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Cheetah Girl: Racing to Save the Fastest Cats on Earth

The race is on to save the earth's fastest land animal. The race is on to save the earth's fastest land animal.


Most of us have only seen cheetahs, lions and tigers on Animal Planet, at zoos, in Vegas extravaganzas, or in circuses. Pretty soon those might be the only places anyone can see them: the majority of large predatory non-human mammals are heading towards anthropogenic extinction.

Here’s what one courageous visionary is doing to help keep the world’s fastest land animal alive and healthy:

In 1974, Laurie Marker was working at a veterinary clinic in an Oregon park called Wildlife Safari when she fell in love with a tiger cub and cheetah cub from the park and raised them as if they were her babies. She even appeared with the cheetah cub on The Tonight Show, hosted by the late Johnny Carson.
In Namibia and elsewhere, Marker works against the stark reality that people kill or capture cheetahs because they mistakenly believe cheetahs are a major threat to farming and ranching livelihoods.

Marker was fascinated with cheetahs because they are elegant hunting machines that can be up to five feet long and run nearly 70 miles per hour. Cheetahs are native to Africa and India, where they hunt prey by visual tracking and stalking.

The cheetah’s unprecedented speed is facilitated by a flexible spine, oversized liver, large heart, wide nostrils, massive lung capacity, and super-muscular body. No wonder they can cover 25 feet in one stride!

While Marker was helping Wildlife Safari, she noticed there wasn’t enough information on cheetah breeding, biology and ecology. Determined to erase the knowledge gaps, Marker devoted her academic career to cheetahs, eventually earning a doctorate in zoology from the UK’s prestigious Oxford University in 2002.

Marker’s doctoral field research took place in Namibia, Africa, where she studied cheetah genetics, habitat range, diseases, and mortality.

Her first visit to Africa was years before her doctoral field research; she took a captive-bred cheetah to Namibia in 1977. Her goal was to determine if captive-bred cheetahs could restock declining wild cheetah populations, but she quickly decided that wild cheetahs needed immediate help.

Marker rose to the top of the cheetah scientific research and advocacy field, worked at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park, and created the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), headquartered in Namibia. The not-for-profit trust includes a conservation research facility and an education center located in Namibia’s most cheetah-rich region.

In Namibia and elsewhere, Marker works against the stark reality that people kill or capture cheetahs because they mistakenly believe cheetahs are a major threat to farming and ranching livelihoods. Cheetahs also are injured or killed by trophy hunting, poaching and habitat destruction.

The cheetah is a “protected” species in Namibia, but Namibians are allowed to kill cheetahs if they pose a threat to livestock or human life. Unfortunately, some farmers capture or kill cheetahs that are not a threat to livestock. Worse yet, international trade in live cheetahs and skins is permitted by Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. Illegal killing and capture of cheetahs throughout Africa also threaten cheetah survival.

Conservation and wildlife experts say CCF’s efforts are directly responsible for stabilizing Namibia’s cheetah population. And Marker is also promoting cheetah conservation in Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Iran, Kenya, and Niger, while working to reintroduce cheetahs to Zambia and India.

Time Magazine named Dr. Marker a Hero for the Planet in 2000.

As an American woman and scientist working in Africa, Marker has overcome gargantuan cultural and ecological obstacles to save cheetahs. She was awarded the 2010 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, has a leading role in the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission, and has received formal kudos from Namibia’s agricultural and ranching community.

Time Magazine named Dr. Marker a “Hero for the Planet” in 2000. Rosebud is honored that she took time out from her non-stop work to share her experiences and ideas regarding wildlife conservation and the unique animals she defends and preserves.

Rosebud: Dr. Marker, please give us an overview of the worldwide status of cheetahs.

Dr. Marker: In the early 1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs in 44 countries. Current estimates of cheetah populations range from 7,500 to 12,500 in 24 African countries and a tiny population of less than 100 individuals in Iran.

What role do cheetahs play in their natural habitats? Other than humans, do cheetahs have to worry about any other animals that might attack them?

In general, wild species maintain healthy ecosystems, provide us with food, shelter and clothing, benefit us economically and improve the quality of our lives by their existence.

Predators help limit the growth of prey populations and prevent overgrazing of ranges. By hunting the sick and vulnerable, they control the size of prey populations and avoid the spread of disease. Predators catch healthy prey when they can, but catching sick or injured animals helps in natural selection and the establishment of healthier prey populations, as the fittest animals are left to survive and reproduce.

If carnivores like cheetahs are removed from an ecosystem, antelope herds would grow out of control, resulting in overgrazing, and once the food disappears, starvation and disease would kick in. While human hunters can sometimes replace predators in the control of antelope populations, they generally do not remove the injured, sick or older animals. Predators play an important role in maintaining healthy prey populations.

The cheetah is a valuable member of its ecological community because it leaves carcasses that feed other animals in the ecosystem, such as vultures, jackals, beetles and other scavengers. In addition, the cheetah is not an aggressive carnivore, so larger predators can scare the cheetah off its kill, since the cheetah is a non-aggressive cat and avoids confrontation.

