Cheetahs are the fastest of all land animals – they can reach speeds of up to 70 mph in short bursts. Despite their speed and hunting ability, cheetahs are endangered in Africa and Asia, and don’t breed especially well in captivity. In Africa, they can attack livestock herds for food, and that puts them in danger from the subsistence farmers who need to protect their flocks. We talk to a wildlife expert who lives in Namibia, Africa and who has studied cheetahs for decades, and a wildlife photographer who spent three years documenting the lives of a family of cheetahs and other animals, about this amazing cat and why it’s important to protect it for future generations.
- Dr. Laurie Marker, cheetah researcher, founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, author of A Future for Cheetahs
- Suzi Eszterhas, award-winning wildlife photographer, who created photographs for A Future for Cheetahs
16-09 Saving the Cheetahs
Marty Peterson: Cheetahs are incredible animals – and the fastest land animals. An adult cheetah can accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in just two or three seconds and reaches speeds of up to 70 miles per hour in short bursts. When they run, they cover 20 feet with only one paw touching the ground, and in full stride, all of their feet can leave the turf. Their eyesight is also amazing. A cheetah can see up to a mile as clearly as we can looking through binoculars. These are just a few of the facts found in the book titled A Future for Cheetahs by Dr. Laurie Marker, with beautiful wildlife photography by Suzi Eszterhas. To find out more about the cheetah, we talked to Dr. Marker from her home in Namibia, Africa. First, what makes the cheetah different from other big cats?
Dr. Laurie Marker: The cheetah is a totally different breed of cat. It is its own unique species. Of all the 37 species of cats, it’s the most unique of them, not only being the fastest of all the land animals. And with that speed it doesn’t really have anything dangerous or powerful to it: so it’s got small jaws; they’ve got semi-non-retractable claws – their claws are more like cleats for traction and running instead of sharp, needle-like claws; and their teeth are small so they really have speed and they’re an animal that believes in flight versus fight, so they’re not an aggressive animal. And that’s what makes them quite a bit different than the other big cats which many of them are more aggressive in the way that they actually need to live and hunt.
Peterson: That lack of aggressiveness has made cheetahs a favorite of monarchs and the wealthy in bygone eras…
Marker: They’re more easily tamed because they are smaller of the big cats, so they’re about the size of a large breed of dog, let us say, and they don’t have these aggressive type behaviors. And with that, they were found to be easily tamed bout 5,000 years ago when kings, emperors, and princes started having them to protect their royal thrones, and then going into teaching them how to hunt with them like a sport where they would go out and the cheetah would bring down prey and then they would revere the animal for making the kill, and they would celebrate by eating the cheetah’s kill. So, with that, though, the cheetah’s an animal that’s never bred well in captivity so although they are easily tamed, they’re not an animal that’s done well in captivity.
Peterson: Marker says that today, there are only about 15-hundred cheetahs in zoos around the world, and since they don’t breed that well in captivity, only 150 cubs are born there – barely enough to sustain the captive population. And she says that there are fewer and fewer cheetahs surviving in the wild for various reasons, one of which is the illegal trade in wild animals…
Marker: There are only about 10,000 cheetahs left. They’re found in about 24 countries in Africa, and the last of the Asian cheetahs are found in Iran, where there are less than 100 cheetahs there. And from our base in Namibia, which has the last large remaining population, we have around 3,500 cheetahs and we work with all the other cheetah-range countries training their biologists and their community-based educators to work with communities so that they can implement similar programs like we’ve developed here in Namibia. So our programs have actually become the model in trying to develop programs to help save the cheetah.
Peterson: A side effect of their speed is that cheetahs have to stop and cool off after a chase and a kill, which makes their catch easy pickings for other animals…
Marker: They only have a very short distance chance of actually making their kill so they’re very strategic in the way that they utilize that great speed. And their speed, although we always think of them running straight forward or ahead – they’re actually very fast in an aerodynamic way – but also as an acrobat. So I always think of them more as a ballerina: they can turn and dart very acrobatically at a very fast speed as well. But with this, as they’ve made their kill – they’re exhausted after making a kill – they’re also the best hunter in Africa. And all the other predators can actually take the prey away from the cheetah. And so the cheetah hunts a lot and loses a lot of its kills to other, large predators like lions, hyenas, leopards, even jackals, and vultures. So it is quite a problem for the cheetah being fast, but not aggressive and dangerous.
