion population, it is unlikely you will find many cheetahs
- Fight vs. Flight – the cheetah has neither sharp claws nor big teeth
- Semi-retractable claw, no other cat has this – it is designed to act like a sprinter’s spikes
- Built for speed – Can do 0-70mph in under 3 seconds and can reach 45mph in its first couple of strides.
- Flying machine? Almost. At top speed a cheetah’s stride is 21 feet and their feet only touch the ground twice in one stride
- Females live a solitary life while adult males live in coalitions