Dogs Saving Cheetahs
by Nancy Black
Top Photo by Andrew Harrington
Second Photo Courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Foundation
One late afternoon back in the summer of 1985, a farmer in Namibia, Africa, was gathering his grazing herd of goats with their newborns back to their kraal for the night. He spotted one goat down in the distance with a cheetah over it, and he quickly threw his gun up and shot and killed this predator, leaving her cubs alone to fend for themselves. After suffering many losses of his herd to cheetahs over the last few years, he’s also trapped several others. His farming neighbors were also trapping and killing cheetahs—even if they only suffered few losses—just to rid the area of this “vermin.” This was a tragic scene occurring throughout the 1980s, with half the cheetah’s population in Namibia taken out by farmers. Over 7,000 were gone.
Who knew at the time that dogs, education, and a woman named Dr. Laurie Marker, along with her team at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) could turn this scenario around, and that by 2014, the cheetah population in Namibia would be stabilized. Dr. Marker founded the nonprofit CCF in 1990 in the heart of Namibia’s cheetah country.
Many of the farmers and their children who had been trapping the cheetahs now strive to protect these amazing and graceful creatures. Can the success of the forward-thinking and innovative ideas and techniques CCF is using to protect cheetahs here (centered around the success of their highly acclaimed livestock guard dog program) spread throughout the cheetah’s remaining range? And perhaps even to other species and habitats throughout the world, enabling people and wildlife to peacefully coexist?
The cheetah reaches speeds of up to 70 mph, in short bursts, to catch prey, but it’s also in its own race against time. Extinction is its certain fate unless people change the way they are living now. Once ranging throughout Africa and Asia, wild cheetahs have decreased in number over the past 100 years from 100,000 to the approximately 10,000 remaining today. Wildlife in Africa and other growing population centers are suffering dramatic declines in their numbers as the human population increases. As the size of wildlife’s natural habitat shrinks, it also becomes degraded and fragmented as more land is cleared for logging, agriculture, livestock and other types of human encroachment into once pristine and ecologically balanced regions.
“If we are going to save the cheetah, first we must change the way we are living,” said Dr. Marker. “The solution lies in addressing all the needs and problems as a whole and creating a balance that not only protects wildlife and habitats, but improves peoples’ incomes and quality of life.”
Cheetahs in national parks are more likely to be in competition with larger, more aggressive predators who might steal their prey or kill their young. That’s why 90 percent of the 10,000 cheetahs remaining in the wild are found outside protected areas, in areas where human populations live.
CCF’s compound in Namibia includes more than 100,000 acres of integrated wildlife and livestock grazing lands, a model farm, and other related agricultural enterprises. Dr. Marker’s interest in creating this balance led her to think about the guarding dogs used in Turkey for thousands of years to protect sheep from wolves and bears. She knew from talking with local farmers that if a nonlethal option for controlling predators were available to them, they would prefer it to their guns. So in 1994, CCF launched its Livestock Guarding Dog program by importing and raising 10 Anatolian shepherd puppies from the U.S., and later Kangal dogs from Turkey, specifically for the purpose of protecting small stock in Namibia.
The dogs do not herd livestock, but rather place themselves between their herd and any predator that might appear. The dogs grow large in size and have an exceptionally loud bark, which in most cases is enough to discourage the predator and force it to look elsewhere for a meal. In the 20 years since CCF began its program, nearly 600 dogs have been placed with both commercial and communal farm operations at little or no cost to the farmers. CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dogs are very popular and considered to be extremely effective. Namibian farmers employing a CCF Livestock Guarding Dog report a drop of 80 percent or more in losses due to predation, all but eliminating the need to trap or kill cheetahs.
CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dogs are born and raised in the model farm’s goat pens, so from day one they are bonding with the animals they’re charged with protecting. At 10 weeks of age they go to their new home and are placed with a farmer’s herd of goats to continue their training period. When bonded to their herd, the dogs are very protective and attentive to “their” goats and accompany the grazing goats out into the field each day. The goats are relaxed and quickly learn to trust the dogs. If a cheetah approaches and a warning bark alone is not enough to scare the big cat away, the dogs will attack and fight in defense of their goats.
In order to receive a dog, a farmer must apply for a puppy in advance, and then the farm is inspected and approved by CCF. The farmers are provided with training on “puppy day” to teach them how to continue training and caring for their dog on the farm. CCF educators visit the farms regularly until the puppies reach 18 months of age, and then yearly after that to make sure that their training continues and they are well cared for. CCF also provides vaccinations and veterinary care.
CCF’s Other Dogs
Of course, dogs are well known for a large variety of human-assistance needs, from traditional herding to modern uses in narcotics and bomb detection, search and rescue, and as therapy and assistance dogs and guiding the blind. More recently, dogs are being trained to help wildlife biologists find such things as cryptic animals, rare plants, and other organics, as well as scat (poop) from bears to whales. All of these are very hard for humans to find, and a lot can be gained scientifically from studying samples.
CCF has their own scat dogs, a Border Collie rescue named Finn and a Springer Spaniel named Tiger. They were brought to Namibia under Dr. Marker’s guidance to detect cheetah scat. Once the dogs find scat, it is collected and analyzed to provide information on diet, parasites, and hormones that determine gender, health, and stress levels. DNA is used to identify relationships among animals and identify individuals. The dogs are trained only to detect cheetah scat and will sit when it is located.
Both the livestock guarding and scat detection dog programs provide work that the dogs can accomplish far more efficiently than humans can. Dogs are amazing animals in their own right, but at CCF they are also helping to save cheetahs and assist with critical research. A secondary result of farmers using dogs is that their children can now go to school instead of watching the herd. At school, the children are then exposed to CCF programs that teach them about the interconnection among creatures and their habitats and about cheetahs and their value to the ecosystem and the economy. And this leads to more positive wildlife human interactions for future generations.
And who would guess that man’s best friend can also be best friends with a cheetah?
“In 2015 as CCF marks its 25th anniversary, we are more convinced than ever that dogs are man’s best friend for a very good reason. They have the ability to think and act independently and can recognize our own limited abilities to properly care for livestock. They are smart, attentive, and so protective! Whether or not they are aware, they are also the cheetah’s best ally, too,” said Dr. Marker.
CCF’s dogs have already prevented the decline of cheetahs in one part of Africa, and their work is just beginning in others. Indeed, CCF’s concepts are spreading to other nations on the continent, with two litters of livestock-guarding puppies recently going to Tanzania. CCF and other conservation organizations that also work with local people and endangered animals throughout the world are sharing ideas through such organizations as the Wildlife Conservation Network (Wildnet.org), which gathers these conservationists together for workshops and holds a national conference open to the public each fall in San Francisco. Conservationists like Dr. Laurie Marker are the true heroes and provide hope that cheetahs, as well as many other animals, will not only exist in zoos and film documentaries, but can also remain wild and coexist with humans in a richly diverse, sustainable habitat.
For more information about Dr. Marker, CCF and its programs, please visit www.cheetah.org. Considering sponsoring a dog to help Cheetahs.