Thousands of years ago, nothing could stop the cheetah. The sleek, spotted cat ranged throughout Africa--from the Cape to Cairo--and into Southern Asia. Egyptian pharaohs paraded them as pets and relied on their speed--they can reach 60 m.p.h. (96 km/h)--in royal hunts.
In recent times, however, the cheetah has not been able to outrun its own vulnerability. Its lifestyle requires large expanses of land where prey is abundant. As farmers and ranchers began to transform the African landscape, the cheetah population, which reproduces slowly under the best of conditions, began to suffer. Forever on the move in search of food, the cat became a frequent target of trophy hunters and farmers who didn't want cheetahs killing their cattle. A quarter-century ago, about 30,000 cheetahs roamed in 44 African countries. Today the figure is fewer than 15,000 in 26 countries.
The largest remaining cheetah population--about 3,000--inhabits the harshly beautiful savannah of Namibia in southwest Africa. That's where conservation biologist Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, hopes to ensure the great cat's survival. She sees it as a test case of whether human development and wildlife habitats can coexist. "If we can save the cheetah here," says Marker, "we are talking about saving an entire ecosystem. We can save the world."
Marker, 45, first encountered cheetahs 25 years ago; they were in captivity at the Oregon wildlife park where she worked. Over the years she developed a successful cheetah breeding program. In the 1980s Marker made several trips to Namibia, where she began to use a cheetah she had raised in Oregon, named Khayam, to study the possibility of returning the cats to the wild. Although the animal hunted and killed by instinct, without the 18 to 22 months of training that a young cheetah gets from its mother, Khayam couldn't learn how to survive.
So Marker realized that if she was going to get serious about cheetah conservation, she'd have to move to Africa. In 1990 she negotiated the use of three farms near a national game reserve and set up the Cheetah Conservation Fund, transforming old farm buildings into an office and research center for scientists and students. More important, she opened a dialogue with local farmers. When she arrived, she recalls, "they were killing cheetahs right, left and center."
Fortunately she had a way to get their attention: by using Khayam as an ambassador. With the tame cheetah at her side, she toured the farmlands. "It was tough at first," she admits, "but the more the farmers learned about cheetahs, the more they listened." She told them that cattle are not the cheetah's favorite food; if the farmers kept antelope and other wild animals on their land, the cats would be more likely to leave the cattle alone. She gave farmers guard dogs to help keep cheetahs away.