Natural World Hero

Laurie Marker

Dr. Laurie Marker is the Founder and Executive Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, the world's leading organisation dedicated to the research and conservation of Africa's most endangered big cat.

The cheetah's global guardian - Dr. Laurie Marker

Since 1974, Dr. Laurie Marker has been a tireless campaigner for the welfare of Acinonyx jubatus, the cheetah. In helming the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) for almost three decades, Dr. Marker has helped to identify the key dangers facing the species, and what can be done to combat them. From beginning her zoological career in an Oregon safari park during the 1970s, she has become a leading figure in felid conservation and has published more than 80 scientific papers, most relating to the conservation of the animal that’s closest to her heart. First visiting Namibia in 1977, Dr. Marker relocated there in 1991 in order to better serve the needs of the country's cheetahs.

Today Namibia is home to the world’s largest and healthiest cheetah population, thanks in no small part to the dedicated work done by Dr. Marker and her team. Through a combination of research, education and conservation efforts, the CCF have made great strides in ensuring the survival of the cheetah and expanding the scientific knowledge of the species. The CCF’s headquarters are located on a 100,000-acre private wildlife and livestock reserve, near Otjiwarongo in Namibia's Kalahari Basin. Here the CCF operate both a cheetah sanctuary and an open-to-the-public research and education centre. As well as running outreach initiatives in local communities and educating farmers about how to coexist with cheetahs, the CCF team also welcome visitors to tour the facilities, go on safari drives, and even stay on the property in one of two luxury lodges.

Dr. Marker’s work in Namibia and in her role as the public face of cheetah conservation worldwide has brought her international recognition. She has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2010 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the Zoological Society of San Diego’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. Dr. Marker was also named as one of TIME Magazine’s Heroes for the Planet in 2000, has served a member of Panthera’s Cat Advisory Council since 2008, and was appointed to the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN/SSC (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission) in 1996, now serving as a member of its core management team.

interview with dr. laurie marker

Could you tell us about the work done by yourself and the Cheetah Conservation Fund?

I founded Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in 1990 to help save the wild cheetah. Cheetahs used to thrive in numbers of over 100,000, over a range that stretched across most of Africa and into Asia; today there are less than 7,500 remaining, occupying a mere fraction of their natural range. In Namibia, where I chose to base our organisation, conflict between farmers and cheetahs wiped out thousands of the animals during the 1970s and 1980s. I relocated to Namibia from the U.S. in 1991 because I wanted to stop the conflict and figure out a way for people and cheetahs to coexist, to restore the natural balance. I realised that if I didn’t do something, the cheetah would soon be gone, as their numbers would fall so low there would be no bringing them back. My early collaborated research revealed that cheetahs suffer from low genetic diversity, which makes them vulnerable to disease and creates reproductive abnormalities, exacerbating an already problematic situation.

The cheetah is threatened by conflict, but also by habitat loss, loss of prey, and to a somewhat lesser degree, the illegal wildlife trade. Addressing the cheetah’s plight requires unravelling a host of social, economic and environmental issues. There is no simple fix for the problem. I realised this during my early in situ research of the cheetah in Namibia, which began in the late 1970s, but it didn’t really hit home until I was living in Namibia. I met with farmers and interviewed them about their farms and livestock management systems as well as about the cheetah. They thought of cheetahs as worthless vermin, predators that killed their goats and sheep and threatened their livelihoods. I suspected this was not the case, but no one had ever done research on the cheetah to find out their behaviour, and the truth.

From this experience, I realised that people needed to have a better understanding of the cheetah's biology, ecology, and interactions with wildlife and livestock. This information would be essential to conserving the cheetah in the wild. I developed a strategy for CCF, a three-pronged approach of research, conservation and education, beginning with long-term studies to understand the factors affecting cheetah survival. For the past two-and-a-half decades, myself, along with a small staff of CCF researchers, interns and volunteers, have been studying the wild cheetah and their fundamental ecosystems, and our data is used to develop conservation policies and education programs. We administer training and education programs for Namibian farmers and communities, called Future Farmers of Africa (FFA), to develop better livelihoods. We raise awareness, communicate, and educate people about the cheetah all over the world.