Peterson: In the book, there are beautiful photographs from the birth of cubs through adulthood, as well as cheetahs chasing down prey. Photographer Suzi Eszterhas says that in order to capture those pictures, she had to make herself part of the scenery…
Suzi Eszterhas: Cheetahs are actually in the forest areas. They are actually already used to vehicles, and I worked in a Jeep the whole time. So when you’re out on safari, the Jeeps almost sort of work as a blind in the fact that they don’t frighten animals. If you step outside the vehicle, the animals get frightened. But as long as you stay inside, the animals are pretty relaxed. Now that doesn’t mean that they’ll allow you to photograph them at their den site, but the female that I worked with, I worked with her for a couple of weeks while she was pregnant, she was very used to me. You know, when you follow an animal from sunrise to sunset, if you do it in a very respectful manner and keep your distance, they learn that you’re not going to harass them or get in their way and they just sort of don’t notice that you’re there anymore. You sort of become a boulder in their landscape. And that’s what happened with her. So she allowed me to photograph her at her den site, you know when they would be normally quite secretive and shy, she was very relaxed with me.
Peterson: Esterhaus is a veteran, award-winning wildlife photographer, and her work has appeared in publications such as Time, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, and BBC Wildlife, to name a few. But even she had a transition to make when she went to Africa for three years to work on the book, A Future for Cheetahs…
Eszterhas: I actually didn’t intend to stay three years. I intended to just stay for a matter of a couple of months. So for me, I fell in love with the place, I fell in love with the project and I didn’t just work on cheetahs during those three years. I worked on other animals as well. Maasai Mara is a place that you just sort of dream of as a wildlife photographer. You’ve got loads of different predators to work with, you have the wildebeest migration, so it was very easy to be tempted to stay that long. And when you’re out there doing what you love to do, it’s amazing what you’ll tolerate in terms of harsh living. I lived without a toilet for that period of time and taking showers in trees, hanging from a tree that I would heat the water over a fire at night. I did have a bush camp guy that was with me in camp, and that was mostly for security reasons, but also to help around and cook my food while I was out with the animals all day. So it was pretty interesting living, but I loved it and I loved living out there. I didn’t have any fences around my camp so there were animals in camp almost every night and sometimes it was leopard and hyena, and I had situations where I watched leopard mating by my fire when I was already inside the tent.
Peterson: The purpose of the book is to educate the public about cheetahs and their lives in the wild. But it’s also to raise money for the Cheetah Conservation Fund or “CCF.” Dr. Marker is the founder and executive director of the international non-profit, and she says they have programs in Africa that help the farmers there understand how important the cheetah is to the eco-system of the region. To keep the peace between predators and prey, they teach them new ways of farming to keep predators away…
Marker: Cheetahs are an animal that don’t do that well in protective game reserves and with that, they get pushed out because of lions and hyenas. And, therefore, they end up oftentimes in subsistence farming areas where there is just livestock. And there then becomes livestock losses or human-wildlife conflict which becomes a problem. And we work together with farming communities in what are called “conservancies” where we encourage the communities to actually save enough grass and have an “integrated system” of wildlife on their land and that’s then what the cheetahs and other predators can hunt. And then by managing and protecting their livestock by taking care of them during calving season, and having corrals, using a herder, using a livestock guarding dog, then their livestock can be taken care of and cheetahs and other predators are not in direct conflict with the livestock farmers by having enough wildlife there. And that’s called an integrated system. And here in Namibia, we call these conservancies.
Peterson: A program featured in the book shows how the CCF raises two special ancient breeds of dogs from Turkey – the Anatolian Shepherd and the Kangal — and gives them to Namibian farmers to protect their herds. These breeds have been bred for this purpose for more than 6-thousand years, using their loud barks and imposing stature to scare off would-be predators like the cheetah. Marker says that the CCF programs are models for other regions where predators and farmers are at odds, like the coyote here in the US. Another project studies the cheetah on a biological level in order to find ways of keeping these marvelous creatures healthy in captivity…
Marker: We actually looked at the health of wild cheetahs, which are much healthier than many of the captive animals. And by understanding what their basic biology is through collecting blood on them and understanding their stress levels, we’ve been able to actually help share that information with people who had cheetahs in captivity and try to get their management and their husbandry in better shape. The zoos, at least in the United States, have done a very good job, as well as throughout Europe, in actually taking good care of their animals. But because of our basic work that we’ve done in systematically collecting samples from animals, opportunistically we’ve been able to actually share much more about the overall health of what a free-ranging, wild cheetah actually looks like.
Peterson: How can the public help to save cheetahs in the wild and captivity? Dr. Laurie Marker and Suzi Eszterhas encourage listeners to pick up their book, A Future for Cheetahs on their website, cheetah.org, and on amazon.com. A significant portion of the proceeds from each sale will go to the CCF to be used for their research and projects. You can also visit cheetah.org to find out how you can adopt a cheetah, and learn more about their lives and habitats. For information about all of guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.
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