Tag Archives: Cheetah Conservation Fund

The Cat who has been Loved to Death – An evening with Dr. Laurie Marker

Selinda Cheetah - Photography by Evan Schiller

Selinda Cheetah – Photography by Evan Schiller

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”.

Lounging Cheetah - Lisa Holzwarth

Lounging Cheetah – Lisa Holzwarth

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.

Selinda Cheetah in Afternoon Light - Photography by Evan Schiller

Selinda Cheetah in Afternoon Light – Photography by Evan Schiller

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
One with the Cheetah - Photography by Evan Schiller

One with the Cheetah – Photography by Evan Schiller


Ruaha Carnivore Project – Dr. Amy Dickman in DC, Take II

Ruaha Carnivore Project, Washington DC Invitation

Ruaha Carnivore Project, Washington DC Invitation

On Thursday, October 24th I hopped on Amtrak for what has become our “annual” trip to Washington, DC.  My friend, Laura Brown and her husband, Scott Satterfield, were hosting an evening to meet Dr. Amy Dickman, the founder of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania.  You may recall that Evan and I met Dr. Dickman last year at this same time when we came down to spend the day at National Geographic.  (Amy was the 2011 recipient of the Rabinowitz-Kaplan Prize for Next Generation of Wild Cat Conservation and is also a National Geographic grantee.)  I was looking forward to seeing Amy again and getting an update on this important project.

So where is Ruaha and why is it important?  The Ruaha National Park is the second largest national park in all of Africa and the largest national park in Tanzania.  It covers an area of about 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 sq miles) in central Tanzania and is about 130 kilometers (81 miles) from Iringa.  The Park is part of a more extensive ecosystem, which includes Rungwa Game Reserve, Usangu Game Reserve, and several other protected areas.  The name of the Park is derived from the Great Ruaha River, which flows along its southeastern margin.  You can get to the Park by car via Iringa, as well as an airstrip at Msembe, Park headquarters. 

Now to Ruaha’s importance.  According to a recent study led by Duke University, there are only ten “strongholds” of lions left in the world where researchers believe that lions have a good long-term chance of survival.  The study goes on to point out that 40% of the world’s lions are found in Tanzania, with more than 10% living in southern Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape (the second largest lion population in the world).  Amy says the Ruaha landscape has a large, viable carnivore population because it is a vast, relatively untouched area with healthy prey populations.  Amazingly, until 2009 when the Ruaha Carnivore Project was launched, there were no research or conservation efforts focused on this important large carnivore stronghold – data that is necessary to help develop effective conservation strategies for the area.  The Ruaha Carnivore Project is part of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, WildCRU.  The Ruaha team focuses 30% of their efforts on ecological research/conservation data and 70% on mitigating human/carnivore conflict in this isolated landscape.  It is the only non-governmental organization working on the ground in the area to promote large carnivore conservation.  Its geographical area of focus includes Ruaha National Park, the surrounding Wildlife Management Areas and 21 neighboring villages. 

What are the challenges?   Despite its isolation, Ruaha has historically some of the highest rates of lion killings in east Africa.  Most key carnivore areas are close to village lands (approximately within 30 km) which is a key reason for the very high lion killing numbers found in/around Ruaha.  Over half of the lions killed were missing their right front paw when the carcasses were found and a significant number found poisoned were pregnant females.  The poisoning is probably the result of retaliation for livestock deaths.   

In Ruaha, wildlife wealth lives amongst human poverty: 90% of the people live on less than $2/day and life expectancy is less than 50 years.  Until the Ruaha Carnivore Project, villagers had little appreciation for the economic value of large carnivores, resulting in a severe conflict between the two (when polled, 93% of the villagers said that they derived no economic benefit from wildlife).  And what is behind the right foot “trophy”?… the Barabaig Tribe.  The Barabaigs are a local, very isolated and dangerous pastoral tribe.  They are known to be fierce warriors.  The Barabaigs keep goats, sheep, donkeys and chickens, but cattle are by far the most important domestic animal. It is tribal tradition that to “become a man” you must kill  “an enemy of the people” which could include a lion, an elephant or a non-Barabaig person!  As Amy pointed out, there aren’t many “non-Barabaig” people residing in the area…

Amy’s team had made concerted efforts since 2009 to reach out to the Barabaig, but to no avail.  It was not until the Project set up a solar charging station on village land (for the purpose of being able to charge their cell phones and computers) that the Barabaigs decided to meet the Project’s overtures – the Barabaigs wanted access to the charging station for their own cell phones! (thereby eliminating the 30km walk to the next town for charging access).   Even the Barabaigs recognized this technology convenience and were willing to start a mutually beneficial dialogue.  The Barabaigs have since invited the Ruaha team to their village meetings and presented them with a cow, one of their most prized possessions, so trust has ultimately resulted in dialogue and progress.  Amy and her team recognize that they need to provide the Barabaigs with tangible benefits related to living amongst the large carnivores in exchange for their cooperation.

