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Survival of the Cheetah

Laurie Marker

September 21 – Barrows Conservation Lecture Series, Cincinnati Zoo, Cincinnati OH


The cheetah’s survival is in jeopardy due to declining numbers of prey species; conversion of land to agriculture and livestock farming; conflict with livestock farming; and poaching and illegal trade. The estimated population of less than 15,000 animals are found in fragmented and small groups in perhaps 26 African countries with a remnant population of less than 200 in Iran, and viable populations maybe found in fewer than half of the countries where cheetah still live. Neither protected reserves (due to conflict with larger predators), nor captive management (due to limited breeding success), can be relied on to support the survival of the cheetah. Today the cheetah’s survival is in human’s hands. Therefore, developing strategies for maintaining free-ranging cheetah populations and habitats outside of protected areas are critical for the long-term survival of the species. In order to develop long-term conservation programs, we must think critically about the needs of humans and the needs of the cheetah and find ways for both to live together.

I would like to share with you the story of the Namibian cheetah in its race for survival. Namibia supports the largest remaining free-ranging cheetah population, approximately 2,500 cheetah (20% of the world’s population). Cheetahs are found in a contiguous 275,000 km2 of commercial livestock farmland that produces cattle, sheep, goats and wildlife. Although classified as a protected animal in Namibia, cheetah can be shot in order to protect one’s life or property. Cheetahs are known to kill small stock and calves up to six months of age but are blamed for far more losses than actually occur. Farmers have practised preventative management – eliminating the cheetah indiscriminately, independent of livestock loss, by either shooting on sight or after live-catching them in traps. Average removals of cheetah per year between 1978 and 1985 were 827 and from 1986 to 1995, 297. Although listed on Appendix I of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), in 1992 Namibia was given an export quota of 150 cheetahs to be used for trophy hunted cheetahs and the live export of cheetahs into recognised captive breeding facilities to encourage farmers to stop indiscriminately removing cheetahs from the wild.

I began working with cheetahs over 25 years ago at the Wildlife Safari in Oregon. As the Curator of Cheetahs for 16 years, I helped develop North America’s most successful cheetah breeding center. During those years, many cheetahs were traded between the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the Wildlife Safari and other facilities to enhance breeding success at both facilities. I believed that sharing information and working in cooperation with others is critical to the development of a global breeding strategy. In 1982 I began a registry of cheetahs in captivity called the International Cheetah Studbook. I worked closely with San Diego Zoo’s Registrar, Marvin Jones. After the development of the Studbook, a Cheetah Species Survival Plan (SSP) was developed, and over the years I worked closely with many San Diego Zoo cheetah staff and researchers, including Helena Fitch, Susan Millard and Dr. Don Lindberg. Although captive breeding efforts for cheetahs were improving, I knew that work on saving the wild cheetahs was necessary.

I first visited Namibia in 1977 on a first-of-its-kind project to see if a captive-born cheetah could learn to hunt in the wild. The research showed that a captive-born cheetah could learn to kill, but that the mother teaches them even more importantly how to live in their home ranges, finding game, water and avoiding humans and livestock. I learned Namibian farmers were killing hundreds of cheetahs as vermin. During the 1980’s Namibia’s cheetah population was halved with reports of nearly 7,000 cheetahs were killed between 1980 and 1991.

In 1990 I set up the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). I moved to Namibia in 1991, shortly after its independence from South Africa, and established CCF as in international base for cheetah conservation. Our objectives: to secure habitat for the survival of cheetah and their ecosystems through multi-disciplined and integrated programs in research, conservation and education by conducting independent and collaborative research, disseminates information, and recommends conservation management.

Understanding the economic base of the country is extremely important to long-term cheetah survival. Seventy percent of Namibia’s population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture as a livelihood, and beef products contribute over 80% of the country’s gross agricultural income. Land use for agriculture depends on rainfall distribution and water availability, both are sporadic and unpredictable: periods of drought are a regular occurrence. Therefore, alternate sources of income have been developed on these farmlands. In Namibia, unlike most countries in the world, the wildlife belongs to the landowners. An estimated 70% of Namibia’s huntable game species and 90% of the cheetah’s range are on privately held commercial farms. Trophy Hunting on free-ranging game, as well as wildlife in game farms, where a high fence is put up around large areas of land, contributes a large amount of foreign income to Namibia. Cheetahs are also legally trophy hunted.

Cheetahs are a big problem to game farmers, since game is concentrated in high numbers on game farms. Once a cheetah gets into a game fenced area game losses to cheetah become an economic problem. Furthermore, many game farms have introduced non-indigenous game, which has an inflated value, and results in higher economic loss because they are not adapted to Namibian conditions and are easier prey for cheetahs. Over the years, game farmers have removed more cheetahs from their farms than livestock farmers.

Private landowners, consisting of some 1,200 farmers, will determine the survival of Namibia’s cheetahs. Between 1991 and 1993, I conducted a survey to identify components of farmland ecosystems necessary to sustain a healthy cheetah population, farm management practices that reduce loss from predators, and conservation management strategies beneficial to both cheetah and farmers. The survey resulted in the publication of the book Cheetah Survival on Namibian Farmlands .