Lions, hyenas, leopards, baboons are some of the cheetahs’ predators. The cheetahs cannot compete with these large predators that kill cheetah cubs and steal their prey. Evolution has favored speed but not strength for cheetahs.

CCF is much praised for working with local peoples to help protect their livelihoods from cheetahs and to help them have reasons not to harm cheetahs. How do you achieve this?

The CCF vision is “a world in which cheetahs live and flourish in co-existence with people and the environment.” Our challenge is to put a value on this coexistence so humans living with wildlife reap a benefit for a sustainable lifestyle.

If people are unable to meet their most basic needs, we are unable to help wildlife. As conservationists, our work involves continuous education, capacity building, assisting in developing sustainable business initiatives that increase the economic value of ecosystems and thus reduce the pressure on the wild populations.

In Africa, we need to create jobs and pay attention to not only high-tech industries but also the basics—manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism—that will employ our expanding nonprofessional workforce. Expanding our basic industries and focusing on the necessary skills training for those working in them will provide new opportunities for the majority of workers, many of whom do not possess college degrees.

We seek to implement programs that demonstrate to people that it is easier to avoid livestock losses to predators and to farm fewer but healthier animals. We try to demonstrate the economic value of wildlife by promoting eco-tourism or programs such as the Cheetah Country Beef—a label that cattle farmers using predator-friendly farming practices can obtain.

Through our programs, we aim to create jobs through sustainable industries such as the CCF Bushblok initiative, which restores habitat by harvesting invasive thorn bush and turning it into clean-burning fuel logs. Cattle farmers are encouraged to use predator-friendly techniques that in turn can earn them premium prices for their beef through the Cheetah Country Beef label.

Most of our rural farmers are actually very great conservationists. And the killing has stopped a lot here in Namibia due to all the various aspects of the work we do, such as  training, capacity building and education that are critical for behavior change.  Behavior changes usually take generations, but I am pleased to see change occurring during the 20 years I have been here.

Many of us worry that cheetahs, other large cats, primates, elephants and most other large nonhuman animals will soon be extinct or near extinct. How do you feel about the ultimate fate of these animals in the 21st century?

Human populations will continue to grow around the world, and all wildlife will suffer as a result of this. As long as people are not presented with options on how to survive with wildlife on their land, and actually make a living out of it, there is little hope. Education is important, as are programs to create jobs or build capacity. Only by helping people will we be able to help wildlife and avoid extinction of species that are key to the survival of every living thing on this planet.  

We are trying to build a future for cheetahs and other wildlife through the education and training of our African farmers and working with businesses to plan for the wildlife in 40 to 100 years. As conservation scientists, our organization works towards solution-based programs. It’s a huge job, and that is why global partnerships are so important.  

What’s it like to be working so closely with these magnificent animals?

Working with and for the fastest land mammal is amazing—they can reach speeds of up to 68 miles per hour. The cheetah’s athletic ability as well as its family and social bonds are very special. One of the major highlights of my career includes getting to know cheetahs personally. I’ve raised several orphan cubs.  My first cheetah friend was Khayam. I brought her to Namibia and taught her to hunt. I always say that she gave me a vision for her kind here in Namibia and showed me the path to follow to help cheetahs by meeting all the farmers. She and I both learned to hunt, but she lived the remainder of her life in Oregon with me—where she became a celebrity.   

Do you ever feel endangered by cheetahs, other African wildlife, or humans during your work?

Absolutely not. The cheetah is a wild animal, but it’s not aggressive or vicious—they believe in flight versus fight. A wild cheetah wants to run away from a human. They do not come towards you to harm you.  The cheetah is one of man’s oldest companions. It was revered as a goddess by the Egyptians pharaohs and its likeness is portrayed in their tombs. It was even a pet of the royal courts of Europe and the Middle East and for 3,700 years was trained to hunt for man. However, they are not domesticated because that takes hundreds of generations of captive breeding, and cheetahs have never bred well in captive environments.

As far as threats from humans, my life has not been in danger. However, I have had some strange things said to me like, “If you like the cheetahs so much, then take them all back to America.” Several of our radio-collared cheetahs were killed and people took the collars from us, but the people have come around in many ways and we hope they will continue. I deal with such issues directly and not negatively.  

I believe I can win them with knowledge versus emotions. I try to find solutions and listen to their problems, and that approach has earned me a lot of friends.

What can Rosebud readers do to help cheetahs and other African predator animals?

Your readers should give money to the right wildlife conservation organizations…people who are actually achieving results. Time is running out for these creatures, and we have a choice: either let them die out, or do what needs to be done to ensure their survival. We need to ensure they have the territory and prey they need, and that means addressing issues like land management, wages and education for the people who live in those areas. We need a holistic approach.


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A cheetah teaches her cubs to hunt.
Last modified on Thursday, 20 September 2012 17:43

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