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Science is behind everything we do at Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Over a career spanning more than 40 years and for the past 28 years at CCF, Dr. Laurie Marker, our Founder and Executive Director, has forged new frontiers in the study of the wild cheetah. Her findings, and later those of the CCF research teams she’s led, have informed scientists all over the world. These findings are the basis for the highly successful conservation programs we administer at our Namibian Field Research and Education Centre. Our programs have helped the farmers and cheetahs of Namibia, and now Otjiwarongo, the town where our center is based, has become known as “The Cheetah Capital of the World.” None of this would be possible without your kind and generous support. For this, we are exceptionally grateful.

I am CCF’s genetic scientist. I joined the organization in 2008 after being introduced by Dr. Stephen J. O’Brien, Dr. Marker’s longtime research collaborator and CCF Chairman of the Board Emeritus, and my former PhD advisor and boss. My first task was to set up CCF’s genetics laboratory. Over the past decade, our facility — now the Life Technologies Conservation Genetics Laboratory — has evolved into a state-of-the-art, fully capable genetics laboratory. It is the only one of its kind located at an in situ conservation organization in Africa. We produce analyses and results in house, and from this facility, we collaborate with scientists around the globe on research projects that benefit not only the cheetah, but many other predator species. In July 2015, we moved the laboratory from a small basement facility to a prime location in the new Visitor Centre, so we can expand our laboratory and share our work with the public. Your donations made all this possible.

Thanks to your support, CCF has become the internationally recognized leader in cheetah science. In Namibia, our ecologists investigate the movement of the cheetah to determine home ranges, habitat preference, territoriality, and behaviors unique to wild populations that impact survival. From this, we develop and implement our non-invasive monitoring methodologies to help ensure viable, individual populations.

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Our genetic findings have established research databases that have shaped the world’s general knowledge of cheetah ecology and behavior. In 2015, Dr. Marker, Dr. O’Brien and myself were part of a team that mapped the cheetah genome, one of the most significant advancements in modern cheetah science. Our genetics laboratory team at CCF validated the presence of a mutation that is likely contributing significantly to poor sperm quality we have been observing in the cheetah for decades.

Another aspect of our science that makes CCF a stand-out is our work with scat-sniffing dogs. Trained domestic dogs help CCF ecologists find cheetah scat in the field, then DNA is extracted and analyzed in our laboratory. The DNA helps us identify individual cheetahs and better understand cheetah population structure and diversity. The scat collection method is beneficial to cheetahs because it provides a non-invasive approach to DNA research, enabling us to obtain DNA without capturing and unnecessarily stressing the animal.

Quentin and Levi out on the hunt for scat samples.

DNA research is an incredibly valuable tool. It provides information that we use to monitor cheetah population and helps us determine problems that need to be addressed. Recently, we also began using DNA to identify the origin of cheetahs poached for the illegal trade. Through DNA analysis, we can determine the region from which an animal came. That information will eventually help wildlife enforcement officers identify and intercept smuggler routes.

Another promising DNA project on the horizon is the creation of a tool to identify the predator species from saliva left behind on livestock following an attack. We are confident we will be able to determine the species, but we hope we will also be able to determine the individual. This will indicate if a farmer has a single problem predator on his land or if he has multiple predators attacking his livestock in an opportunistic manner. The latter would indicate a problem with the farmer’s management style, which can be addressed by CCF’s human-wildlife conflict mitigation team.

This amazing laboratory you helped build is also an important training facility for Namibian scientists. We are officially now a 4th year student placement for both Namibian Universities (UNAM and NUST), and we have given 22 students from these schools a chance to learn about conservation genetics. In addition, we have trained 11 international students. We have also exposed more than 100 conservationists from cheetah range countries to the basics of genetics during international training courses.

CCF’s first conservation genetics intern, Lucia Mhuulu works on samples in the lab.

CCF’s first conservation genetics intern, Lucia Mhuulu, recently completed her graduate studies and earned her Master’s degree while working with us. Thanks to the experience she gained, the University of Namibia hired her to operate a genetics analyzer in their lab that had remained idle for years because no one could operate it. Lucia successfully started up the instrument, for which she is now responsible, and is gaining recognition for her expertise. While I am very proud of CCF’s many scientific achievements and publications, hearing from Lucia about her success means every bit as much.

Please continue to support our mission by donating to CCF today. Our science, education and conservation programs are the species’ best hope to avoid extinction. We cannot do this alone, but together, we can make all the difference for the cheetah.

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Scat Detection and Genetic Analysis graphic – Click to download .pdf version

Banner photo by Lorenz Fischer