Cynthia Smoot visits cheetah habitat in Namibia

- Just recently, biologists the world over warned that the planet is experiencing its sixth mass extinction; we're losing plants and animals at an alarming rate.

I was in the country of Namibia when I heard that news. Namibia is on the west coast of Africa, just above South Africa. The Namib desert covers the entire west side of the country, so it's an arid environment with very little rain in many areas.

With some 2,000 cheetahs, Namibia is also considered the cheetah capital of the world and is the home of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which was my reason to travel there.

Cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats, but quite arguably the most regal. They don't roar like lions or tigers. Cheetahs purr. Saving these charismatic cats is what the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) is all about. 

The Fund was founded 27 years ago by Dr. Laurie Marker, who has dedicated her life to a species that is in serious decline. The latest scientific data estimates there are about 7,200 adult cheetahs remaining in the wild. 

This statistic makes it easy to see why Dr. Marker says, "We don't have another 10 years. We don't have 20 years. We need to be doing more of what we're doing now and scaling it up."

One of the most important things she and the staff at CCF are doing is helping farmers learn to co-exist with predators such as the cheetah. They have a livestock guard dog program, breeding Anatolian shepherds to become caretakers of the flock. 

Puppies grow up with the goats and cattle they'll eventually protect. The program has a 90-100 percent success rate and is so effective, there's a two-year waiting list for a puppy.

Says Dr. Marker, "The big work really revolves around working with the community, the farmers, so they learn good livestock management, protecting their livestock, not killing the cheetah."

While I was at CCF, a young male cheetah arrived that had been trapped by a local game rancher. Watching the CCF veterinary team spring into action was impressive.

Dr. Marker takes blood and hair samples for sophisticated genetic testing. He gets a complete checkup that reveals a couple of broken teeth, so he'll need dental work before he's released. But not every cheetah is releasable. 35 cheetahs live at CCF because they're injured, orphaned or otherwise can't be released.  

A foursome of siblings is CCF's ambassadors. The two boys and two girls came to CCF after their mother was shot by a farmer. Now 7 years old, they were only three weeks old when they arrived.

Since they don't have to catch their food, the ambassadors and others get their exercise on a lure course--a line that zips around the field simulating fast-moving prey. It's quite a spectacle watching these graceful creatures, which can reach 60 miles-an-hour in three seconds, do what they do best. 

As I watch admiringly, I can't imagine the world without cheetahs. Neither can Dr. Marker, who knows that people are the key to saving this remarkable animal. 

She urges,"Spread the word. Become aware. Do something. Talk about the cheetah being the fastest land animal and the fact that it's running its most important race, and that's for its very survival."

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