Conservationist’s business savvy helping to save cheetahs
Mike Rast Jr. – Reporter
Atlanta – 09.30.08
A passion for wildlife led conservationist Laurie Marker to become an entrepreneur, partnering with farmers and wine companies to increase Namibia’s exports and raise money to save Africa’s most endangered big cat.
Dr. Marker founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund near Otjiwarongo, Namibia, in 1990 to study and conserve the world’s fastest land animal.
The Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa’s Atlanta chapter hosted Dr. Marker at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell Sept. 25 for a presentation on her organization’s efforts to save the cheetah.
Originally from California, she has lived in Namibia since founding the fund and makes annual tours of the U.S. to raise funds and awareness of the cheetah’s plight.
Her entrepreneurial fundraising efforts include developing a “Cheetah Country” brand and partnering with companies and local farmers to produce free-range beef, wines and fire-starter logs for export.
“Being a non-profit, you can take one of several models,” Dr. Marker told GlobalAtlanta. “We’ve tried to take a business model around this.”
The fund employs people to harvest thorn bushes, which are overtaking Namibia’s rangeland due to overgrazing, growing in after cattle have eaten other plants. The thorns make agriculture impossible and can injure and displace cheetahs.
After harvesting, the bushes are compressed into high-heat fire-starting logs called Bushbloks, and exported to Europe. Dr. Marker said she hopes to find a corporate partner to bring the product to the U.S.
The compression process led the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., to recognize the cheetah fund as a Tech Award Laureate this year, a designation given by the museum annually to organizations using technology to benefit humanity.
“Cheetah Country Beef,” a free-range meat export operation in partnership with local farmers and Meatco Corp. of Windhoek, Namibia, provides local farmers an incentive not to kill cheetahs.
Farmers must subscribe to the fund’s cheetah safety regulations in order to participate in the branding effort.
The fund is also working with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Cape of Good Hope Wine Co. to produce a range of wines inspired by the stories of captive cheetahs that the organization has raised at its Otjiwarongo research center.
Profits from the “Cheetah Country” products are shared between the companies or individuals involved and the cheetah fund, and provide tax revenue for Dr. Marker’s adopted country.
“(Namibia) doesn’t have a whole lot it can export and sell, so we have to bring a lot of things into our port at Walvis Bay,” she said. “They call from all over the world into our port and our ships then leave empty. What we’re trying to do is fill them up.”
Dr. Marker first went to Namibia in 1977 to try to release captive cheetahs into the wild. Early efforts were largely unsuccessful, due to natural factors and opposition from local farmers.
Namibia is home to the largest concentration of cheetahs, found mostly near cattle and sheep farms. The big cats have been known to attack livestock when they cannot find other prey, and farmers in turn kill cheetahs.
Instead of simply chastising farmers for killing the big cats, Dr. Marker began educating them on how to protect and manage their cattle. In 1994 the cheetah fund began a program to provide Kangal Anatolian shepherd guard dogs to farmers to protect their herds from wild animals.
Cheetahs, which number less than 10,000 wild individuals, are also threatened by loss of habitat and competition from larger predators like lions and leopards.
The fund has become an internationally recognized center of excellence for research cheetahs and houses captive animals that cannot return to the wild.
The center has also become a tourist destination. Otjiwarongo now bills itself as the “cheetah capital of the world,” and the fund offers tours of its facilities and safaris into nearby national parks to view cheetahs and other wildlife.
The fund also has a hands-on training program for young scientists interested in working with animals.
Dr. Marker and the fund were recognized in Time Magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” in 2000. They have also received awards from groups in Namibia including the Windhoek Rotary Club, a chapter of the international organization in Namibia’s capital, and Sandveld Conservancy, a coalition of farming families living in cheetah habitat.
Dr. Marker said the fund’s goal is to reverse the trend of declining cheetah population in Namibia and bring the model developed there to other countries with wild cheetahs, including Algeria, Botswana, Iran and Kenya.
She and other fund staff helped form the Iranian Cheetah Society to study and conserve the last wild Asiatic cheetahs, a population that once spanned the Middle East and India but is now down to about 100 individuals relegated to a small range in the country.
The organization has chapters dedicated mainly to fundraising and awareness in Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
American chapters host fundraising races called “Runs for the Cheetah” annually in Chicago, Cleveland, Phoenix and Portland, Ore.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org