Since ancient times, people have regarded cheetahs with awe for their beauty, grace and unique ability to reach speeds of up to 110 kilometers per hour.
But today, the species - which once ranged across Africa, India and Asia, has dwindled to only 10,000 animals worldwide, primarily in 24 African countries. The species once numbered at 100,000.
Luckily for the cheetahs, Dr. Laurie Marker is on their side.
Marker first started working with cheetahs in the early 1970s, when she ran a wildlife park in the state of Oregon. She says at the time, nobody knew much about cheetahs.
“The more people I asked, they said ‘When you find out something about cheetahs let us know. They don’t do well in captivity. They have a very short life span and we’re losing them throughout the ranges in the world.’ So that just made me fascinated and I wanted to know everything there was about them.”
Marker traveled to Namibia - a southern African country which is home to the world’s largest wild cheetah population - to learn as much about the species as she could.
Threat to cheetahs
In 1990, Marker moved to Namibia permanently and founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a non-profit organization which conducts research and offers educational programs.
The center develops strategies to combat some of the biggest threats to cheetahs, including confrontations with livestock farmers.
Anatolian Shepherd dogs help Namibian farmers protect their livestock from cheetahs. (Cheetah Conservation Fund)
Because cheetahs often prey on the cattle, sheep and goats that now graze on the African savannah, they are often killed by farmers. So Marker started working with local farming communities to find ways to protect their livestock from the big cats.
In 1994, she introduced the farmers to the Anatolian Shepherd, a breed originally from Turkey.
“This breed has been used for about 5,000 years to protect livestock from predators,” says Marker, “and they act as a guardian by avoidance.”
By barking loudly, the dogs let the predator know that they’re there protecting the flock, and since the predator doesn’t want to get hurt, they will then avoid those flocks where the dogs are, she says.
Marker now breeds and trains the guarding dogs, which don’t herd, but simply put themselves between the livestock and any predators. That is usually enough to discourage the cheetahs from attacking.
Laurie Marker with Koya, a Turkish guarding dog, and Chewbakka.( A.L. Harrington)
Over the past 15 years, CCF has donated more than 400 dogs to Namibian livestock farmers. As a result, there has been up to an 80 percent decrease in livestock losses and farmers have developed more tolerance for having cheetahs around.
Since the introduction of the guard dog program, CCF says the population of cheetahs in Namibia has risen from about 1,000 to 1,500, to between 3,500 and 4,000.
“So we’ve been able to really grow the population,” says Marker, “and again, that’s out of a world population of about 10,000.”
Marker would like to keep growing that number by expanding the CCF programs into other countries where cheetahs once roamed.
“What we’re trying to do is to actually work together with a variety of partners throughout Africa to look at areas where the cheetahs are, the kind of problems that they are facing and solutions that we can then help the people and the cheetah,” she says.
CCF is also working with the government of Iran - home to less than 100 cheetahs - to double that number within the next 10 years.
Today, Marker is considered one of the world’s leading experts on cheetahs. She travels the world giving speeches and attending fundraisers to increase awareness about this charismatic and highly endangered animal.
“If we are not successful we’re going to lose this amazing species in a very short period of time,” she says.