The business of outrunning extinction: Cheetah conservation

Cheetah in the wild

For most people, cheetahs bring to mind qualities that stand out from all other species in  the animal kingdom —we think about their majestic beauty, strength, and above all, unrivaled speed. All too often, however, farmers in areas near cheetah populations have a far different perspective. Cheetahs aren’t admired for being fast; Instead they’re an animal to be feared. In short, these farmers view cheetahs as a serious threat to their livelihood.

Cheetahs have the potential to harm sheep, goats, and other livestock and are sometimes killed by farmers seeking to protect their herds. Over time, this conflict has led to a steep cheetah population decline and a negative impact on biodiversity in regions throughout Africa.

With only a few thousand left in the world, these majestic animals could face extinction if efforts aren’t made to protect their lives and habitats, according to Laurie Marker, Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large. “The cheetah is leading the race as Africa’s most endangered big cat,” she says, emphasizing that the  problem is not unique to the cheetahs. “All cats except the domestic cat are either threatened or endangered today because of conflicts with humans,” she makes clear.

To halt this population decline, Marker founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an organization that runs a variety of programs and businesses with mission that is two-fold: save the cheetahs, and in doing so, save the world. This month, Marker addressed the Cornell community to discuss her work as part of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise’s Finance and Sustainability speaker series. Her talk  the business of social impact and the potential for innovative ideas to create real change.

Laurie Marker addressing a classroom of students
Laurie Marker talks to students about the businesses created by CCF to support cheetah conservation

Blending research and action

CCF’s programs and businesses generally fall into three main categories: research, education, and conservation. Work related to the first two categories includes studies conducted at CCF’s genetics lab, a robust set of farmer training courses, and ecological research in the field. However, It was the work that fell into the third category, CCF’s conservation efforts, that Marker was most excited to discuss.

To accomplish its goals, CCF operates a variety of businesses. Some bring in revenue to fund new conservation initiatives, while others spread awareness and encourage behaviors that minimize harm to cheetahs, educating locals on how they can integrate cheetah conservation practices.

Another key focus of CCF’s work is on finding innovative solutions to keeping cheetahs away from farms. This is difficult because humans and cheetahs are often fighting for the same land. Cheetah habitats span vast regions across the continent, and as populations in Africa explode, the animals are increasingly likely to stumble into farms in search of food.

Guard dogs to the rescue

A pair of cheetahs in the wild

One way CCF is keeping cheetahs away is by facilitating the use of livestock guard dogs. Why would a farmer want to add to their expenses by purchasing and taking care of a dog? Marker explains the value proposition to farmers as follows: Without dogs, the average Namibian livestock farmer loses 10 animals per year to local cheetahs. Goats, for example, can cost more than $200 to replace, so annual livestock loss can amount to $2,000 or more.

CCF started a livestock guard dog breeding program, raising and training guard dogs before leasing them to farmers for a small fee. It estimates that farmers reduce their livestock loss by 70-100 percent by leasing a dog. This saves farmers hundreds of dollars and results in less incentive to kill or harm cheetahs. The dog breeding program supports the mission of CCF while at the same time creating a revenue stream for the organization.

So far, the data suggests that this initiative has been successful. In Nambia, where CCF has run the aforementioned program, “the cheetah population has stabilized,” according to Marker. Before the dogs were added, “farmers were killing about 800-900 cheetahs a year.”

Other business initiatives

CCF’s work goes far beyond guard dogs. Another of its businesses is involved in manufacturing fuel briquettes from thornbush, which helps both cheetahs and the environment. Thornbush is an invasive plant that decreases soil fertility, contributing to the desertification of the cheetah habitat if left unchecked. CCF harvests thornbush and processes it into a high heat, low emission firewood alternative known as Bushblok. CCF then sells Bushblok regionally. Altogether, these efforts have created more opportunities to protect the cheetah and improve local ecosystems, all the while generating more revenue to fund other CCF initiatives.

Additionally, CCF runs a dairy goat farm, where workers milk about 50 goats per day to produce cheese. This cheese is sold to European tourists who come to stay at one of the lodges CCF built for those interested in seeing local cheetahs. The proceeds from the farm support the guard dog program. To local community members, explains Marker, the business underscores the fact that there are in fact ways for these members to earn their own supplemental income through small livestock operations.

Though the work is vast and varied, Marker and CCF’s employees are motivated by one clear goal: to work themselves out of their jobs by saving as many cheetahs as they can. “If you can put all the systems in place to set things right, you don’t need a conservation organization,” she explained. “Our philosophy is that we would like to go out of business.”

The Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise’s Finance and Sustainability speaker series runs every Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Sage B09 during the semester.

To learn more about the Cheetah Conservation Fund, visit

—Written by Paul Russell ’19, a writer for the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise