The Cheetah Think Tank

From National Geographic News Watch:
At the sounds of the horn, 5 cheetah run behind the truck in anticipation of a meal

The Cheetah Conservation Fund, headquartered in Otjiworongo, Namibia, is a recognized leader in the field of big cat conservation.  CCF is known for many projects, especially their captive cheetah population which number over fifty, some that can be returned to the wild, some that, for a variety of circumstances, cannot.  This creates the specialized need of caring for and feeding each cheetah.  The cheetah must run, and they must eat.

Fresh donkey meat is the meal of the day for the cheetah at CCF

I’m in the back of a pickup (bakkie as its known in Africa) stained with blood.  The young ecologists, two American volunteers and myself, drive out to the area of CCF’s farm where the cheetah live.  Far from being fenced off in a tight enclosure, the cats reside in a vast area, hidden among the natural bush and grassland. The pickup is filled with freshly chopped up donkey meat, myself, another researcher, and a couple of wooden poles just in case one of the cheetah venture a little too close.  “Come come come COME!” she shouts as we drive through the bush and I make feeble attempts at steadying my camera over the rough road.  The horn is honked repeatedly and then, five cheetah appear out of nowhere, trotting and galloping behind the truck.  They aren’t at full speed.  While it feels like we’re traveling over 30mph, the cheetah are clearly slowing themselves down for us, occasionally tempted to overtake the truck.  After they trot for a good distance, we stop and the five cats pace around the rear, impatiently eyeing us and each other.  One by one, a piece of meat is tossed out and each of the big cats take their share without a fight but with loud, chilling warning growls.  They each run off to eat in seclusion.

Four male cheetah took down this animal just hours before our arrival

Just few miles down the road, researchers are stationed in the Bellebenno 4,000 hectare camp to follow the progress of four male cheetah in a soft release area.  There is good news this morning, the brothers made a kill a few hours ago.  Ryan Sucaet, Head of Cheetah Re-Introductions took us to the carcass.  Viewing the kill up close is extraordinary, if one can stand the flies (which by this point in my travels I’ve acclimatized).  The teeth marks on the throat of the prey do not penetrate the skin.  Deep but not punctured, the cheetah crushes the windpipe, suffocating its prey.  With this successful period in the soft-release area, the four have proven they can be safely released.  Currently, CCF is searching for a suitable location for these males.

Closeup view of the cheetah’s teeth imprints illustrate how they suffocate their prey
Enthusiastic Namibian kids learn about the cheetah

Founded during Namibia’s first year as an independent nation in 1990, CCF is a must-visit for anyone interested in the cheetah. The organization has done very well establishing a tourism business while maintaining 52 captive cheetah, as well as a research lab and a museum. The group also keeps busy hosting bus-loads of school children and delegates from all over the globe who come for their seminars on wildlife management. BushBlok, their model farm where feta cheese is produced and sold under the CCF name, the volunteer program and the livestock guard dog breeding… one gets dizzy just thinking about all their projects working toward the cheetah’s survival.

Dr. Laurie Marker checks the weight and health of one of CCF’s Ambassador Cheetah Cubs
Cheetah Conservation Fund’s model farm

Founder and Director, Dr. Laurie Marker took some time from her busy schedule to give me a tour of a portion of their facilities, which included the Anatolian Shepherd’s new puppies, and their herd of goats, which produce CCF’s branded feta cheese.

This puppy will grow to protect livestock from predators on farms in Namibia

If you are following any story in the news regarding the cheetah, you’ve seen Dr. Marker’s name along with Cheetah Conservation Fund.  They act as advisors on many international initiatives and are asked to comment on topics such as the controversial issue regarding the recent removal of three cheetah cubs from the Mara Conservancy in Kenya and the recently stalled reintroduction of cheetah to India. Regarding the reintroduction of cheetah to India, while the Supreme Court has put an indefinite hold on the project, it is still unclear if the project may resume at some point.  Throughout my travels in Southern Africa I was privy to many an off-the-record chat wherein people voiced strong concerns over the legitimacy of introducing another big cat to a country which is already struggling to save its lion and tiger populations, and whether there is an established, sustainable prey base.  One can only hope that placing the project on hold, or suspending it altogether, will mean a strengthening of existing big cat conservation initiatives in India resulting from this renewed publicity.  You can read CCF’s official statement here: CCF Statement on Indian Supreme Court Reports

Gail gives a lecture during one of CCF’s many international courses

Back to Namibia…. During a lunch break at CCF’s International Conservation Biology Course, Gail Potgieter, Livestock Guarding Dog & Human/ Wildlife Conflict Coordinator, gave me a rundown on the issues surrounding game farms and the need for research on the economic impact of predation on the Southern African hunting industry.  Instead of farming with domestic stock, a game farm is a breeding or hunting farm stocked with wildlife such as kudu, wildebeest, roan, sable, etc.  There is a tension between the predators roaming through and the farmer since their land is filled with natural prey.  Gail stresses to me the need for more research on the actual statistics of predation so that proactive measures can be put in place that benefit both sides rather than reactionary conflict.  She suggests more cooperation between neighboring game farms and expanding of conservancies is a good place to start.  According to Gail, “We must change the value (of cheetah), if we change the value first, then perceptions change.”  CCF stands as a hub for conversations like these, a cheetah think-tank if you can imagine, where dialogue is the first step and the cornerstone to successful human-cheetah co-existence.

CCF’s International Conservation Biology Course

All images, video & text: Marcy Mendelson © 2012 / Cheetah-Watch.com

Goats on CCF’s Model Farm
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