What makes for effective conservation strategies?   Amy and her team know that accurate baseline data is necessary to be able to map one’s progress.  Their ecological work includes using camera traps which provide extremely valuable initial data, as well as also equipping ten National Park drivers with cameras to monitor the carnivores within the Park.   Counting large carnivores, dead or alive, only takes you so far.  The next step is developing creative solutions to the conflicts and challenges that arise when humans and large carnivores live in close proximity.

One way the Ruaha Carnivore Project, in concert with the villagers, is reducing the number of carnivore attacks on livestock is by reinforcing the livestock enclosures known as “bomas”.  The villagers’ bomas historically have been poorly constructed, consisting only of branches and sticks piled together – not much of a deterrent for a large carnivore, but when these bomas are reinforced with chain-link fencing they become 100% effective.  To date, 65 reinforced bomas have been constructed and they would like to build 100 more. 

The Ruaha team is also working with the Lion Guardians, young men who are employed to track the lions’ whereabouts and keep the livestock away from the lions.   The Guardians are incentivized to keep the lions safe because they are paid in cattle (practically a currency unto itself), IF no carnivore is killed.  The Lion Guardians have had a real impact on the reduction of retaliatory killings as a result of their work.  They are now appreciating that protecting the lion is a means to earning a good livelihood.  At the request of the young Guardians, a “Warrior School” has been created which teaches the young men to read and write.

The Project also recognized the need to engage the women of the tribe and asked what was important to them.  The women requested that a village clinic be created to address maternal and infant health needs.  The women also requested veterinary care and medicine for their livestock protected by the reinforced bomas.  There seems to be a good quid pro quo established, all based on what is important to the villagers and their needs.  So, if you are making the effort to build reinforced bomas to house your cattle or goats, you can now receive veterinary care for those same animals.  The local schools are also severely undersourced so the Ruaha Project is teaming with US primary schools through National Geographic and their “Kids4Cats” program. 

The Team is also going to experiment with introducing large guard dogs to help protect the livestock – I believe they plan to use Anatolian Shepherds (like those used in the Cheetah Conservation Project). The dog grows up with the livestock and becomes part of the herd where its instinct is to protect (and these dogs grow to be huge – hard to believe that it is a real match for a lion, but perhaps a deterrent).  Check out the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s website for more detail on how they use the Anatolian Shepherd and the Kangal – it’s really interesting. http://www.cheetah.org/?nd=guarding_dog_program

Lastly, the Ruaha Team recognizes the need for the villagers to develop an appreciation of the large carnivores’ value – this can only be done with education and increased understanding.  Despite their close proximity to the Park, the villagers had not experienced the Park as “tourists”.  The Project now brings groups of villagers into the Park to experience it as a guest and to see the animals the way visitors see the animals.  Apparently the villagers are most excited to see the planes coming and going from the airstrip and know now that the planes are bringing guests to see their special and very valuable large carnivores.  The Project also hosts “movie nights” for the villagers – a large white sheet serves as the movie screen.  Most of the movies are wildlife features.  Amy is working hard to get the movies translated into Swahili, the native language of Tanzania.  Some of this sounds so straightforward and practical – but it is simple things like these that are instilling an air of cooperation in and around the Park. 

Trending Positive.  To date the Project can point to positive trends on the large carnivore front.   Attacks have been reduced and the villagers are beginning to see the benefits of living with large carnivores.  In 2011 there were 39 large carnivore deaths, this fell to 12 in 2012, and year to date in 2013 the death count stands at 3.  Thank you, Amy.  This work is very important.  http://ruahacarnivoreproject.com

Visiting Ruaha National Park. If you are thinking about visiting the Park, it was recommended to me to stay at Mwagusi Camp.  I haven’t done the research yet but here is their website for anyone who is as intrigued as I am.  http://www.mwagusicamp.com