SANTA CRUZ—A decades-long conservation effort to preserve cheetahs from extinction in the rural, southwest African country of Namibia has grown into a multi-faceted drive to transform both farming practices and the economy of the small African country.“We have to change the world to save the cheetah,” said Laurie Marker, founding director of the Cheetah Conservation Foundation, who is credited with spearheading one of the most successful and comprehensive cheetah conservation efforts in the world. Marker was in Santa Cruz this week as part of an international tour to secure more allies in the race to save the fastest land animal on Earth and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the foundation.
At a public lecture Tuesday in downtown Santa Cruz, she presented updates about her research, many conservation victories and the dire challenges still facing cheetahs. She visited UC Santa Cruz as well to give a private lecture on how her groundbreaking research into genetics and biology have informed her conservation efforts.
“There is good news and bad news,” Marker said, noting that more than 90 percent of cheetahs have been killed in the last 100 years, leaving only an estimated 10,000 worldwide. But, she said, there is a growing understanding of the problems and a greater awareness of how to address them.
“Namibia is one of only places in the world where we can talk about an increase in wildlife,” she said. “We’ve made huge strides.”
Marker, 61, developed the first successful captive cheetah-breeding program in North America. She was 23 when she decided to research whether a captive cheetah could be taught to hunt and live in the wild. The venture drew her to north central Namibia in 1977 with a young cheetah she’d raised from birth. It was there she witnessed first-hand the crisis facing cheetahs all over the world and realized, she said, there was no “they” who were going to save them. It was up to her.
For 13 years, she traveled back and forth collecting data and formulating an international strategy. In 1990, she moved to the country and began driving door-to-door to educate farmers who were killing cheetahs to protect livestock. She introduced an ancient practice of training big dogs to protect goat herds. Since then, the foundation has bred, trained and provided more than 650 dogs to farmers and there is a two-year waiting list.
Eighty to 100 percent of farmers now report no livestock losses at all, Marker said. Cheetahs and other predators, it turns out, prefer wild game to domestic bred animals. And, they don’t like big barking dogs.
The organization has released more than 600 cheetahs into the wild. Since cheetahs need a lot of roaming space—the average home range is 800 square miles—they benefit from new “no fences “ efforts.
But, conservation isn’t just about the ranchers. During the past 25 years, the foundation has introduced teaching programs to improve farming practices and an effort to develop new economic drivers such as eco tourism, dairy products and new artisan crafts.
The foundation is on 100,000 acres, off the grid, about a 45-minute drive from Otjiwarongo, a town with three stoplights. About 90 employees care for 35 cheetahs, some of which will be released into the wild, goat and dairy farms, a dog breeding program, genetic and biologic research labs and a growing bio mass energy program to turn invasive bush into fuel logs.
“The preparation to be a conservation scientist is one thing but in order to be successful she has had to run a conglomerate,” said Guy Oliver a UC Santa Cruz researcher at Long Marine Lab who attended the lecture.
Also in the audience was Marie Henley, former owner of Pacific Harbor Travel. In her retirement, Henley organizes group trips to change the world. She hopes to bring a group to visit CCF next year.
Marker “is doing something incredible to change the world in a place most people have never heard of,” Henley said. “It takes my breath away.”
Marker’s parents, Santa Cruz residents Ralph and Marline Bushey, sat in the first row of the lecture.
“We’re very proud of her,” Marline Bushey said. “You know she just won a new award. It was a very special one.”
Marker, who has garnered more than two dozen awards, including the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the Tech Museum’s Intel Tech Award and the Gold Medal from the Society of Women Geographers, was named Time magazine’s “Hero for the Planet” and recently received the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award from Montana State University and the American Computer Museum. On Oct. 18, she will receive the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal Award from the Eleanor Roosevelt Center in Hyde Park, New York.
Cheetah Conservation Fund
ABOUT: A nonprofit, Namibia-based research and conservation organization dedicated to saving cheetahs living in the wild by working with local residents and raising awareness internationally about shrinking numbers of cheetahs. Research includes the biology, ecology and genetics of the cheetah.
LEADERSHIP: Laurie Marker, founding executive director
HISTORY: Founded in 1990.
ADDRESSES: Domestic: PO Box 2496 • Alexandria, VA 22301; Namibia: P.O. Box 1755 Otjiwarongo, Namibia
INFORMATION: 866-909-3399; http://cheetah.org/
BOOK: A Future for Cheetahs (2014) by Laurie Marker with photography by Suzi Eszterhas, a UCSC graduate. http://cheetah.org/photobook/
ABOUT THE CHEETAH
POPULATION: Estimated to be 10,000 living mostly outside protected areas in about 23 countries
BIGGEST THREATS TO CHEETAH: Human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and illegal pet trading.
DESCRIPTION: The smallest of the large cats, the cheetah has small teeth and is not aggressive. It’s built more to run fast.
CUBS: Up to six per litter, each born blind and weighing less than a pound.
SPEED & SPIN: They can run at up to 70 mph while turning 180 degrees.
LONG STRIDE: The stride of cheetah can measure as long as 21 feet.
DOG PAWS: Blunt, dog-like claws don’t fully retract, built to run.
MORE THAN A TAIL: Cheetah’s use their tail as a rudder to help them steer during their long leaps into the air.
CHEETAH SPOTS: Without fur, cheetahs still have spots on their skin.
INTERNATIONAL CHEETAH DAY: Dec. 4. http://cheetah.org/international-cheetah-day/
This story first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.