GMA: Dogs Help Save Cheetahs from Extinction

April 9, 2001 -- Sahara and Alexa are unlikely friends, but they work together as ambassadors for a revolutionary program in Namibia designed to save the African wild cheetah population from extinction.

Sahara, a cheetah cub, and Alexa, her puppy pal, appeared on Good Morning America today to make the case for wildlife conservation. They were accompanied by Laurie Marker, head of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and Cathryn Hilker, founder of the Cincinnati Zoo's Cat Ambassador Program.

Hilker adopted the baby cheetah and the Anatolian shepherd puppy at the end of last year and raised them together. It made for some rough living, but now the natural enemies get along famously.

"They literally moved into my house and bonded with my rugs, my furniture, and each other," she says.

Her goal is to educate the public about the dangers faced by the wild cats and efforts to save them.

The cheetah population worldwide has shrunk from about 100,000 a decade ago to 12,500 today, Hilker says. One-fifth of the world's cheetahs live in Namibia.

Trouble at the Ranches

In the 1980s, Namibia was hit hard by drought, reducing the availability of the cheetah's natural prey and forcing them to take livestock. And so many farmers killed the big cats, citing them as a major threat to their livelihoods.

Although cheetahs are official protected in Namibia, exceptions are made on ranches — where most of them live. Farmers are allowed to kill animals that threaten their livestock.

Enter the Anatolian shepherd, which originated in the arid Anatolian Plateau region of Turkey and Asia Minor more than 6,000 years ago.

The large, intimidating dogs are now used for guarding livestock from threats like the hungry cheetahs. Their excellent eyesight, sharp hearing and strong dedication to their herd make them ideal for guard duty.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund's Anatolian Shepherd Livestock Guarding Dog program has been helping to save the wild cheetah in Namibia since 1994. Working with local farmers and their livestock, it is one of several non-lethal predator management strategies that CCF has developed.

Dogs at Work

The goal of the program is to raise the young Anatolian with the herd, so that it bonds with the livestock instead of humans, and thus assumes the role of protector.

The Anatolian shepherd lives with the herd, eats and sleeps with the livestock and travels with them. The dogs are always on alert, and must defend the herd against a variety of threats.

The CCF Anatolian shepherds have defended their herds against baboons, jackals, caracals, cheetahs, leopards and even humans.

The dog is not trained to chase or attack. Its job is to bark and posture to scare the predator away. But occasionally the dog is forced to physically defend its herd, and its size and strength make it a formidable obstacle.

Cheetahs are not normally aggressive, and are quick to retreat from a barking dog. The barking of the dog is normally enough to scare away a predator, and also alerts any nearby humans to the threat. Although they are predators, cheetahs are extremely timid and will be driven off by a barking dog.