CCF has built a proven record of creating successful, innovative collaborations between environmentalists and local communities that offer a solution to the dilemma that so often thwarts species conservation efforts: how do we motivate humans to view wildlife as an asset to their future as opposed to being a roadblock? CCF’s approach to conservation uses scientific data to educate communities and design programs that make conservation not just a moral imperative but a practical opportunity. Most importantly, CCF puts these solutions into action. CCF creates working programs with measurable results.

What is it about cheetahs that inspired you to dedicate your life’s work to them?

During the 1970s and 1980s, I directed the veterinary clinic and was the cheetah curator at Oregon’s Wildlife Safari. There I developed one of the world’s most successful captive breeding programs. At the same time, I began travelling back and forth to Africa to study the cheetah in its natural habitat. I quickly discovered wild populations were rapidly declining, and I felt compelled do something.

Cheetahs are very special cats. They are the fastest of all land animals, capable of reaching speeds up to 70mph. They are excellent hunters, and they feed many other carnivores in the veld from their efforts. They are the only big cat that purrs, and they also have unique vocalisations: dog-like barks, bird-like chirps, growls and hisses, and a noise we call “bubble”. They also have amazing vision – they can spot predators or prey a couple of miles away across the open savannah – and a penetrating gaze. I consider the species to be highly intelligent. They are also the oldest of the big cats - they’ve been around for perhaps five million years. To me the cheetah is a most mystical creature; I simply cannot imagine a world without them.

What goes into saving cheetah populations? Do they require different methods of conservation to those of other big cats?

Cheetahs require unique conservation strategies. What works for the lion, jaguar or tiger, like establishing populations in protected areas, does not work for the cheetah. Cheetahs do not fare well in reserves mainly due to the limited size of most reserves, allowing other predators to steal their kills and kill their young. 90% of Namibia’s cheetahs live outside of protected areas, on livestock and game farmlands in central Namibia, which also supports 80% of the game species that provide the cheetah’s natural diet. Living on farmland puts cheetahs in contact with farmers’ livestock and game-farming enterprises. To maintain ecosystem balance, it is critical that conservation strategies encourage sustainable land use while accommodating the presence of native predator species, including the cheetah.

CCF has created successful, innovative collaborations between environmentalists and local communities that offer a solution to the dilemma that often thwarts species conservation efforts: how do we motivate humans to view wildlife species as an asset to their future as opposed to being a roadblock? By educating people and getting them to see the economic value of properly managing wildlife and livestock lands and in having cheetahs present, we can begin the conversation of how to save them in earnest.

I created a program called Future Farmers of Africa (FFA) to teach conservation, livestock and wildlife management techniques to land users. FFA builds practical skills, enabling rural Namibians to engage in sustainable livestock farming that provides direct and indirect economic benefits for them and their families. Methods for non-lethal predator control, such as the use of livestock-guarding dogs, are also part of the training. Used for thousands of years in Europe, in 1994 I introduced two rare Turkish dog breeds to Sub-Saharan Africa. The Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs are best suited for Namibia’s climate and harsh terrain. The dogs are large and protective of whatever animal they bond with. With a loud bark and aggressive posture, they scare predators away. Cheetahs are a mostly non-aggressive species, with a flight versus fight instinct, so the dogs can easily scare them away with their mere presence. The dogs have proven to be highly effective in preventing predation against a whole range of predators, including leopard, jackal, caracal and cheetah.

