Fast and Furry-ous: Cheetah Conservation in Namibia
By Stacy Kaneko, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine DVM Class of 2024
Cheetahs have long been my favorite animal, so it is no surprise that in March of 2023, I embarked on a 49-hour journey to the country with the largest population of cheetahs. I have wanted to work with cheetahs since I was five years old, and with the help of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Expanding Horizons program, I was able to participate in a research and experiential learning project to further support my veterinary training in a way that would not have been possible in the United States.
The One Health approach to conserving cheetahs
Otjiwarongo, Namibia is home to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an internationally recognized center focused on the conservation of cheetahs and their habitats. Founded in 1990, CCF has since become a leading presence in cheetah conservation efforts by using a holistic approach to combat the declining numbers of wild cheetahs. Many of the threats to cheetahs can be grouped into three overarching categories: human-wildlife conflict, loss of habitat and prey, and poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking.
Cheetahs can be outcompeted for prey by other predators such as lions, leopards, and hyenas. This can lead to a high cub mortality rate, which in some areas is as high as 90% and has led to 90% of African cheetahs existing outside of protected areas. Cheetahs living outside of protected areas are at risk for human-wildlife conflict as previously wild lands become more and more occupied by people.
CCF’s work to secure a future for cheetahs is a great example of One Health in action – a collaborative, multidisciplinary approach to sustainably optimizing the health of people, plants, animals, and the environment. CCF has done a remarkable job of working with people who are directly involved in the habitats and lives of cheetahs. These efforts, aimed at minimizing conflicts, help both the cheetahs and the local communities.
Livestock guardians, tourism, and a model farm
For example, CCF employs a livestock guardian program that provides local farmers with dogs to protect their animals and land, which helps to keep their livelihoods intact. One of the major issues affecting cheetahs in this particular region is human-wildlife conflict, especially the interactions between cheetahs and livestock owners. Cheetahs are daytime hunters and so are often sighted around livestock. Thus, they are disproportionally blamed for livestock losses when cheetahs are not necessarily responsible for the loss.
The tourism that CCF attracts is a source of revenue for cheetah conservation as well as for the surrounding towns—another way of incentivizing coexistence.
Part of CCF’s One Health approach includes the model farm and creamery, an initiative that develops and demonstrates livestock and farmland management practices that are taught within the Future Farmers of Africa (FFA) training course, in which local farmers can participate. There are three main livestock herds at CCF. One is a Saanen dairy goat herd through which milk, ice cream, and yogurt are sold to make a small profit to finance some of CCF’s activities. Then there is the Boer goat and Damara sheep herd that is primarily used as a part of the model farm.
Training in livestock health
Fortunately, the cheetahs at CCF are all pretty healthy, so while I was able to participate in some general health checks, my research project was focused on investigating the cause of the recent uptick in late term abortions and neonatal mortality of the sheep and goats. There are many potential causes for such losses, including infectious agents. I sifted through the health records of about 400 sheep and goats with the goal of categorizing the types of losses, and separating suspected infected individuals from the herd. Many of the infections plaguing these animals are the same as what we see in the United States, and we implement treatments in the same ways.
Though CCF’s goal is to promote cheetah conservation, the typical day of a veterinarian at CCF is more akin to that of a veterinarian in a mixed practice. The cheetahs, sheep, goats, dogs, cattle, horses, and donkeys are all integral elements of CCF’s mission and require care and upkeep. Twice a day, we would do a health check on the sheep and goat herd. Ticks, thorns, dehorning, and mastitis are all examples of issues that are commonly seen. I was able to help take care of newborn kids, perform necropsies, and dehorn goats. The livestock guardian dogs frequently get into tussles with the surrounding wildlife (e.g. warthogs, leopards, jackals, etc.) in their endeavor to protect their herds, and thus often required care as well. CCF veterinarians would also travel to surrounding farms to provide care to sick and injured animals.
Though I was focused on veterinary medicine, I was also able to participate in many of the different departments at CCF. I helped train some of the dogs that are working to detect cheetah scat as a novel method of tracking cheetah numbers, participated in game counts with the ecology department, and even got to help feed and train the unreleasable captive cheetahs.
Fulfilling my dreams
I am extremely thankful to have had this opportunity and support from the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Expanding Horizons program as well as for the incredible mentorship from the CCF team. Working with cheetahs has been a lifelong aspiration of mine and I am so grateful to have been given the chance to carry out my dreams. Seeing and engaging with all aspects of cheetah conservation has helped to cement my aspirations to pursue a One Health-focused career.
I feel that it is especially important in conservation to recognize and acknowledge our cultural differences - and to learn from each other. In veterinary medicine, there is often more than one correct way of doing things. Only by learning from others and being open to “expanding our horizons” may we become better doctors and people. I feel extremely fortunate to have been allowed to contribute to such an important cause, and to have been so welcomed into the community. I hope that I can build on my experiences and the partnerships that developed while I was there. Who knows, maybe I will be back one day as a staff veterinarian myself!
Stacy Kaneko, Class of 2024, is a fourth year DVM student at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in Biology and Earth Science. She has an interest in conservation, production medicine, and One Health.
All photos provided and posted with permission.