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BE Wildlife Heroes Dr. Laurie Marker


Marker’s life with cheetahs began in 1974 when she took a job at a wildlife park in Oregon, running the veterinary clinic. Almost immediately she took over the care of the ten cheetahs at the park, but realized that very little was known about the animals’ biology, ecology, and status in the wild. “I began writing scientists around the world, asking for even basic information about cheetahs. What I found was a large community also looking for answers to the same questions. How could so little be known about this animal that people had revered and worked with for over five thousand years?” asked Marker. “I was fascinated.”


So Marker decided to go to Africa and look for answers to her questions head-on. At the end of the nineteenth century, cheetahs numbered near one hundred thousand. Retaliatory killing from human-cheetah conflict, loss of habitat and prey base, competition with larger predators, and inbreeding caused the global population of cheetahs to drop as low as ten thousand animals. What Marker found was that the world’s fastest land mammal was clearly in crisis.


In 1991, knowing more now about the situation, Marker decided to settle in Namibia, the country with the largest population of wild cheetahs, and cofounded the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). She developed a three-pronged strategy for CCF, employing research, conservation, and education in order to turn around the cheetah’s decline.


Seeing firsthand that retaliatory killings of cheetahs by farmers was a significant problem in Namibia, Marker began breeding and donating Anatolian Shepherd dogs in 1994, and then later Kangal dogs, to guard livestock from cheetahs. The program began modestly, with one litter a year being placed on local farms. Since then the initiative has skyrocketed, with more than 370 dogs born and placed, and a long waiting list of farmers hoping to receive one of Marker’s dogs. “It really works,” she says. “After the dogs have been placed, farmers are seeing their losses from all predators̶ cheetahs, caracals, jackals, even leopards̶reduced to almost zero.” Guard dogs̶and guard donkeys, for that matter̶are an active deterrent to predators. Cheetahs and other carnivores look for the easiest meal possible, so a potential injury from a fight with a guard animal is typically enough of a disincentive for a predator to move on to another meal instead.


The livestock guard dog program evolved into training local farmers and ranchers in a wide variety of best practices that allow for a shared environment with native wildlife.


INSPIRATION │ KNOWLEDGE


Says Marker, “We’re showing that good livestock management means farmers and predators can live together. I grew up on a farm and understand farmers’ struggles, but cheetahs and farmers can coexist.” CCF has now trained thousands of African farmers in wildlife management and husbandry practices that make the most sense for successful livestock and still maintain a diverse ecosystem.


In 2000, Marker and her team of local workers and international volunteers built the Cheetah Research and Education Center, which includes a state-of-the-art veterinary and genetic laboratory and the world’s only cheetah history museum. Since opening, the Center has received more than fifty thousand visitors, including local citizens, schoolchildren, and travelers. The Center also demonstrates model livestock and agricultural farming operations, and a cheetah rescue center that serves as a holding facility for cheetahs needing relocation due to conflict with humans, or a long-term home for orphaned cheetahs that cannot be reintroduced into the wild.


Marker has also developed a number of innovative microenterprises that not only help cheetahs prosper, but also bring income to local residents. She created a business that selectively harvests thickened thornbushes responsible for bush encroachment, a form of desertification that is crowding out important cheetah grassland habitat. CCF works with locals to harvest these pest bushes and convert them into fuel logs known as “Bushbloks.” The process reclaims cheetah habitat and employs local people in a sustainable industry, while supplying a Forest Stewardship Council‒certified product that takes pressure off of Africa’s disappearing native forests and is an alternative to charcoal.


And more recently, Marker and her team have been working toward a cheetah-friendly certified beef initiative, called Cheetah Country Beef. The certified program will provide financial incentives and an eco-friendly label for farmers who practice predator-friendly livestock management techniques.


With these numerous successful conservation programs, CCF has continued to grow and now provides guidance and assistance to Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Iran, Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Angola. “Every time I go into a new place where cheetahs live,” says Marker, “I find out what the problems are for cheetahs by conducting a needs assessment. Then I find the right on-the-ground partners. Lastly I look for solutions̶evaluating earlier models and efforts, and adapting them for this new spot.”


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