Dr. Laurie Marker reflects on the work of the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 2008This has been an award winning year for me and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), the organisation I founded in 1990. CCF is a Namibian non-profit trust, with its International Research and Education Centre near Otjiwarongo.
My conservation research and education team undertakes scientific research regarding cheetah and their habitat, assists in the management of captive and free-ranging cheetah throughout the world, maintains a major public conservation awareness and education programme for local and international communities and school groups, and conducts community conservation and predator conflict resolution programmes.
Dr. Laurie Marker
In November I was honoured by the Tech Museum in San Jose, California. Their annual Tech Awards, highlighting ‘Technology Benefiting Humanity' is one of the premier annual humanitarian awards programmes in the world. It recognises technical solutions that benefit humanity and addresses the most critical issues facing our planet and its people. The awards programme honours 25 scientists and innovators annually from over 700 nominations from 68 countries. I was chosen for our CCF Bush, habitat restoration project as one of the five Laureates for the prestigious Intel Environment Award, and was the overall winner of this Intel Environmental Award.
CCF Bush is an innovative way of using thickened bush (known as bush encroachment) as a source of fuel and energy and to restore habitat. The unwanted proliferation of some species of thorn bush that take over from native grasses on previously open savannah land is a critical issue for Namibia. Productivity in nearly one third of Namibia's farmlands has significantly decreased over the last 30 years, resulting in a reduction of the carrying capacity (less grazing) of the land for livestock and wildlife. Bush that is too dense causes problems for cheetahs by reducing hunting efficiency, as well as altering the abundance and distribution of prey species. Reduced farmer tolerance of livestock predation follows due to increased economic problems, and since they can't reduce the bush, farmers catch cheetahs. In addition, the thorns on bushes can seriously injure the cheetahs, sometimes causing eye damage and blindness.
CCF Bush's simple process includes selective field harvesting and chipping of bush which is taken into our processing plant in Otjiwarongo where a high-pressure extrusion process converts the thickened thorn bush into a clean-burning fuel log, called BushBlok. BushBlok, which carries the highest level of forest certification, known as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified, is an economically viable alternative to existing products such as firewood, coal, lump charcoal and charcoal briquettes. Clearing thickened bush will help restore millions of hectares of Namibian savannah to its original state and will improve the habitat for both the cheetah and its prey.
CCF is dedicated to the long-term survival of the cheetah and its ecosystems. With this vision always at the forefront of all that we do, CCF's multi-disciplinary approach includes a variety of programmes to help farmers to live in harmony with nature and predators. CCF's conservation programmes supported by research include a model farm and training in non-lethal livestock management, as well as business initiatives that assist habitat restoration and provide economic benefit to the farming communities which have cheetahs on their lands.
CCF's work with the livestock farming communities is achieved by devising conservation plans that secure habitats for the species, while still accommodating farmers' land use needs. But to develop these plans, we need to know just how many cheetahs there are and how they use or live in the habitat they still have available. CCF's long-term research with the help of Earthwatch volunteers has been working to understand these critical questions. And from our Namibian base, we can use the information learned to assist other cheetah range countries.
For the past three years CCF has been using a camera trap census method to help answer these questions. In 2006 and 2007, CCF completed a three-month cheetah population survey within the Waterberg Conservancy to estimate the abundance and density of cheetahs. To gain the results of the 2006 survey, two remote triggered cameras were used at 14 trap stations, and more than 350 rolls of film were taken. Of these exposures, 467 (seven per cent) were cheetah pictures that have been incorporated into an extensive database. The photos were taken over a period of 1,209 trap nights, at a rate of one cheetah per three trap nights. Preliminary results indicate an average density of 4.2 cheetahs/1000km2 in the Waterberg Conservancy area.
To assess the validity of the above indirect census technique, camera trap results have been calibrated with minimum known densities from long-term radio-tracking studies carried out by CCF for 10 years (from 1993-2003) in the same research study area (many Earthwatch volunteers will remember fun times helping in the radio-tracking). In addition, spoor frequency studies carried out since 1994 by CCF in the Waterberg Conservancy area have been analysed and contribute to what we know about the cheetah population in this area.
So with the help of modern technology in the form of the humble camera, the secrets of the number and trend of the Namibian cheetah population are finally being revealed. In 2008 CCF conducted another survey around the Waterberg Conservancy, as well as taking these studies to the Sandveld Conservancy just south of the Waterberg Plateau.
Although current methods are very promising, even more innovative methods await us in the future. DNA can also be extracted from scat. At present, DNA-based methods for identifying individual cheetahs using scat samples are in the process of being developed, as CCF recently opened its genetics lab. CCF's earlier research, using micro-satellites, has identified individual cheetahs using DNA derived from blood samples. In CCF's new genetics laboratory, we will be developing techniques to extract and analyse DNA from faeces, which will have an enormous potential for conducting accurate field census methods for cheetahs. To assist our efforts to find more wild cheetah scat, CCF has employed the use of man's best friend, in the form of a "sniffer" dog to locate scat samples in the field. This method will be trialled in Namibia in 2009.
Cheetah conservation is about much more than the cheetah; it is about biodiversity conservation, ensuring that the life-support systems are maintained, and about supporting people living with cheetah and other carnivores so that their livelihoods are enhanced, not threatened. CCF continues to conduct groundbreaking science and works with renowned international partners in a variety of areas to do so. Although saving habitat is the ultimate goal in saving cheetahs, understanding all aspects of the cheetah's biology, physiology and ecological needs is critical to saving the cheetah for future generations.
Read more about the Cheetah Conservation Fund.