Keeper of the cats; cheetah conservator to speak at Ashley Hall

Ashley Hall School grad Miller Bianucci interviewed cheetah conservator Laurie Marker at Marker’s Namibia facility.

Laurie Marker went to Namibia to conduct what was at the time a daring experiment: release a captive-bred cheetah to the wild, to see if it could make it.

It didn’t take long to she realize it couldn’t. The livestock farmers around her would kill the animal.

More than 900 of the fastest land animals on earth were killed each year, to protect cows and goats. So Marker, now the founder and director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, did another daring thing. She began raising Anatolian shepherd and Kangal guard dogs, giving them to the farmers to protect their livestock.

Livestock losses declined to almost none from any predator, and the farmers began changing their minds about the imperiled cheetah.

Marker, whose nearly single-handed effort might be turning the corner to restore the disappearing cats, speaks at Ashley Hall School on Tuesday in a presentation that is free and open to the public. The presentation starts at 6:30 p.m. at the school’s Davies Auditorium, 172 Rutledge Ave.

Cheetahs worldwide have been reduced to about 10,000 animals, one-tenth their historical numbers, since the late 1800s. Marker’s work in Namibia has expanded from reintroduction to nature-based economic development, ecotourism and habitat restoration supporting the local communities — a model that can work in communities across the Lowcountry, nation and world. Her message is simple.

“Saving the cheetah means changing the world so that the cheetah can survive,” she said.

The tale behind her stop in Charleston on a nationwide tour is almost as remarkable as the work itself.

Miller Bianucci, 22, is an Ashley Hall graduate who went on to do graduate work in conservation history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

While researching sustainable development efforts in Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, she interviewed Marker.

“She was involved in some really amazing programs. Cheetahs were going extinct, and now they’re on the rise,” Bianucci said.

Bianucci and her parents, Susan and Henri Bianucci, who is a veterinarian, “began providing preventative health care products for our livestock guarding dog program,” Marker said. The family has supported and promoted the fund since. The visit here is to connect with more people like the Bianuccis, she said.

“People who care about their world and make conscious decisions about how they are going to live in it. People who value biodiversity and care about wildlife,” she said. “We need to gather as many allies as possible, because together we can become strong enough and powerful enough to win the fight to save the cheetah.”

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