A Chance For Cheetahs By The Luxury Channel

The Luxury Channel interviews Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of Cheetah Conservation Fund….

Dr. Laurie Marker (image courtesy of Jenny Bartlett)

How endangered are cheetahs in the wild?

It is not widely known, but the cheetah is Africa’s most endangered big cat. Since 1900, numbers have fallen by a dramatic 90% and there are now sadly fewer than 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild.

Athena (image courtesy of Warren Court)

What are the reasons for this decline?

The cheetah faces many threats, such as habitat loss, human/wildlife conflict and climate change. Cheetah skins and bones are trafficked for traditional Chinese medicines or fashion. However, a little-known threat to the survival of the fastest mammal on earth is the trafficking for the illegal exotic pet trade. The cheetah is the least aggressive of the big cats and its beautiful coat and status as the planet’s fastest land mammal, unfortunately, makes it a desirable pet in some areas of the world, particularly in the Gulf States. Cheetah Conservation Fund has received reports that there could be more than 1000 cheetahs living as pets in the Gulf States, and most of these animals have been taken from the wild, mainly North-East Africa, putting already dangerously low populations in the area under immense pressure. It is estimated that 300 cubs are smuggled from the Horn of Africa every year, and out of every 6 cubs smuggled, 5 will die or disappear. Once they have been taken from the wild, they can never be returned.

Tell me about the Cheetah Conservation Fund project and what you are hoping to achieve?

Earlier this year, we launched the #BornToBeWild campaign, centred around raising awareness of the illegal pet trade, which coincided with the international meeting to combat illegal wildlife trade, CITES Conference of Parties 17. Several decisions to fight the illegal trade were unanimously approved, including a decision to monitor social media platforms where cheetah ‘‘dealers’’ advertise cubs, and the creation of a CITES Cheetah Forum which will be a valuable tool in sharing information and expanding knowledge about the species. We gained huge support from the media including major stories on both BBC and ITV News, as well as many print outlets, which helped to increase the public awareness of the plight of the cheetah and more is planned in 2017. Our work centres on implementing innovative programmes in Namibia and we support other initiatives in cheetah-range countries in Africa. These programmes include our Farmers For Africa initiative which helps to reduce the major impact of human/wildlife conflict. 90% of cheetahs live outside protected areas, meaning they live alongside farming communities and often come into conflict with them. Cheetahs are seen as a threat to farmers’ livelihoods as to them, the loss of even a single animal to a cheetah can be devastating. One successful programme is the Livestock Guarding Dog Programme. We breed Anatolian Shepherd dogs (a breed that for thousands of years has guarded small livestock against wolves and bears in Turkey) and give them to the farmers. The dogs bond with the herd and use their size and loud bark to scare away potential predators. Since this successful programme began in 1994, livestock loss from all predators has reduced by over 90%. So far, with support and money raised around the world, we have provided over 600 guarding dogs to farmers in Namibia but there is a two year waiting list so we are aiming to expand this programme.

Kiri (image courtesy of Eli Walker)

We have also given dogs to cheetah organisations in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya and Tanzania so that they can develop their own breeding programmes. We also run a model farm at our HQ in Namibia where we teach over 3000 farmers each year how to improve their farming techniques, as well as predator-friendly farming practices, so that they can then charge a premium for their products under our eco-label scheme. We also run education workshops for young people and reach over 25,000 schoolchildren a year, inspiring them to protect the cheetah. Another successful project is the Bush Block Programme. We cut back the encroaching thorny bush which is processed into high-heat, low-emission, compacted logs, which is then used as a cooking fuel or for heating homes. The cheetah needs wide, open spaces to roam and hunt, and the thorny bush on their land is a real problem. With more support, we will expand all these programmes throughout Namibia and into other cheetah countries, and our ultimate goal is to reach a time when the cheetah can live peacefully alongside us humans and thrive so that we can guarantee its future survival.

Why is so little known about their situation – compared to elephants, for instance – and why are so few people doing anything about it?

I think so little is known about the threats to the cheetah as it is not one of ‘‘The Big Five.’’ They are shy and elusive creatures. We had the media frenzy surrounding the atrocious killing of Cecil the Lion, we are exposed to the horrific consequences of rhino and elephant poaching regularly in the media, and the struggle of the tiger and the panda have been well documented – all for absolutely the right reasons. But what is happening to the cheetah is happening underground and not in front of a lens. We need more media attention to shine a light on the struggles the cheetah faces and we plan to do more in this area.

Rainbow (image courtesy of Eli Walker)

Why are you so passionate about this species and what have you managed to achieve personally?

I first fell in love with cheetahs back in the 70s. At Oregon’s Wildlife Safari, where I worked for 16 years before moving to Namibia, I raised a cub called Khayam. We formed an incredible bond and she showed me just how amazing cheetahs are. From then on, I knew I wanted to help save cheetahs. In 1977, I travelled to Namibia with Khayam to find out if it was possible to teach captive cheetahs to hunt for themselves. I wanted to find out whether we would one day see a captive cheetah released into the wild. That trip set the stage for a big change in my life. I set out to change the attitudes people held towards cheetahs; as an unwanted nuisance because they hunted livestock. I saw an opportunity to educate, and to help farmers and cheetahs survive alongside each other. Education has subsequently become a founding philosophy of Cheetah Conservation Fund, and is central to all we do. A particular high point for me was when we brought cheetah education to the world through International Cheetah Day, which is the 4th of December. Since it launched six years ago, International Cheetah Day has gone from strength to strength. The 4th of December holds particular significance for me, as it was the birthday of a very special cheetah; Khayam.

Is there still hope for cheetahs in the wild?

Yes, absolutely! Over the past 25 years, we have been working in Namibia to develop a model that enables humans and cheetahs to live and thrive together. Cheetah Conservation Fund is the global leader in research and conservation of cheetahs and conducts ongoing research through its world class research facility, The Life Technologies Conservation Genetics Laboratory. From here, we collaborate with scientists from around the globe on research that not only benefits the cheetah and its ecosystem, but other big cats and predators too. The Cheetah Conservation Fund model is working; cheetah numbers in Namibia have doubled since the charity was set up in 1990 and the country now proudly calls itself the Cheetah Capital of the World. But to ensure long-term survival, we must parlay our success in Namibia into greater success by extending our reach into other areas, such as the north West of the country where farmers are still shooting cheetahs, and into the remaining cheetah-range countries, including Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and many more. We want there to be a future for cheetahs in the wild, but to secure that future we must exponentially increase our capacity to educate, train and intervene in all territories where cheetahs are found.

What can people do to help?

There are so many ways to help to secure the future of the cheetah on this planet. Spread the word about the plight of the cheetah and the work that Cheetah Conservation Fund do. A wealth of information can be found on our website at www.cheetah.org.uk. You can also join in the conversation about the illegal cheetah pet trade using the hashtag #BornToBeWild and you can help directly through donating. We need to raise £2 million a year in order to achieve our programme expansion goals, and every little helps. You can also help us raise funds by becoming a CCF Ambassador, and we have lots of ideas of how you can raise money for CCF on our Get Involved webpage. Finally, finding small ways to decrease your impact on the environment, even if you live thousands of miles away from Africa, is a huge help. Collectively, small changes go a long way to help protect our fragile planet and all the precious species that exist on it.

For more information about Cheetah Conservation Fund, please contact Dr. Jane Galton – jane@cheetah.org.uk.