Over 95% of the farmers interviewed during the survey indicated that they had no idea of the problems facing the cheetah’s survival, or how important the Namibian cheetah population is to the species’ survival. Many farmers presented solutions aimed at reducing predator conflict and fell into three main categories: 1) improving livestock management strategies; 2) managing wild game to provide an adequate wild prey base for cheetahs on farmlands; and 3) increasing awareness about the cheetah and ways to live with the species. These suggestions have driven the development of CCF’s conservation research and education programs.

Each component of our research allows us to learn more about the free-ranging cheetah and its ecosystem, and all aspects of our research are conducted in cooperation with the farmers, since it is on their lands that we work and the cheetahs range. Most of the cheetahs we have dealt with were not trapped because of livestock depredation but just because the farmers saw them. It is not a problem for these animals to go back into the wild. We work in co-operation with the farmers to find the best solution to each cheetah caught.

When farmers trap cheetah, we ask if we can collect important bio-medical information, including, body measurements, blood and tissue samples, and health characteristics. The farmers work right along side of us and participate in the collection process. To-date we have worked on over 400 cheetahs and all the information is added to a database allowing for on-going monitoring of the over-all health, infectious diseases, and genetic monitoring of the population. Learning about the overall health and genetic make-up of the population helps us to understand what underlying limiting factors may affect long-term survival.

Through radio-telemetry research, we have shown farmers that indiscriminate catching can cause greater problems for them, by opening up cheetah’s territories, thus allowing other cheetahs access to the area. In certain cases, indiscriminate catching can actually create problem animals, for example, through the separation (breaking up) of a family unit (i.e. female and sub-adult cubs). We have been able to re-release over 200 cheetahs. They are ear tagged, micro-chipped and most are re-released back into their home-ranges.

Few farmers understand cheetah behavior, and Namibian cheetahs exhibit behaviors that have not been recorded in other areas of Africa. One is to use certain trees for communication. Farmers first described these “newspaper or playtrees” over 50 years ago. Cheetah playtrees appear to be territorial markers. Playtrees are tall with sloping trunks and large horizontal limbs that cheetahs can climb. Cheetahs leave their scat on the limbs and urine on the trunk as markers, and it appears they go from playtree to playtree in their range. Not all farms have playtrees, and these farms we now term as “pass- through farms,” as the cheetahs move quickly through on their way to the next playtree. Some farms have several playtrees.

Over the years, most cheetahs were live-trapped at playtrees. The majority of this catching was indiscriminate; the livestock killing, “problem animals” were not singled out. Cheetah traps are two-meter long wire cages with drop doors at both ends and a trigger in the middle. The trap is placed near the playtree, and a thorn bush boma makes the trap the only passage to the tree. The cheetah’s drive to get to the tree is so strong that it will readily use the trap as a passage and walk in, thus triggering the doors. Once one cheetah is caught, it is usually held in a holding cage within the boma. Its vocalizations will attract other cheetahs in the family unit, which will then be caught.

Our radio telemetry provides the opportunity to learn about the movement and home range requirements of cheetahs. By understanding the range and movements of the cheetah, farmers can reduce livestock-predator conflict. Since our radio-tracking research began over six years ago, we have had over 45 cheetahs collared. We collar only one animal in a group. For instance male cheetah brothers live together their entire lives forming what is known as a coalition, and cubs stay with their mothers until they are 18 to 20 months of age. We track the collared cheetahs once a week by airplane. Female home ranges average 800m 2 and males over 400m 2. Males avoid each other in their use of overlapping ranges. By monitoring the movements of the cats, we are beginning to identify certain regions where they are more prone to travel, and what times of the month or year they frequent specific areas.

Our early research indicated that over 60% of the farmers did not use any form of livestock protection and that removal of cheetah was not in response to specific loss of livestock. Results from the survey showed that it is difficult to define a “cheetah problem,” because livestock loss specifically due to cheetah is often unknown and farmers’ perceptions of predation differ. Many farmers accept losing one or two calves a year, while others find any loss an economic hardship.

We have worked actively with the farming community to develop guidelines for reducing cheetah problems on farmlands by including integrated management techniques and strategies for predator control and overall farm management. Through extensive community work, most of Namibia is now aware that there are alternatives to livestock loss to predators. In addition to livestock management we actively promote the use of an electric fence around game farms deterring cheetahs from entering the game farm.

One of the programs we began in 1994 is the use of Livestock Guarding Dogs to Namibia. We imported Anatolian Shepherds and began a breeding program to donate dogs to farmers to protect small stock from predators. Anatolian Shepherds, originally from Turkey, have been used to protect livestock for over 6,000 years. Livestock guarding dogs provide a method of non-lethal predator control that protects the farmer’s livelihood while also conserving the predator species. Our Livestock Guarding Dog Program continues growing with over 120 dogs donated to farmers. Farmers have reported that because of their Anatolian Shepherd livestock loss has been reduced and farmers are very satisfied.

During the past 20 years more than 10,000 cheetah have been removed from Namibian farmlands, mostly indiscriminate removals versus catching a livestock killing “problem animal”. Live trapping has been the most damaging practice as it is most often indiscriminate, and not “problem animals”. Trapping increased in the 1960’s and 1970’s as zoos were looking for cheetahs and animal dealers profited. Most often trapping results in the removal of more animals than originally intended and entire family groups are removed.

Most of the world’s captive cheetahs originate from cheetahs imported from Namibia. Historic records and personal communication show that two main game dealers, Schultz’s from Zoopark Okahandja and Wolfgang Delfs, exported over 6,000 Namibian cheetahs from the 1950’s until a few years ago to zoos around the world. Only a handful of these cheetahs ever reproduced in captivity. Unknowingly, zoos were supporting dealers who created a market for farmers to live-trap cheetahs.

We have worked with farmers so that trapping of cheetahs targets only the animals responsible for livestock losses. These problem cheetahs could be used for ex-situ conservation responsibly through the development of a Global Master Plan, where cheetahs not suitable for re-release could be made available to supply new bloodlines in captivity. Cheetahs causing livestock losses but suitable for release back into the wild, are considered for relocation to re-establish or supplement populations in protected areas such as National Parks where domestic livestock does not occur.

A new land and wildlife management practice in Namibia is the formation of Conservancies. Conservancies consist of adjacent farms joining together in broad units and developing management strategies sensitive to their farmland ecosystem as a whole. Conservancies promote conservation through sustainable utilisation. The advantage of conservancy areas over game farms is that wildlife is free-ranging and can migrate. Also, this form of management promotes bio-diversity including predators. Besides sustainable use, conservancies consider protection, maintenance, rehabilitation, restoration, enhancement of ecosystems, and eco-tourism.

CCF is an active member of and situated within the Waterberg Conservancy, located in the heart of Namibia’s cheetah country. Our Conservancy is approximately 400,000 acres owned by eleven farmers surrounding the Waterberg Plateau Park. The Park is a national game reserve renowned for its rare and endangered species, including rhino, sable and roan.

CCF is contributing to eco-tourism as several Conservancy farmers have recently developed guesthouses, which are increasingly being supported by visitors to CCF’s Research and Education Centre. Our Conservancy guesthouses provide visitors with many unique and wonderful personal experiences. We are trying to market our conservation efforts within the Conservancy by recommending that groups traveling to Namibia stay within the Conservancy when visiting CCF.

Depending on the number of people in the group, the groups are divided and stay at several of the guest homes, with these Namibian families who are making a difference to Namibia’s wildlife, their habitat, and the surrounding farmland ecosystem that supports the cheetah. Each guest is provided with personal attention, private rooms, deluxe food and famous Namibian Hospitality! We recommend at least two nights to see our area and spend some time at CCF. Additionally, CCF has been involved in the planning and development of two “Cultural Villages” in the local Hereroland communal area.

During the past 10 years CCF has worked to educate farmers, teachers and the general public about the need and ways to conserve Namibia’s rich biodiversity, the role of predators such as the cheetah in healthy ecosystems and livestock management practices to reduce predator conflict. Over 75,000 school children have participated in one of CCF’s traveling educational programs. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) and Cheetah SSP zoos have supported many of these programs.

Over the past two years, we have re-built our Research and Education Center. The Education Center is designed to make learning fun whilst communicating both the threats to the wild cheetah and the research programs CCF undertakes to help ensure the cheetah’s survival. The graphics bring the visitor through the history of the cheetah to current time and shows the diminishing range. A phylogenetic tree shows were the cheetah, different from the other 36 cat species, first branched from its early relatives, 4 million years ago. The cheetah’s biology is highlighted. Exhibits show how the cheetah is adapted for the high-speed sprint and it specialised hunting techniques. The visitor is taken through the life cycle of the cheetah from birth to adulthood and the difficulties involved in its struggle for survival. A life size playtree has been built with an explanation to the importance of these trees in a cheetah territory. A live capture cage is under the tree with graphics explaining how farmers live cheetahs. Aspects of conservation are highlighted in the Future Room, bringing together the knowledge that people can make a difference today in species survival. A window looking into the classroom is a symbolic view of the future, as the window shows the students view into the Future Room, which shows a mini laboratory set up with microscope and other research equipment. This area highlights the need for continued research for humans and nature to co-exist together. CCF received an AZA Conservation Endowment Fund (CEF) matching grant to develop the exhibits for the Education Center.

His Excellency, Dr. Sam Nujoma, the President of Namibia dedicated CCF’s Research and Education Center on the 22nd of July 2000. This also marks CCF’s 10-year anniversary of active in-situ cheetah conservation in Namibia. With the assistance from “cheetah friends” throughout the world, Namibia is becoming proud of being the Cheetah Capitol of the World.

Through education, we can make a difference on this earth. Today, cheetah survival is in the hands of humans and we can make a future for the cheetah on our earth. 



Copyright 2000 by Laurie Marker. All rights reserved.