The majestic Laikipia Plateau in northern Kenya is one of my favorite areas of Africa. Not only does it possess a landscape of soul-stirring grandeur, but the private conservation initiatives there, run in collaboration with the local tribal people, have long seemed to me to present a viable template for the future of wildlife on the continent. I have therefore been following the recent news from Kenya with dismay.
At the beginning of the year, about 10,000 nomadic herders, driving approximately 135,000 cattle, invaded wildlife conservancies in Laikipia. At least one person has died, and the loss of wildlife has been considerable. The ostensible reason for these invasions is a prolonged drought, though some commentators have detected political motives in advance of the country’s upcoming elections.
However, they provide yet another reminder that wildlife has no future in Africa unless it coexists with human populations. Throughout the continent, the wholesale slaughter of elephant and rhino continues, and the number of lion is in free fall. Now it seems that the official status of the cheetah may need to be changed from “vulnerable” to “endangered.” The cheetah had been eliminated from 91 percent of its historic range, and around only 7,100 remain in the wild. Cheetah do not fare well within the confines of national parks, where they are often killed by more powerful lion and leopard, so they tend to live on marginal land. There they come into conflict with humans and their livestock. As human and cattle populations increase exponentially, the open grasslands that cheetah favor are fenced or degraded, and the small antelope that they hunt disappear. Even though the news is depressing, despair is not an option. And very often in Africa it is the work of a heroic individual that provides reason for hope.
One such person is Dr. Laurie Marker, who left Oregon in 1990 to found the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. Today her research center and laboratory, located about two and a half hours north of Windhoek (and open to the public), is universally acknowledged to be the world headquarters of cheetah conservation. Dr. Marker has said that she established the fund “to find out more about how cheetahs could live on the landscape with the people on whose land they were living.” Her search for an answer is now critically important throughout Africa. By some estimates cheetah numbers in Namibia have increased by more than a third since her work began.