Cheetahs Prosper at the Cheetah Conservation Fund
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Cheetahs Prosper at the Cheetah Conservation Fund
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Cheetahs Prosper at the Cheetah Conservation Fund

The Earthwatch partnership with the Cheetah Conservation Fund drew to a close in 2013 because CCF has become a self-sustaining organization that has less of a need for support from Earthwatch volunteers (although it does still welcome volunteers from around the world). Founder and Director Dr. Laurie Marker has shepherded CCF’s growth from a two-person operation into an internationally known nonprofit with more than 80 staff members, interns, and volunteers.

A Champion for Cheetahs

The cheetah is the most endangered big cat in Africa, and Namibia has more of these cats in the wild than any other country. Since CCF’s work began, Namibia’s cheetah population has doubled. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s wild population of cheetahs is about 7,500 adults, a decline of at least 30% since the 1970s (Dr. Marker helped the IUCN arrive at this number). The IUCN attributes this decline to loss of cheetah habitat—which happens as more and more land gets used for farming and grazing—and the perception that cheetahs are major killers of livestock and need to be exterminated.

Fortunately for them, these cats found a dedicated supporter in Dr. Marker. She has worked with the species since 1974 in Oregon, where, during her 16 years there, she developed one of the most successful captive cheetah breeding programs in North America. Laurie first visited Namibia in 1977 to conduct groundbreaking research with one of her captive-born cheetahs: to find out if it could be successfully reintroduced into its natural habitat. She also discovered that farmers were killing hundreds of cheetahs each year. After a stint at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park, she founded CCF in 1990, selling all her belongings to move to Namibia. CCF’s International Research and Education Center is now on a 100,000-acre integrated model farm (managed land shared by livestock and wildlife) within the Waterberg Conservancy.

The Earthwatch Contribution

Earthwatch first partnered with CCF in 1996. Over the course of the relationship, both organizations found that great things happen when you combine a dedicated leader like Dr. Marker with hundreds of hard-working Earthwatcher volunteers.

More than 720 people traveled to CCF on Earthwatch’s Cheetah Conservation in Namibia expedition. One of them, Claire Hurren, appreciated that the project “Enabled me to work with some of the most threatened species—not only was it a privilege to see these animals up close, but the work we were doing was vital to their ongoing survival.”

Earthwatchers helped with a multitude of conservation activities:

Monitoring wild cheetahs and their ecosystem. Earthwatchers hiked the conservancy to set up and download images from camera traps, providing hard-to-get census data for cheetahs and their natural prey, such as zebras and antelopes. Each year, volunteers from Earthwatch helped process thousands of images from camera traps, giving researchers a detailed look at local animal populations. Monitoring these cats yielded critical information about their habits.

In addition, Earthwatchers assisted in regular game monitoring in the conservancy to track wildlife population densities and trends. A long-term study of what cheetahs eat has demonstrated that they prefer game to livestock, counter to many farmers' perceptions.

Rehabilitating cheetahs. Locals often bring injured and orphaned cheetahs to CCF for help, and Earthwatchers contributed to the care of these unfortunate animals. More than 600 cats have re-entered the wild so far with CCF’s help. CCF is also a sanctuary for about 50 nonreleasable cheetahs. These cats came to the conservancy at a very young age and are too habituated to humans to return to the wild, or have a medical problem that prevents them from hunting.

Caring for livestock guarding dogs. CCF also gives farmers practical ways to protect their cattle, goats, and sheep so they won’t resort to killing predators. CCF breeds and raises Anatolian and Kangal livestock guarding dogs to fend off predators from local herds; when trained, these dogs are donated to local farmers. The dogs’ well-being is monitored by CCF throughout their lives. Earthwatchers helped take care of these dogs, making a lasting contribution to easing conflict between farmers and predators in the region.

Educating visitors. Most cheetahs live on private land, so they're at the mercy of landowners. And many landowners think of them as major threats to livestock, even when the data suggest otherwise. CCF reaches a big audience to counter this message: the campus hosts more than 6,000 visitors a year, including students, teachers, scientists, farmers, and tourists. Earthwatchers introduced these visitors to CCF and taught them about the important role cheetahs play in the ecosystem.

This partnership has represented Earthwatch at its best: giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to get up close and personal with an iconic species, while also working on long-term research leading to practical conservation solutions. At the end of this nearly two-decade partnership, everyone can take pride in the fact that CCF continues to thrive and will keep diligently protecting the natural world around it.

Learn more about supporting CCF’s mission and volunteering here.

Did you join Earthwatch on the Cheetah Conservation in Namibia expedition? Share your memories in the comments!

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