If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing a wild cheetah, you’ll understand Dr Laurie Marker’s lifelong obsession – there’s plenty to love about these intriguing (and mega photogenic) felines. They have a tough time coexisting with bigger predators like lions, hyenas and leopards – yet they can hit speeds of 120km/h and purr like domestic cats. Originally from the US, Dr Laurie started working with them in 1974 at an open-range park called Wildlife Safari in Oregon, where she ran a veterinary clinic and orphan nursery, and conducted groundbreaking research into breeding and releasing cheetahs. In 1990 she set up her permanent base, the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) at Otjiwarongo, Namibia, which has helped to double the local population. Impressive, right? Her expertise is so globally renowned that she’s a sought-after speaker – she toured Australia recently, so we had a cat woman to cat woman chat…
What do you love most about cheetahs?
Their elegant beauty, lithe body, aerodynamic build… every part of their body is built for speed. They are almost perfect! And they are beautiful.
Tell us about the most special cheetahs you’ve met?
I’ve had amazing experiences caring for orphan cheetahs – from my first cheetah, Khayam, who was born at Wildlife Safari in 1976 (on December 4th – which is International Cheetah Day in her honour). I raised her from 1 month of age and brought her to Namibia in 1977, where I taught her to hunt. The research project was the first of its kind, to see what steps are involved in taking a captive born or orphan cheetah back to the wild. Khayam learned to hunt, but she came back to the US.
Khayam and I lived together for her 10-year lifetime – we were almost always together and she became an ambassador for her kind. We travelled around the US meeting school children, doing TV programs, and educating the world about cheetahs. She was an amazing friend.
Chewbaaka was my next amazing best friend. He was orphaned at 10 days of age in July 1996, and was nearly dead when I got him – he was suffering from dehydration and diarrhea, after his mother was captured. I raised Chewbaaka in Namibia as naturally as I could in the bush, running regularly with mechanical lures and visiting ‘marking trees’ to see where other cheetahs left their marks. He met thousands of Namibian children and farmers and helped change people’s attitudes towards cheetahs – as he purred and licked their hands!
Chewbaaka is a legend – he will live forever, as his DNA has been used as the base for sequencing the cheetah’s genome. We have also invited people the world over to join our Chewbaaka Society.
Cheetahs have become extinct in 20 countries. What are their biggest threats?
The biggest threats are habitat loss and conflict with livestock. Cheetahs don’t do well in protected game reserves, because lions and hyenas are also protected there – they are larger and more aggressive, and take over the land from cheetahs. They are moved out of protected game reserves; then they’re living on the land alongside growing human populations and their livestock. So, conflict with livestock becomes the next biggest problem.
[On top of that], where cheetahs are found, many of the people are living in poverty, so many of the cheetah’s prey animals have been poached for food – leaving only livestock, so it is a vicious circle.
What’s the CCF’s next big focus?
Our continued big focus is to maintain the population of cheetahs in Namibia, which is very important to the world’s population, and now the largest in the world (around 3500 out of 7000 globally). We have doubled the population in the past 25 years by working with the government, farmers and communities.
What are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of developing CCF from nothing to a world-class research and education centre – it’s a centre of excellence. [Over the years] we have taught over 400,000 students […] and many are now working in high levels of the Ministries of Environment and Tourism, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Education. And we have taught over 4000 Namibian farmers and workers in our Future Farmer’s of Africa programs.
I am also very proud of our successful Livestock Guarding Dog program, where we have bred and placed more than 600 dogs with farmers in the past 20 years. On the farms where our dogs are placed, we see between 80% to 100% reduction in livestock loss due to all predators. So, in the name of cheetahs, we are teaching people to live with all predators.
And then there’s our habitat restoration project – which will continue to be an important part of CCF’s programs, as it helps put people to work while restoring habitat for more wildlife prey species.
It’s possible to visit the CCF at Otjiwarongo, Namibia. What’s an average day look like for a volunteer?
The mornings and evenings are always spent taking care of the animals on our model farm and cheetah sanctuary – we have more than 300 head of livestock, over 15 breeding livestock guarding dogs (with around 40 puppies born each year) and we have 35 orphan cheetahs that need daily care. Then we have ongoing research and data collection from game counts, camera trapping and home range data from radio-collared cheetahs. And our volunteers also help in our genetics lab or with school groups. So, every day is very busy!!
Obviously donating and volunteering are key – but what else can an everyday Australian do to help save the cheetah?
Help by spreading the word that the fastest land animal, the cheetah, is trying to win its race for survival; and that its survival is in the hands of people. Join one of our chapters, bring CCF to a community event, or donate to our projects.
And lastly, what keeps you going?
Looking in the eyes of the cheetahs and knowing that we need to do something major if we will save this species from extinction.