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Difference Maker

Using a wood chipper to save cheetahs, Africa's most endangered big cats

Laurie Marker cuts down thorn bushes and gets farmers to change from herding dogs to guard dogs to protect cheetahs.

By Yvonne Zipp/ Correspondent / February 14, 2011

Laurie Marker’s work on behalf of endangered cheetahs in Namibia has included clearing fast spreading thorn bush, which was injuring the cats. She also turned the bushes into biomass fuel, which may eventually be used to generate electricity.

Suzi Eszterhas/Getty Images/File

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Indianapolis

It takes an unusual mind to bring a wood chipper to the desert. But in her 37-year quest to help save Africa's most endangered big cat – the cheetah – Laurie Marker has gotten used to taking unusual steps.

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"Actually, I have two," she says of the chippers in an interview in Indianapolis, where Dr. Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), was being honored last fall as a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize, the largest prize given in the world for animal conservation.

The wood chippers are part of her conservation campaign – notable for its down-to-earth practicality and emphasis on innovative solutions that will be good for both local people and the cheetah.

Cheetahs, which move at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, were being blinded by running through thick, prickly thorn bush undergrowth that is eating up Namibia's land, causing problems for farmers as well as big cats. Unable to hunt wild game, the injured animals were preying on livestock, causing farmers to trap them.

Marker's solution: Send in the wood chippers.

The chipped thorn bush now is turned into ecoblocks, which are sold as fuel in South Africa and Europe. Studies show that both cheetahs and leopards are returning to the cleared areas. Marker is also contemplating turning thorn bush chips into biomass, which could be used to generate electricity. More than half of Namibia's citizens still lack electrical service.

"The highway is littered with noble causes out there that haven't been effective," says Gregg Hudson, executive director of the Dallas Zoo and the Children's Aquarium at Fair Park in Dallas, who served on CCF's board from 2001 to 2006. "Laurie – this is one of the reasons I've really enjoyed working with her – sees all sides of a problem.

"The cheetah – that's her passion. But she's not coming down in that traditional role: 'You need to save them because it's the right thing to do.' She's immersed herself in the culture … and gone about trying to find solutions that are win-win for everybody. That, to me, is so refreshing."

Another example of this win-win approach is CCF's guard-dog program. Marker sat down with farmers and discovered they were using small herding dogs instead of guard dogs and thus losing valuable livestock to cheetah attacks. CCF set up a program to give farmers large Turkish Kangal dogs, which bond with the herd and scare off the cheetahs.

The result: an 80 percent dip in livestock losses, a long waiting list for Kangal dogs, and fewer cheetahs killed by farmers.

IN PICTURES: Endangered animals

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