Conservation Hero: Dr. Laurie Marker

Image credit: Courtesy of the Cheetah Conservation Fund

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Conservation Hero: Dr. Laurie Marker

After raising a cheetah named Khayam from birth, Dr. Laurie Marker knew she wanted to dedicate her life to saving this species. It all began by accident. After moving from California to Oregon to start a winery, Dr. Marker needed a job while growing her new business. She began work at the Wildlife Safari, and there she found herself captivated by cheetahs.

In her sixteen years at the Wildlife Safari, Dr. Marker helped develop one of the most successful captive breeding centers in North America for cheetahs. Yet, she felt she needed to expand her efforts if she was to save this important species.

Both the African cheetah and the Asiatic cheetah are vital to their ecosystems. As apex predators, they keep grazing animal populations in check. This helps preserve plant life and mitigates desertification. However, in the last hundred years, cheetah populations have decreased by 90%.

In 1977, Dr. Marker traveled to South West Africa with Khayam to see if a captive-born cheetah could learn how to hunt. However, this trip’s focus shifted when they discovered the biggest contributor to the species’ decline. Farmers were trapping and shooting cheetahs at an alarming rate, considering them vermin for killing off their livestock. Research shows that in the 1980s, farmers killed more than 7,000 cheetahs, cutting the population in half.

When Namibia gained its independence in 1990, Dr. Marker set up the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). The organization began interviewing farmers about why they poached cheetahs. She went door-to-door and found out that even losing one goat to a cheetah could lead to economic disaster. Wanting to find a solution to this problem, Dr. Marker realized she couldn’t get farmers to stop killing cheetahs unless she could find a way to help with their livelihoods.

The answer was twofold. Dr. Marker needed to educate the farmers about cheetahs while also finding ways to grow the economy of the people living alongside the animals. The solution ended up being the Livestock Guarding Program. The CCF brought in Kangal and Anatolian Shepherds to guard livestock. Originally from Turkey, these dog breeds have been protecting herds for over 6,000 years. All the farmers who used the dogs to thwart cheetahs had an 80-100% livestock survival rate. In addition, CCF offered teachings on sustainable land-use techniques and how to start alternative income streams, like goat creameries.

Dr. Marker has proven that wildlife conservation and economic growth can go hand-in-hand.  Initiatives that heal our ecosystem can be a great source of abundance. She has shown that one of the best ways to protect and ensure endangered species survival is to listen and educate those who live in the same habitat.

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