It’s a fast cat.
When you grind down to the very essence of the animal, the things that everybody knows, this is what you’re left with: elephants have trunks, giraffes have long necks, frogs croak and crocodiles smile. The cheetah is a fast cat. In fact, it’s the fastest cat, and the fastest land animal on the planet, clocking a top speed of 110 km/h, or about 68 mph.
It has a body that is built for speed, with lithe, slender limbs, a narrow torso, a small head and a long, muscular tail that acts like a rudder, allowing it to make sharp turns at high velocity. The creature is as refined a machine as nature can make, as this High Definition National Geographic footage shows:
Today marks the fifth celebration of International Cheetah Day, which was instituted by Planet Experts’ newest organization, the Cheetah Conservation Fund. The CCF was founded by Dr. Laurie Marker, who has been an advocate for the endangered animals for most of her life. International Cheetah Day is set on the birthday of Khayam, the cheetah that Dr. Marker raised and brought to Namibia in 1977 in hopes of teaching her how to hunt for herself.
I learned that story and more in a recent interview I conducted with Dr. Marker. So now, in honor of Khayam and cheetahs the world over, I am sharing those stories with you.
1) The Cheetah Is the Oldest Cat on Earth
They’re not only the fastest, they’re also the oldest of the Earth’s 37 feline species. If you really want to get technical about it, they’re the fastest, the oldest and also the most endangered (but we’ll cover that in the next section).
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) has existed for over three million years, and it has not been an easy journey to the present day. About 15,000 years ago, the cheetah experienced what is known as a “genetic bottleneck.” Nearly the entire species was wiped out, to the point that today all cheetahs are descended from just 10 individuals. This has proven increasingly problematic for the cheetah as anthropogenic obstacles have prevented it from broadening its limited gene pool.
“As their numbers get more and more reduced,” says Dr. Marker, “there’s less variation within the few remaining that there are. And most of these populations left in Africa are fragments. There aren’t very many, and in the few areas that they are, they can’t get to each other – limiting their genetic diversity that much more.”
2) The Cheetah Is the Most Endangered Cat on Earth
In the early 1900s there were about 100,000 cheetahs in the world. Today there are less than 10,000 spread out over Africa and the Middle East. Otjiwarongo, Namibia, known as “the cheetah capital of the world,” boasts a population of 4,000. In Iran, there are less than 100 left.
“Most of the populations remaining throughout Africa are found outside protected areas,” said Dr. Marker, “which puts them in conflict with humans [and] livestock.”
When Dr. Marker brought Khayam to Namibia, the goal was to hopefully retrain the captive-born cheetah to hunt for herself. Though ultimately successful, Marker learned firsthand how wild cheetahs were being decimated by local farmers.
Cheetahs can attack livestock that graze in the open, giving farmers no recourse but to shoot them on sight. As many as 900 cheetahs were being trapped or shot every year. “Farmers were killing cheetahs like flies,” said Marker.
The problem, she says, is that most cheetah populations are already small and are “basically breeding to extinction” because their ranges are separated from each other.
“And then the conflict with the humans and their livestock is so great that, as people take over more and more of the landscape in Africa, there’s going to be less and less areas for the cheetahs to live in.”
3) But Man and the Cheetah Can Coexist, Thanks to Man’s Best Friend
Since founding the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990, Dr. Marker has endeavored to bring the wild and the developed worlds into harmony with each other.
“Our motto has always been, ‘We can work together,’” she explains. “We’ve developed that philosophy through working together here in Namibia for the past 25 years.”
Part of that work involves changing farmers’ mindsets about cheetahs, but part of it has also been recognizing that farmers are essential to both the economy and the health of the human population. “Because farmers feed the world,” says Dr. Marker.
But in order to both protect that societal keystone and preserve the remaining cheetahs, the killings had to stop. So CCF developed a program to breed livestock-guarding dogs that the Fund then donates to farmers for free.
CCF researched canines that would be particularly suitable for Namibia’s climate and terrain and settled on the Anatolian shepherd and Kangal, two breeds that have been used in Turkey for around 5,000 years. Forming exceptionally deep bonds with the animals they protect, these big dogs are perfect for keeping cheetahs – a mostly non-aggressive species – at bay.
Among the CCF’s strategic programs is the mission to promote “sustainable development of the Namibian economy.” By donating the dogs, CCF achieves that in a number of ways: 1) It prevents cheetahs from preying on farmers’ livestock. 2) It prevents other animals from preying on the livestock (jackals, leopards, caracals). 3) It prevents farmers from shooting or trapping cheetahs, leading to greater biodiversity and encouraging eco-tourism in the region.
So far CCF has bred and provided more than 500 dogs to Namibian farmers, and these farmers have reported, on average, an 80 percent or higher reduction in livestock predation.
“Most people,” said Dr. Marker, “if they have a dog, don’t lose their livestock any longer to predators, because the dogs are so effective. And so, in the name of the cheetah, we’re teaching farmers that predators do play an important role and if we manage our livestock appropriately, we don’t have to be at war with the predators.”
This year, on International Cheetah Day, 20 puppies will be donated to new homes in Namibia.
4) The Cheetah Is Teaching the Next Generation
Every year, the CCF welcomes approximately 20,000 school children to its headquarters to teach them about cheetahs and the importance of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. Some 330,000 students have participated in CCF outreach programs so far.
Programs are tailored for students of all ages, says Dr. Marker, from elementary all the way through high school. “We teach what’s a cheetah, what’s a predator, how do they benefit the ecosystem, the different aspects of their prey, what are the different wildlife species,” she says. “We teach about livestock management and grassland management, and how the grassland support helps the wildlife as well as the livestock.”
Educators also teach how overgrazing the land can cause problems with the native habitat, and how that can even affect farmers’ income.
Educational programs that began in Namibia are now being exported elsewhere, “to help develop programs where the cheetah can hopefully be safe in these other countries as well,” she adds.
In its Future Farmers of Africa program, one of the big lessons CCF teaches is that the traditional ranching of animals does not have to end for the sake of the cheetah. Accommodations can be made so that free range farming can continue without the loss of livestock.
“We ranch with our animals free range,” says Dr. Marker, “but when we know it’s calving time we bring our calves in and protect the calves. We don’t just have our goats and sheep out on their own. We have a herder and a livestock-guarding dog. In that way, as I always say, wildlife has timeshare with our land. They don’t want to be where humans are [and predators] would rather have natural wildlife to eat.”
5) The Cheetah Is the Only Big Cat That Purrs
Cheetahs can purr, and it can be loud.
“Cheetahs are the only big cats that do purr,” says Dr. Marker. “None of the others do. They have other vocalizations, too, that are very interesting. They chirp like birds, they have a dog-like bark, they have a stutter-call… But their bird-like chirp is very interesting. It’s very high-pitched, and they usually use it for communications. Male brothers, coalition-brothers, chirp to each other to find each other again after they’ve been out on a hunt.”
6) The Cheetah Needs Your Help
The Cheetah Conservation Fund conducts programs in education and wildlife management, habitat restoration, sustainable development, and they even make cheese! (The CCF Model Farm is used for Future Farmers of Africa training courses and is home to the Dancing Goat Creamery.)
The CCF has affiliated not-for-profit organizations in Africa, Canada, the UK and the U.S., but it still needs your help. You can raise awareness about cheetahs right now, no matter where you are.
Tell people today is International Cheetah Day. Wear spots to work, talk about the threats facing cheetahs, how fast cheetahs run, how few of them are left, how they purr, chirp and bark. Post cheetah pictures on Facebook, share this article across your social networks.
Celebrate the cheetah. Without your help, it may not be sharing this world with us for much longer.