Over the past nearly 30 years, we have bred and provided more than 600 dogs at little or no cost to farmers. Farmers with livestock-guarding dogs from CCF report that their losses have been reduced by 80% or more, and hundreds of cheetah lives have been spared. Our approach to cheetah conservation uses scientific data to educate communities and offers programs that make conservation not just a moral imperative but a practical opportunity. Most importantly, we involve all stakeholders in the conversations and in putting these programs into action. We use a community-based natural resource management approach. The cheetah population of central Namibia has rebounded and is stabilising; now Namibia has the greatest density of any country on Earth. Because of this, Otjiwarongo, the town where CCF is based, is known as “The Cheetah Capital of the World”.

The CCF has helped to stabilise and even increase the wild cheetah population in Namibia. Which areas have you now identified as the most important for cheetah conservation?

One of the newest and potentially most important areas for cheetah conservation is Angola. Following three decades of civil war, the status of cheetah and other wildlife populations in this country is unknown. Our CCF researchers and Angolan collaborators are engaged in studies to determine which species have survived and in what number, and how the human population, many driven from established communities into national parks for safety, is impacting animal populations. We have determined the presence of cheetah, but we are still in the process of looking at prey species numbers to see if a healthy cheetah population could be sustained.

What have yourself and your research team achieved since CCF was established in 1990?

My research focuses on the biology, ecology and conservation strategies of the Namibian cheetah. I’ve collected and analysed biological samples for nearly 1,000 Namibian cheetahs. I have also tagged and released more than 650 cheetahs back into the wild and placed UVF satellite radio-tracking collars on more than 60 during a 15-year study, which continues today. Going back in time to 1982, I’ve been working in conjunction with researchers from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Cancer Institute on the genetic research of cheetah, which resulted in identifying their lack of genetic diversity, reproductive abnormalities and disease susceptibility, and eventually in 2015, the mapping of the cheetah genome.

At CCF Namibia, I established a genome resource bank for cheetahs, containing blood, tissue and semen samples from almost every cheetah we’ve come in contact with over the years. I’ve banked more than 320 semen samples from 200 different males. In the mid-1990s, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, the first artificially inseminated cheetah cub was born from sperm we collected and froze in Namibia. In 2007, I collaborated with the Smithsonian and the University of California, Davis, researchers to produce the first-ever in vitro cheetah embryo developed to the blastocyst stage. Researchers from all over the world access these samples to perform studies, making their findings possible.

Our team has built the only fully capable conservation genetics laboratory at an in situ conservation site in Africa. The lab is used to study not only the cheetah, but also many other endangered African species. Researchers from organisations outside CCF use the facility to process their samples, which generates an easy exchange of information. Our research team has also pioneered the use of scat-detection dogs to assist with cheetah census, genetic relatedness and demographic research.

What role does education and engaging with local communities play in the protection of endangered species like the cheetah?

With populations dwindling through most cheetah-range countries, cheetah survival depends on people using an informed, integrated approach to conservation that incorporates humans, wildlife, and habitat. In 2005, we began conducting month-long international courses to bring together conservation managers, scientists, and community representatives from cheetah-range countries in Africa and Iran. More than 300 participants are now leading the charge in their respective countries, managing cheetah conservation programs of their own. We aim to build capacity, with a goal of stabilising and increasing cheetah populations.

To help educate young learners, I developed a program called Future Conservationists of Africa. We bring groups to the CCF Centre regularly, and CCF educators present programs to an estimated 25,000 children in schools throughout Namibia annually. This initiative is of critical importance as it exposes the nation’s youth to the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems, thus creating a strong foundation for the future. More than 450,000 students have been impacted by CCF’s outreach programs since 1994.

At the Centre, in addition to the young learners, CCF has hosted more than 30,000 farmers and emerging professionals for environmental coursework, workshops, and team-building exercises. To make our impact in Africa sustainable, we must educate the next generation, so they can take the reins and continue our work. This is the best hope for making a permanent place for cheetahs on Earth.

There are thought to be fewer than 50 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild. Have you faced particular challenges when attempting to protect the only cheetah species found outside of Africa?

