The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) was founded in 1990 “to be an internationally recognised centre of excellence in research and education on cheetahs and their ecosystems, working with all stakeholders to achieve best practice in the conservation and management of the world’s cheetahs”. Founder and Director of the CCF, Laurie Marker, provided the following information on the CCF’s first ten years in Namibia.
The cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, is one of Namibia’s and the world’s most endangered species. When the CCF was founded 10 years ago, the objective was to create a cheetah conservancy for the long-term survival of free-ranging cheetah in Namibia and elsewhere in Africa. Namibia was chosen as a base for operations because it has the world’s largest stronghold of free-ranging cheetah, 95% of which live on farmlands. There are between 2 000 and 3 000 wild cheetah in Namibia, representing one-fifth of the total world population of approximately 12 500.
The CCF’s permanent base of operations in Namibia and home to the International Cheetah Conservation, Re-search and Education centres and Wilderness Camp is on the farm Elandsvreugde, situated 44 km from Otjiwarongo, west of the Waterberg Plateau Park, a national reserve dedicated to rare and endangered species. The CCF is an active member of the Waterberg Conservancy, which encompasses over 200 000 ha of private farmland surrounding the Waterberg Plateau Park. This is prime cheetah habitat and is inhabited by farmers who believe in conservation ethics.
The major threat to cheetah on commercial farmlands is that because these animals prey on livestock and game, they are in constant conflict with farmers, for whom the simplest option is often to kill them. An additional factor is the low success rate of breeding cheetah in captivity. The maintenance of healthy, viable wild populations, therefore, depends on a system of ecologically managed farmland, prey species management, and habitat stability. The CCF’s focus is to work with livestock farming communities in order to develop ways of reducing conflict. This is achieved by devising a conservation plan that secures habitat for the species while accommodating the farmers’ land-use needs.
Comprehensive field research
The Fund conducts field research to gather data on distribution, behaviour, biology, demographics and overall health of the cheetah population. Farmers participate in the CCF’s research through live capture of cheetah on their farms and assist in collecting biological samples and measurements, ear-tagging, radio-collaring, and release, and reporting other cheetah-livestock interactions.
A full set of measurements, blood samples and skin biopsies are taken on all animals, as well as semen samples from male animals. The information gathered from the samples is used to monitor the genetics, virology and morphology of the species and to contribute to a genome resource bank. The CCF collaborates with other researchers and institutions from the United States, Europe, Namibia and South Africa. This collaboration has allowed experts in genetics, reproduction, veterinary medicine, pathology and conservation to work with the CCF, thus expanding the use of this valuable data. To date over 400 cheetah have been sampled and an extensive database has been developed, with new data continually being added.
During the six years of radio-telemetry research, over 40 cheetah have been radio-collared. The radio-collared animals have provided information on more than just the animal itself, as some of the females have cubs and most of the males are part of coalitions (male groups). Radio-collared animals are tracked weekly by fixed-wing aeroplane. Radio-telemetry is a powerful tool and is important to the CCF’s work with the farming community.
The data collected from the tracking is used to show the farmers the actual movements of cheetah across their land. The information collected also illustrates where cheetahs are in relation to the farmer’s calving herds, indicating areas on farms that attract cheetahs and the duration of time spent in an area. Furthermore, it demonstrates to farmers that cheetahs range over large distances and that an individual animal may be seen on many farms.
Alternative management practices
CCF researchers also develop, test and promote alternative land management practices such as non-lethal predator controls, relocation of problem cheetahs, and ecotourism. The CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dog Programme has continued to grow, with over 120 Anatolian Shepherd Livestock Guarding Dogs now working with livestock. These dogs provide a method of non-lethal predator control that protects the farmer’s livestock while also conserving the cheetah. The dogs continue to be monitored by the CCF.
The CCF’s Community Development Officer works closely with Namibian communal farmers. The CCF believes that the conservation programmes and efforts will not succeed if the target communities do not benefit from them. With this in mind, the CCF has been actively involved in the development of conservation programmes in the Otjozondjupa and Omaheke regions.
Educational and research centres
The CCF conducts both international and Namibian educational programmes to raise awareness of the cheetah’s endangered status. In addition to taking interns from the Polytechnic, there is now a formal collaboration between the CCF and the University of Namibia. The CCF’s Education Centre and Wilderness Camp host school and community groups, exposing them to different environmental education activities, which include a nature trail, games and other environmental awareness activities. Learners and visitors from various regions visit the Centre.
July 22 marked an important milestone in the CCF’s history, when the President of the Republic of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, who is the CCF’s International Patron, dedicated the CCF’s new Haas Family Cheetah Research Centre and the Carl and Cathryn Hilker Education Centre.
The Research Centre houses a veterinary clinic, laboratory and the main offices. A new Visitor’s Centre building includes a large meeting room, a small café and catering kitchen and a gift shop. The Education Centre provides students, visitors and farmers the opportunity to learn more about the behaviour and biology of Namibian cheetah, and the ecosystem that supports Africa’s most endangered cat species.
The renovated Centre, which leads onto a landscaped courtyard with gardens, presents modern displays and interactive activities for visitors and school groups, including an outdoors “predator playground”, a learning area for children of all ages.
The graphics in the Education Centre inform the visitor on the history of the cheetah from pre-history to present-day and its life cycle from birth to adulthood and illustrate the difficulties involved in its struggle for survival. Exhibits show how cheetahs are adapted for high-speed sprinting and specialised hunting techniques. A life-size play tree, the territorial and social focal point of a particular group of cheetah that they have marked and which also serves as a lookout point, has been reproduced, with graphics explaining the importance of the play tree in the cheetah’s territorial marking behaviour. A trap cage is placed underneath the tree with graphics explaining how farmers live-trap cheetahs under these trees.
Continuing through the Centre visitors learn about the role of cheetahs within their ecosystem and how farmers can live with cheetahs on their land using non-lethal predator control methods. Other aspects of conservation are highlighted in the Future Room, emphasising that people can make a difference in species survival. A window looks from the Future Room into the Environmental Classroom, symbolising a view of the cheetah’s future and the education and attitudes of our next generation. From the classroom window, students view the future room, where a mini-laboratory is equipped with a microscope and other research equipment. This area highlights the need for continued research for humans and nature to co-exist together.
This article appeared in the 2001 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.