Rare Breed

Can Laurie Marker help the world’s fastest mammal outrun its fate?

American Laurie Marker (with Chewbaaka, a cat she raised after it was caught in a trap as a 3-week-old) is the world's expert on cheetahs. (Suzi Eszterhas)
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You can see why the pharaohs of Egypt revered cheetahs, why they fascinated William the Conqueror and why Kublai Khan supposedly kept a thousand of them for hunting. Nothing in this world—absolutely nothing—moves like a cheetah. The sprint is their trademark—they run down kudu antelope on the African plain, zero to 70 in four seconds, 25 feet per stride, oversize heart going like a train, nostrils flared in the bullet skull. The kudus don't stand a chance.

Or watch them lope effortlessly alongside a truck going 25 miles an hour, waiting for gamekeepers to toss them five-pound chunks of giraffe meat. They glide soundlessly, unblinking amber eyes focused only on dinner. Listen as they chase a rag flicked like a fishing lure back and forth in the high grass. They pivot like dancers, ropy tails twirling for balance as the cat feet tremble the earth like jackhammers. Cheetahs weigh between 75 and 120 pounds, but their whippy torsos are nothing more than stripped-down chassis for fabulous legs. Nothing out-quicks a cheetah.

"We run them as much as we can," says Laurie Marker, striding back and forth, trailing the lure in the front yard of her ranch house about 30 miles east of Otjiwarongo, in northern Namibia, while Kanini, a 1-year-old orphan female, pounces and leaps in her wake. "They need the exercise."

Kanini, whose name means "Little One" in the Namibian language of Oshivambo, stops chasing the lure. She jogs regally back and forth between Marker and me, rubbing against our trousers and clamoring for attention, her purr gurgling like an idling Ferrari. Her beautiful coat feels like AstroTurf; it is an incongruity in what otherwise seems a perfect creature, but it is probably a blessing. Thanks to its rough texture, there is little market for cheetah fur.

Marker, striking at 54, probably knows more about cheetahs than anyone alive. She tracks them, tags them, knocks them out and samples their blood, checks their poop to see what they eat and provides guard dogs to Namibian farmers and ranchers to keep them away from livestock. She also takes her work home with her. When David Wildt, a biologist at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., first met her 30 years ago, the only thing he knew about her was that she slept with a cheetah named Khayam curled next to her bed. "That really impressed me," he says.

Today Marker is executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a million-dollar-a-year nonprofit foundation she built from scratch that has become the template for a new, visionary approach to wildlife management. Without her, the fleet-footed predators of Africa's bush country would likely be closer to extinction. Even now they are not safe, for despite their elegant history and their acrobatic grace, they are flawed creatures. They have a low fertility rate, a high incidence of birth defects and weak immune systems. And by hunting them unmercifully for most of the past century, humans reduced their numbers from about 100,000 worldwide in 1900 to about 30,000 in the 1970s. That's when Marker stepped in.

Laurie Marker was raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, where her father, trained as an agricultural economist, worked in the aerospace industry and kept horses, rabbits and other animals in the backyard. Marker went to San Francisco State University to study psychology, then transferred to Napa Valley College to learn winemaking. She left college in 1972 to start a vineyard with her husband and two other couples in Winston, Oregon. To help bankroll the venture, Marker, barely 20, worked at an animal park called Wildlife Safari.

The sum total of what was then known about cheetahs at Wildlife Safari was that they were fascinating, standoffish and virtually impossible to breed. The cheetahs had been isolated on a hilltop away from visitors in hopes they would mate. Captivated, Marker started to ask questions, read books and conduct research about the animals. "I plod," she says. "But I'm a finisher." (In 2002, at 48, she earned a PhD from Oxford University. Her dissertation, Aspects of Cheetah [Acinonyx jubatus] Biology, Ecology and Conservation Strategies on Namibian Farmlands, is considered the last word on cheetahs.)

But in the 1970s cheetahs were still a riddle. They were easily domesticated and long revered—King Tut's tomb was decorated with several cheetah statues, and rulers since ancient times had kept them as pets and used them as hunting companions. Yet history had recorded only one litter born in captivity—in the stables of the 16th-century Indian Mughal emperor Jahangir—before the birth of three cubs at the Philadelphia Zoo in 1956, all of which died within three months. The failure of captive breeding meant that cheetah fanciers had to replenish their supply with wild ones. "For thousands of years, we've been loving them to extinction," Marker says. Cheetahs once ranged across south Asia, the Middle East and Africa, but by the late 1970s, they were gone from Asia, except for a few in Iran, and were declining rapidly in Africa, where ranchers routinely shot them to keep them away from livestock. With the animals facing oblivion, scientists got busy.

Starting in 1980, researchers affiliated with the National Zoo began to examine the cheetah's reproductive characteristics and conduct the first-ever studies of cheetah DNA. The zoo sent a research team to South Africa to obtain semen and blood samples from about 80 cheetahs at a refuge. Wildt, then a reproductive biologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was studying cat biology. He examined the semen under a microscope and found shockingly low sperm counts—about 10 percent of the norm for other felines. And there were huge numbers of malformed sperm—about 70 percent in each sample. This explained the animals' low fertility.


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