The threats to the Asiatic cheetah are similar – conflict with humans and shrinking habitat – yet at the same time, the culture is different. The values of the people are different. The way they go about addressing the problem is different, the thinking is different. So the challenge is in trying to maintain our footprint and impact in southern Africa, while finding human resources and funding to address the situation thousands of miles from the Centre. This is not a problem with a one-size-fits-all solution. It will take significant resources to address this problem, and with so few Asiatic cheetahs remaining, it may, frankly, be too late.

What value does protecting predator populations confer on their respective ecosystems, and the wider world in general?

When you take an apex predator out of an ecosystem, repercussions reverberate and affect all species in the ecosystem, including humans. Just like a row of dominoes falling, if the cheetah is no longer around, species that the cheetah hunted would not be as healthy, nor will the biodiversity of the ecosystem. This event is known as trophic cascade, which eventually results in land becoming untenable, which gravely impacts humans. Today, we’re facing the huge problem of how to feed the world’s human population, which is anticipated to double in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050. Removing cheetahs from the landscape would have a disastrous effect on all other creatures sharing its ecosystem, and beyond.

Who is your own personal natural world hero and why?

I’ve had the amazing fortune of meeting and being mentored by wonderful people over the course of my life. Drs. Ullysses Seal, Steve O’Brien, Linda Munson, George Rabb, E.O. Wilson, George Schaller and Jane Goodall – they’ve all influenced my life in so many positive ways. But the one person who made me believe I could do this as a career was Dr. Ian Player, the man credited with saving the white rhino. In 1974, when I was only 20, we met. He was visiting Wildlife Safari in Oregon, where I was running the veterinary clinic and responsible for the cheetahs. He teasingly asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I hesitated, afraid he would laugh, but I said I wanted to save the wild cheetah. To my surprise, he didn’t laugh. He offered me encouragement and told me if I had passion, I could do anything I wanted. We remained friends and met often over the course of my career. He always had some good advice.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

With incredible experiences travelling and seeing the world, meeting people from many, many nations and witnessing incredible natural phenomena on the savannah, it might be difficult to pick just one. But for me, this is easy. The best experience I’ve had was sharing a bond with CCF’s best-known cheetah ambassador, Chewbaaka. He came to CCF as a 10-day-old orphan and was with me for the next 16 years, until he passed about five years ago. Chewbaaka was my partner in educating Namibians and people all over the world about the cheetah. He greeted thousands of people at CCF, and he represented his species to millions more by appearing in numerous television shows and documentaries about wildlife. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner or friend.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

To save the cheetah and other species racing against extinction, we need to change the world – by bringing the ecological back into sustainability. It’s not an easy task, but if we all pull together, we can do it!

But we must act now, before it is too late. Once a species is gone, it is gone forever.

What a horrible thought. I cannot imagine a world without cheetahs, can you?

Inspired by Laurie Marker?

If you've been inspired by the work of Dr. Marker and want to visit the CCF or see cheetahs in the wild for yourself, speak to one of our Destination Specialists to start planning your next big cat adventure.

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Image Credits

Banner image: Suzi Eszterhas/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Dr. Marker with two cheetahs: Eli Walker/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Farmers receiving livestock management at the CCF: Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

The CCF Visitor Centre in Namibia: Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Wild cheetah in Kenya's Maasai Mara Reserve: Suzi Eszterhas/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Farm worker with Anatolian shepherd dog: Jenna Brager/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Anatolian shepherd dog guarding livestock: Andrew Harrington/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Dr. Laurie Marker treating a cheetah with Drs. Stephen J. O'Brien and Anne Schmidt-Küntzel: Rob Thomson/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Captive cheetahs being released: Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

A CCF outreach event at Namibia's Amazing Kids Academy: Bobby Bradley/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Dr. Laurie Marker with Chewbaaka at an education program in Namibia: Suzi Eszterhas/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund

Dr. Laurie Marker with Chewbaaka: Christophe LePetit/Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund