The Legend of the Cheetah and their Savior, Dr. Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund

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Dr. Laurie Marker and Cheetah Conservation Fund resident cheetahs.

A century ago, there were 100,000 cheetahs in the wild. Today, there are fewer than 7,500. Namibia has about 1,500, more than any other country in Africa. Otjiwarongo, the town where Cheetah Conservation Fund is based, is known as “The Cheetah Capital of the World.”

I planned to celebrate my 65th birthday tonight on Central Park West with Dr. Laurie Marker, Dr. Jane Goodall and 50 of my nearest and dearest. Due to the coronavirus, Laurie and Jane made the wise choice to stay in Africa. Later this week Laurie and Jane were to be the first women to receive the 2020 President’s lifetime achievement award for Conservation at the annual Explorers Club dinner. It has been rescheduled for October 10th. And so it goes …

Nancy and Peter Lang, owners of Safari West, introduced me to Dr. Marker, one of the world’s leading experts on Cheetahs, a couple of decades ago. Safari West holds a fundraiser for her Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) every year.

10 years ago my son, Peter Cary Peterson, worked at CCF for the summer. Because I’m a board member of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Laurie asked me to be CCF’s Ambassador to the Middle East. What a honor!

Laurie’s life is the stuff of novels. She lives an “Out Of Africa” adventure with tenacity, grit, grace and determination. A savior for God’s fastest land mammal … the magnificent Cheetah.

Dr. Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia is the longest running and most successful cheetah conservation program in Africa.

This year CCF celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Dr. Marker is a research scientist and boots-on-the-ground conservationist … and an Oxford-trained zoologist, author, cheetah veterinary health expert, goat farmer, dog breeder, cattle rancher, educator, inspirational thought leader, public speaker and policy marker who travels nonstop on her mission to help save the world’s fastest mammal.

Dr. Marker with Chewbacca.

Laurie made several research trips to Africa throughout the 1980s. In Namibia, she learned farmers were killing cheetahs by the hundreds to prevent livestock predation. She feared they would wipe the local population out if no one stopped them.

She wrote to everyone she knew in her field — conservationists, zoo directors, researchers — but no one stepped forward. After talking with a longtime mentor, Laurie took on the mission of mitigating conflict between cheetahs and Namibian farmers. She met Sam Njoma, the first president and founding father of Namibia, at an event in Washington in 1990. She put a gold cheetah pin on his lapel and told him she would move to Namibia to save the cheetah.

Laurie won over the farmers by becoming one herself. She set up CCF as a research outpost on a farm in north-central Namibia. She got the money to start CCF by selling all of her possessions.

Laurie’s crowning achievement was changing Namibia’s attitude towards its wildlife.

Laurie convinced Namibian livestock farmers to stop trapping and killing cheetahs as their primary means of predation control. Her best argument: cheetahs have more economic value as a driver of tourism.

Cheetah cubs are very active and playful. Trees provide good observation points and allow for development of skills in balancing.

Female cheetahs live with their cubs for one and a half to two years.

Young cubs spend their first year learning from their mother and practicing hunting techniques. Average lifespan in the wild is 10 to 12 years.

At 6 weeks the cubs begin following their mother on her daily travels as she looks for prey.

Cheetah cubs have a thick silvery-grey mantle down their back. The mantle helps camouflage the cubs by imitating the look of an aggressive animal called a honey badger.

This mimicry may help deter predators such as lions, hyenas, and eagles. Cubs lose their mantle at about three months of age.

The cubs’ semi non-retractable claws are sharper at this age and help them grip the tall ‘playtrees’ they climb with their siblings. Learning to hunt is the most critical survival skill that the cubs will develop. At one year of age, cheetah cubs participate in hunts with their mother.

Male cheetahs live alone or in small groups, often with their littermates. All adult cheetahs are easily distinguished from other big cats by their solid black spots.

Today, CCF occupies 165,000-plus acres of mixed-use land. It is a model farm home to more than 1,000 head of livestock (cows, goats and sheep) and a wildlife reserve with at least 52 different animal species. CCF believes in farm fencing, not game fencing, so game animals move freely and can possibly encounter livestock. For overnight guests seeking the ultimate in ecotourism travel, Babson Guesthouse has three exceptionally well-appointed guest bedrooms, a huge living room and a veranda that overlooks the CCF cheetah sanctuary.

This is your “Out Of Africa” moment. At the heart of the model farm/wildlife reserve sits the CCF Field Research and Education Centre. This cluster of buildings houses a Visitor Centre, Education Centre, Cheetah Museum, Conservation Genetics Laboratory, Veterinary Clinic, Babson Guest House, Cheetah View Lodge, Biotechnology Demonstration Centre, Dancing Goat Creamery, and a Cheetah Café and Gift Shop.

In 1994, Laurie decided to import a rare breed of dogs, the Anatolian shepherd, to be placed with herds of livestock to help protect them from predators. This shepherd is known for its giant size and extremely loud bark.

CCF uses predator-friendly, non-lethal methods developed by Laurie and a group of Namibian farmers to control predation, including the CCF Livestock Guarding Dog (LGD).

Adjacent to the Centre are the farm buildings for livestock and the goat pens where the goat kids and CCF Livestock Guarding Dog puppies are raised together. The dogs learn to bond with the animals they will guard from birth.

This breed has been protecting livestock in Turkey for more than 5,000 years. Its climate and terrain similar to Namibia’s, and Laurie theorized the dogs would adapt well.

25 years later, with more than 650 puppies placed with Namibian farmers and a two-year waiting list, the CCF Livestock Guarding Dog has proven to be one of the most popular and successful conflict-mitigation measures ever developed. CCF helped launch similar programs with sister organizations in South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania.

Namibian farmers with CCF LGDs report a decline in livestock predation ranging between 80 to 100 percent. Armas Shaanika is CCF’s version of the Dog Whisperer. For 18 years he has trained all the CCF Livestock Guarding Dogs and continues to be with them throughout their lives. Armas speaks Avambo, Laurie speaks English, but Laurie says they both speak the language of dogs and goats.

My son, Peter Cary Peterson, spent the summer of 2010 working and photographing at Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia.

Peter Cary watching over this magnificent cheetah during a medical check.

Those black tear lines on either side of a cheetah’s nose function like a football player’s black face paint, keeping the sun out of the big cat’s eyes while they hunt.

Peter Cary with a couple of cautious friends.

These big cats are daylight hunters that benefit from stealthy movement and a distinctive spotted coat that allows them to blend easily into high, dry grasses.

Cheetahs growl when facing danger, and they vocalize with a high-pitched chirp or bubble. They bark when communicating with other cheetahs. They can also purr while inhaling and exhaling.

The hunt has several components. It includes prey detection, stalking, the chase, tripping and killing by means of a suffocation bite to the throat.

Both day tourists and overnight guests can book cheetah activities, like the Cheetah Feeding. Every morning at 8 a.m., cheetahs that live in CCF’s sanctuary participate in an exercise session that is designed to stimulate them mentally and physically. Cheetahs follow a truck on a dirt road around the huge enclosure. The cats can reach up to 60 mph right in front of your eyes!

While cheetahs can reach remarkable speeds, they cannot sustain a high speed chase for very long. In the wild they must catch their prey in 30 seconds or less, as they can’t maintain maximum speeds much longer.

Cheetahs don’t hunt at night. They’re most active during the morning and evening.

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal. Credit their thin frames, narrow waist, deep chest, and large nostrils that allow for increased oxygen intake. Their large lungs and hearts connect to a circulatory system with strong arteries and adrenals that work in tandem to circulate oxygen efficiently through their blood.

These big cats are quite nimble at high speed and can make quick and sudden turns in pursuit of prey. When running, cheetahs use their tails to steer and change direction, like a rudder on a boat.

A cheetah can go from 0 to 70 miles an hour in only three seconds.

Laurie has baby saanen diary goats at CCF.

CCF keeps dairy goats, with their milk CCF makes goat cheese, ice cream and fudge at its Dancing Goat Creamery, which doubles as a training facility for Namibian goat farmers.

Bashir Goth, the Somaliland Head of Mission to the U.S., with Senator Chris Coons from Delaware at a CCF dinner in April 2019.

Laurie giving a briefing on Capitol Hill to support the wildlife trafficking Act co-sponsored by Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona).

Just today, CNN ran this story on the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

Laurie Marker is as comfortable trekking through the bush in search of cheetahs as she is briefing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, DC.

In September, Laurie led an international team of veterinarians representing South Africa, UK, USA and Somaliland on a mission to complete comprehensive health examinations of the cubs living at the CCF Safe House.

In 2.5 days, they vaccinated, dewormed and ran a battery of tests on 30 cubs.

Assembling a team of mostly women, Laurie and her staff have taken on the task of caring for the cubs from a base in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Although Laurie has been working with cheetahs in Namibia for 30 years, Somaliland has brought Laurie full circle back to where she began. On March 1, 2020, the Vice President of Somaliland, Abdirahman Saylici, with Minister Shukri Bandare of the Ministry of Environment & Rural Development, and a large group of Somaliland government ministers and VIPs, officially opened the new facility with Dr. Marker and the CCF staff.

Laurie says the situation in Somaliland reminds her of when she first traveled to Namibia in the late 1970s, which was West South Africa at the time. Namibia was struggling to create its own African nation, emerging from the shadows of apartheid and colonialism. To cement its identity, Namibia made conservation a cornerstone of its constitution, creating the model for other African nations to follow.

In Somaliland more than 25% of the almost 4 million population are livestock farmers (mostly goats) or nomadic camel herders. People moving across the landscape who encounter wildlife perceive the animals as threats, and they kill carnivores to prevent livestock predation. It’s just like Namibia, except these farmers may sell the cubs they find to traffickers after killing their mothers, as a means of disposal and generating extra income.

Dr. Marker is leading an international team of scientists and volunteers on a mission to protect wild cheetahs from being poached from the Horn of Africa for the illegal pet trade. In October, 23 cubs were recovered during a two-week operation conducted by Somaliland military and police. During this raid, the government netted 12 cubs from traffickers on the beach near Zeila, an ancient city on the coast. Traffickers were attempting to load the cubs into small boats headed for Yemen and beyond.

The smugglers used plastic hampers to transport the cubs.

34 cheetah cubs now live at CCF’s Cheetah Safe House in Hargeisa, where cubs are placed after being rescued from wildlife traffickers.

Cubs in the clinic.

Cheetah Conservation Fund (J. Dougherty)

Two surviving cubs.

Dr. Musa, a recent graduate from the University of Hargeisa veterinary school, gives a cub milk replacer formula immediately after receiving the cub from Somaliland Wildlife Officers.

This precious trafficked cub did not make it.

In many countries it is illegal to take animals like cheetahs from the wild, but there is still a high demand for cheetahs as pets. The illegal trade in wildlife parts and live animals is estimated to be worth billions. It is highly organized and linked to other organized criminal activities.

Cheetah cubs are captured from the wild and then smuggled through the Horn of Africa, destined primarily for the Middle East, where demand is the highest. CCF estimates that only one in six cubs survives the journey to buyers. Cheetah cubs have specialized dietary needs that are not easily met and can easily perish due to malnutrition or inadequate veterinary treatment. Even if cubs are intercepted and confiscated, their chances of survival are extremely slim. Caring for these animals is a challenge to even the most experienced wildlife veterinarian.

Cheetah Conservation Fund budget is 3.4 million.

• It costs $5,000 per cheetah per year to feed, house, and provide medical care for cheetahs in Namibia and at the cheetah safe house in Somaliland.

• Each Livestock Guarding Dog costs CCF more than $500 a year for food, vaccinations, veterinary care and long-term monitoring. CCF also raises funds to support LGD training programs for farmers.

To make a tax-deductible donation, please visit

For more information about Dr. Laurie Marker, Cheetah Conservation Fund, and the CCF Somaliland cheetah project, please visit

Photographs by Karl Heinz Wollert, Andrew Harrington, Jonathan & Angela Scott, J. Dougherty and Peter Cary Peterson.

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