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.
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"Laurie has one of the best connections between her left brain and her right brain of anyone I've ever come across," says Michael Crowther, chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Zoo, which administers the prize. He calls her a "brilliant scientist" who has helped discover the genetic makeup of cheetahs.Skip to next paragraph
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But there's another side to Marker that's intensely practical. "A lot of it revolves around trying to see problems from a variety of angles," she says. "I don't think there are problems; there are unknowns."
While living in Oregon in the 1970s, Marker worked at a wildlife refuge and raised a tiger and a cheetah from infancy. They slept with her in her mom's guest bedroom in northern California when Marker took them on educational tours of area schools. (She and Khayam, the cheetah, appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.)
Marker had no plans to leave the West Coast for a life in the African desert.
"I kept thinking that someone would go and take care of the wild cheetahs if I told enough people to do it," she says. "I mean, I had a job. I had a life. I call it the 'they factor': 'They will take care of it.' " Eventually, she says she realized," 'They' is me."
Marker traveled to Namibia in the 1980s, but refused to live in a country that was still under apartheid. When Namibia declared independence in 1991 and ended apartheid, she bought her plane ticket.
When people talk about making changes "little by little," Marker disagrees. "No. Fast and big," she urges.
Because cheetahs are genetically quite similar to each other, they are more vulnerable to threats from climate change to human encroachment. "Being limited in their gene pool – they do become much more vulnerable," Marker says.
But despite some daunting challenges, success is possible. "I know it's attainable," she says. "The only thing that we're lacking is money and speed. But we know what we need to do."
Successes do happen. Last year, Marker found that cheetahs had returned to neighboring Angola after decades of absence.
"It was a big 'wow,' " she says.
Her approach to conservation is a practical one. It boils down to "listening and thinking – and thinking creatively and outside of the box," she says.
"You have to be very patient. If you lose your patience, you have to go back to ground zero. So, don't lose your patience because you don't have time to go back."