Dr.Marker of the Cheetah Conservation Fund talks to photographer and conservationist Mark Segal about the plight of one of Africa’s most endangered species– the Cheetah.
Interview & Photography By Mark Segal
In 1991, an American woman threw caution to the wind and moved to Namibia, a new African nation. She was driven by a singular cause: to save the cheetah from extinction.
Dr. Laurie Marker is a rare breed. As a self-described “freethinking organic farmer from Northern California,” Marker was a pioneer in the Oregon wine industry when she first took a job at a local wild- life park to support her vineyard. It was the 1970s, and she had no idea that cheetahs would become her life’s work. At Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon, Marker developed a captive cheetah-breeding program that became the world’s most successful at that time. Working in the early 1980s with research scientists from the National Cancer Institute and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, she helped identify the cheetah’s lack of genetic variation.
During this same time, Marker began a research project into the re- wilding of cheetahs. She traveled to Namibia for the first time in the late 1970s, then back and forth through Africa over the next decade. On these research trips, she learned about the conflict with rural farmers that made the cheetah the most endangered big cat in Africa. Hundreds were being shot or trapped and removed from the Namibian landscape each year. Farmers feared predation of their live- stock—for some, their only means of support—and viewed cheetahs as worthless vermin. Marker realized that without intervention, the species would soon disappear.
Fashion photographer and cheetah conservationist Mark Segal sits down with Dr. Laurie Marker, Founder and Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), to discuss their shared passion for this iconic, spotted feline— and how saving the species requires helping the people who share its land.
Segal: We hear that the cheetah is the most endangered large cat in Africa. Help put this in perspective: How dire is the cheetah’s plight today?
Dr. Marker: A century ago, cheetahs thrived in numbers over 100,000 across a range that stretched throughout most of Africa and through Asia. In 1975, there were about 35,000, and today there are less than 7,100 remaining, occupying a mere fraction of their natural range. They exist in small populations, mostly scattered in the countries of east and southern Africa. It’s only a matter of time before there are too few remaining to save the species from extinction. In Iran, the last population of Asiatic cheetah, one of four cheetah subspecies, has dwindled to 50 individuals. For them, it is possibly too late.
“It’s only a matter of time before there are too few remaining to save the species from extinction.”
Segal: How do you approach a problem of this magnitude?
Dr. Marker: The first step is to understand how we got to this point. Cheetahs are on the verge of extinction because they are threatened by conflict, habitat loss, and loss of prey. Each of these threats is due to human activities, and each is now exacerbated by climate change, which is also attributable to people. So, solving the cheetah conservation crisis involves unraveling a complex web of social, environmental, and economic issues involving people. There is no quick fix, no easy, one-sentence solution. Cheetahs really, really need our help.
Segal: Many people think that if we maintain wildlife reserves and national parks, we’ve solved the extinction problem…we’ve done our part. Why is this a misconception, particularly for the cheetah?
Dr. Marker: Cheetahs don’t fare well in protected areas. They can’t compete with larger carnivores like lions, leopards, and hyenas that steal their kills and kill their young. Throughout Africa, 80 percent of cheetahs live outside of protected areas. In Namibia, 90 percent of wild cheetahs live on livestock farmlands. Cheetahs hunt by day and are visible to farmers, which puts them at higher risk for conflict with farmers. They are blamed for most predation, even though they are probably not the culprit.
Segal: Despite the challenges, you’ve been successful in stabilizing the cheetah population of Namibia, and you are making progress in other countries. This is a huge achievement! How did you accomplish this?
Dr. Marker: Communication. Information sharing. Capacity building. With populations dwindling through most cheetah-range countries, cheetah survival depends on people using an informed, integrated approach to conservation. Education is the foundation. In 2005, CCF began conducting month long courses to bring together conservation managers, scientists, and community representatives from African cheetah-range countries and Iran. The courses build capacity, with a goal of stabilizing cheetah populations. More than 300 participants are now managing cheetah and wildlife conservation programs in their own countries.
At the same time, we research ways to conserve and restore habitat for cheetahs and farmers. And we work with local livestock farming communities to help improve their livelihoods. Assigning economic value to cheetahs and having a thriving population on the landscape is key.
“There is no quick fix, no easy, one sentence solution. Cheetahs really, really, need our help.”
Segal: How does a research scientist/ cheetah conservationist help farmers increase their bottom line? I mean, where did you get that idea?
Dr. Marker: When I relocated to Namibia in 1991, the first thing I did after setting up my research base was to interview lots and lots of livestock farmers. The first farmers I encountered were pre- dominantly male, Caucasian, and of German and Afrikaans descent. They had been farming livestock there for about a century under an apartheid government that allowed the killing of cheetahs to protect livestock.
I asked them why they were shooting cheetahs, and if they had nonlethal alternatives, would they use them. I learned most did not want to shoot or trap cheetahs but felt they had little choice. They encouraged me to develop nonlethal predator control tools. I asked them to call me when they caught a cheetah, before they killed it, so I could collect blood for analysis and learn more about the cheetahs’ morphology and physiology. I also requested they spare its life, so I could put radio-collars on to track their movements. Many did, allowing me to learn about the cheetah both biologically and ecologically.
“I learned most did not want to shoot or trap cheetahs but felt they had little choice.”
