A wild cheetah sprinting across the African savannah has been described as poetry in motion.
Dr. Laurie Marker can understand why. The award-winning conservationist and renowned cheetah expert has devoted her life to the protection of the big cats.
But Marker warns that unless we act quickly, the world will likely lose its remaining cheetahs within the next ten years.
That dire prediction comes on the heels of a newly released report by World Wildlife Fund, a leading conservation organization, which states that the world has already lost 50 percent of its wild animal population since 1970. That grim statistic includes the loss of two-thirds of the wild cheetah population.
And that’s bad news not only for cheetahs, according to Marker, but also for the many other animals that live in the African savannah.
A healthy eco-system
Top predators like the cheetah, she said, play a key role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem.
“For instance, the cheetah is a great hunter on the savannah lands,” Marker noted. “It will make a kill, it eats what it needs, gets chased off by jackals or vultures or lions or hyenas, and then the rest of the veld [open country] eats.”
Marker explained that she often tells livestock farmers that if there’s enough prey, and the cheetah has made a kill, the jackals can eat off of that, which will keep them from going into the sheep or goat yards for food.
Cheetah Conservation Fund
Marker teaches the importance of biodiversity through The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an organization that she founded in 1991 in Namibia, Africa - the cheetah capital of the world.
The Fund conducts research, offers educational programs and serves as a model for other countries that are committed to protecting wild animals.
With less than 10,000 of the big cats remaining in the wild, Marker said she wants to help people understand the challenges facing cheetahs.
“The biggest threats facing cheetahs primarily are a human-wildlife conflict; loss of habitat, loss of prey, loss of grazing lands,” she explained.
And since the African human population is growing by leaps and bounds, she said it’s important to explore alternatives to how people can make a living outside of just subsistence farming.
To address that concern, Marker described a program she's helped develop, called Future Farmers of Africa, "that is far reaching throughout these very arid landscapes to try to implement programs that will help people get out of poverty,” she said. “Try to grow grass, have wildlife and allow some of the last habitats where cheetahs are living, to [be] sustainable,” she said.
The Center has other initiatives that are also helping the local community.
Bushblok – ‘hot’ fuel logs
In one program for example, The Cheetah Conservation Fund together with the United States Agency for International Development established CCF Bush (PTY) Ltd., which employs and trains locals to collect the damaging thorn bush that has taken over the cheetah landscape - and process it into compacted, eco-friendly fuel logs.
That project puts people to work and creates rural business opportunities while simultaneously restoring the Namibian habitat for the cheetah and other wildlife.
And because cheetahs often prey on the domesticated animals on the savannah, Marker breeds and trains Kangal or Anatolian Shepherd dogs - a breed originally from Turkey - which she donates to local farmers to help them protect their livestock.
“In Namibia, we’ve now bred over 500 of these dogs,” she said, “and at this point we’ve helped develop programs in South Africa, in Botswana, in Tanzania.”
The dogs protect livestock from the cheetah, but also from many other predators, she pointed out.
Poaching and trafficking
Wildlife poaching and trafficking are the other major threats to cheetahs.
“In the last several years there’s been a huge amount of wildlife trafficking that’s going on with many of our species, but with cheetahs again leading the way at the top of the list,” Marker said.
She equated the black market wildlife trade to that of “illegal drugs and trafficking and terrorism; it’s all tied in together.”
“This illegal trade is beyond just cheetahs,” she added. “There are birds of prey, there are orangutans and gibbons, and tigers and lions and these are not animals that should be peoples' pets,” she said.
Marker has written a book to help educate people about the plight of the cheetah, and said if these beautiful wild creatures are to be saved from extinction, the global community needs to say "no to illegal trade, no to poaching, take care of the wildlife and ask governments to do something."