for National Geographic News
An innovative program that provides guard dogs to livestock farmers at a modest cost may be helping to save wild cheetahs in southern Africa.
The decade-old effort is the brainchild of Laurie Marker. The U.S. biologist moved to Namibia in 1990 to help prevent livestock losses that spurred ranchers to shoot and kill hundreds of cheetahs each year.
Since 1994 the Livestock Guarding Dog Program has trained more than 200 Anatolian shepherds to protect farmed sheep and goats in Namibia. The powerful shepherds weigh 110 to 150 pounds (50 to 68 kilograms). Unlike most other breeds used to herd sheep and goats, the dogs instinctively challenge predators and scare them off with their loud, booming bark.
Local governments in Namibia allow farmers to trap and kill predators, including protected species like cheetahs, if livestock is threatened. Farmers say such steps are necessary since cheetahs can quickly kill dozens of sheep in unguarded pens known as kraals.
Twenty years ago farmers in Namibia shot as many as 800 to 900 cheetahs annually, according to Marker. Today she estimates just 200 cheetahs are shot and killed each year in the country, thanks in part to her guard-dog program and related educational efforts.
Soft Spot for Cheetahs
A cheetah expert, Marker first traveled to Namibia in 1977 to learn if a cheetah born and bred in captivity in the United States could hunt in the wild. It was then that Marker said she first became aware of the threats farmers and cheetahs posed one another.
Namibia is home to an estimated 3,000 cheetahs, the most of any country. The figure represents one-fourth of the estimated 12,000 cheetahs left in the world. Conservationists view Namibia as one of the last few strongholds for the endangered species.
Marker discovered that many cheetahs were killed as a preventative measure, a practice handed down among generations of farmers. Compounding the problem was the fact that cheetahs are daytime hunters and not aggressive toward humans, making them easy targets for farmers.
During subsequent trips to Africa in the 1980s, Marker realized that the cheetah population was rapidly declining and that something had to be done to save them. So in 1990, she changed the focus of her work.
Quitting a job she held for 16 years studying and breeding captive cheetahs at a U.S. a wild-animal park, Marker moved to Namibia, in southern Africa. There she created the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), a nonprofit research and education center, veterinary clinic, and farm.
"In the beginning many farmers wondered what I was doing here," Marker wrote in an e-mail interview with National Geographic News. "Some of the farmers would say, 'Oh, if you like cheetahs, take them all back to the U.S. with you.'" Marker said she quickly told the farmers she wasn't going back to the U.S., so they were stuck with both her and the cats. "This usually got quite a little laugh from them," she said.
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