Segal: How did you manage to gain their confidence? I would have thought being a young American woman—an “outsider”—these farmers might not have been so open to your efforts.
Dr. Marker: I was born into a family of livestock ranchers. I grew up around livestock, and in my teens, I managed my own dairy goat herd. I was in 4H and Future Farmers of America (FFA). I understood the farmer’s mind-set. The Namibian farmers encouraged me to try farming there, to walk in their shoes and test methodologies. So now I raise cattle, goats, and sheep with free-living wildlife on CCF’s land. This led to the development of a training program for Namibian farmers that I modeled after my early experiences. I named it Future Farmers of Africa (FFA). Ultimately, I think they understood I had their best interest in mind as well as the cheetahs’.
Segal: So how does Future Farmers of Africa help Namibian farmers?
Dr. Marker: Thanks to CCF’s generous supporters, over the course of three decades, CCF has acquired 100,000 acres of land in central Namibia where we’ve created a model integrated livestock and wild- life farm. We use the farm and its related agricultural enterprises as the FFA training facility to teach integrated, livestock-wildlife rangeland management. We demonstrate how farmers can have healthier livestock and make a better living without re- moving cheetahs from the landscape. They achieve this by managing their rangeland and livestock while coexisting with wildlife. Men and women from the local communities come to the CCF Centre for weeklong trainings. Most have never had any agricultural education. FFA covers topics like livestock health, veterinary care, husbandry, and valuation. We also talk about wildlife and rangeland management, methods of nonlethal predator control, predator identification, and best practices to reduce livestock losses. The use of a CCF Livestock Guarding Dog (LGD), the single most effective tool we’ve developed for nonlethal predator control, is included in the coursework. In the past few years, we’ve been taking our trainings into the remote conservancies in Namibia’s Eastern and Western Communal Lands. Conflict here is high, and most people are subsistence farmers. Since they often can’t afford to travel or be away from their farms for a week at a time, we hold one-day FFA workshops in their communities.
Segal: What role does a CCF Livestock Guarding Dog play in cheetah conservation?
Dr. Marker: Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs are rare breeds that have been used to guard live- stock in Turkey for thousands of years. I imported a small breeding group of Anatolian shepherds in 1994 to test the efficacy of a guarding dog program in Namibia. The terrain and climate of Namibia is like Turkey’s, so I hypothesized these dogs would adapt and function the same way here. The presence of the dogs—they are very large, with an exceptionally loud bark—keeps cheetahs and other predators at bay. Since then, we’ve bred and placed more than 600 dogs throughout Namibia with local farmers, at little or no cost. Farmers who use CCF LGDs report a decrease in predation rates of sometimes above 80 percent. Simultaneously, LGDs reduce the killing and capture of cheetahs and other predators. The dogs have been so successful that we’ve helped launch similar programs in South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania.
Segal: You mention habitat loss. Can you tell us what CCF does to counter the problem and explain your award- winning product, Bushblok?
Dr. Marker: Namibia has been suffering from a long and unpredictable cycle of drought. Taken with climate change, overgrazing, and other poor livestock farming practices, thick woody plants with sharp thorns—a variety of Senegalia thornbush species—have taken over much of the land. This is known as bush encroachment. Cheetahs hunt using bursts of speed in open or semi-open savanna. Cheetahs suffer injuries from the thorny bushes, often to their eyes, and a blind cheetah cannot hunt and can then become a problem animal. Although livestock is not a cheetah’s normal prey base, preying on livestock becomes an easier option for a hurt cheetah than catching wild prey. Bush encroachment alters the mix of prey species that can survive, because there are fewer plant species for them to eat. Bush encroachment also hurts Namibia’s economy by reducing the amount of grasslands for herding. A 2008 study estimated losses to the local economy to be $59 million (U.S.) annually.
In 2001, with the help of a USAID grant, CCF’s Bush Project was developed to selectively and sustainably harvest excess thornbush and restore habitat for farmers and wildlife. At the same time, we make biomass fuel with thornbush, and we hope in the future to provide power for Namibians without electricity. Our best- known product is Bushblok, a clean- burning fuel log made from biomass wood pellets. Last year, we opened a Biomass Technology Demonstration Center at CCF with the goal of devising new processes and products and kick-starting a Namibian biomass industry. Today, CCF’s Bush Project provides jobs for 40 Namibians with the potential to provide many more. Finding ways to boost an economy with a 28 percent unemployment rate is critical to sustaining the people of Namibia. At the same time, clean, renewable energy will help address Namibia’s power deficit and reduce dependence on coal. And opening habitat will provide for more wildlife, which will support more cheetahs!
Segal: How do you describe CCF’s philosophy?
Dr. Marker: CCF uses a holistic approach that considers all stakeholders. We balance the needs of people, wildlife, and the land, and try to make our efforts sustainable. This way, the communities are more likely to be good stewards of wildlife. Our end goal is to achieve coexistence. This is the only way to ensure a permanent place for cheetahs on Earth.
Segal: What do you tell people who insist on a one-sentence solution to the cheetah conservation crisis?
Dr. Marker: We’ve got to change the world to save the cheetah, please help by joining us.
All images courtesy of Mark Segal from his book Cheetah published by Damiani Editore. Available from the Cheetah Conservation Fund