Living in the Fast Lane: Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cats by Sy Montgomery
A tall, smiling woman, her curly salt-and-pepper hair flowing like a mane, is striding toward us--with a ninety-pound black and gold spotted cat at her side. Walking on a leash as calmly as a dog is a predator who can run as fast as a car races on a highway. It's a full-grown cheetah--the fastest predatory animal on earth, and Africa's most endangered cat.
"I'm Laurie," says the lady in black, "and this is Tiger-Lily."
Walking on a leash is nothing new for cheetahs. They appeared in the tomb illustrations of ancient pharoahs doing just that, as favored pets and valued hunting companions. After all, a courser who can run at seventy miles an hour beside a chariot and bring down even the fleetest antelope is a rare animal indeed.
It was a long way from being a kid who loved animals--horses, dog, cats--to being cheetah expert in Namibia, but after a few months working in a local animal park, raising baby cheetahs, Laura Marker was hooked and had found her life's work with this amazing cat.
Today the cheetah, once found across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, has dwindled from a population of 100,000 in 1900 to 10,000 today, limited to a few arid plains in Africa, with an isolated population hanging on in Iran. Loss of habitat, poaching, and killing by farmers who fear loss of livestock has resulted in this reduced population, and biologists know that a limited gene pool can weaken a species beyond recovery. Animal scientists such as Laurie Marker, working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia, do what is the typical work of science, observing behaviors, collecting specimens, identifying individuals, giving them annual health exams much like those humans get (although cheetahs require darting with a sedative first), and doing DNA tests to document their population, the basic science to understand and enable this species.
But scientists in the field working with endangered species have many other roles-- treating sick and injured cheetahs, raising orphaned cubs and introducing them back into the wild to spur population growth, and caring for those too habituated to humans to return to the wild. And in these times, conservation-minded scientists become a sort of social worker at the human-animal interface: Laurie has managed to reduce the killing of cheetahs by farmers dramatically, simply by offering them the chance to obtain dogs, specifically a large and hardy breed of herding dogs called Kangals, native to Turkey, capable of preventing stock loss completely. Laurie's station raises Kangals and makes pups available at low price to local farmers, and presto! cheetahs are no longer threats to farm animals.
As North Americans have learned, mass killing-off of our large predators, cougars and wolves, has led to overpopulation by their former prey, such as deer and rabbits, with a subsequent degradation of habitation that affects the environment negatively in various ways, as any vegetable and flower gardener can attest. In their habitat, cheetahs are essential to prevent overgrazing by herbivores, and one of Laurie Marker's roles is to teach farmers that their goats, sheep, and cattle depend on the cheetah to keep nature in balance to preserve their grazing lands, too.
Sy Montgomery's Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa's Fastest Cat (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) covers the science and the fun of working with college interns in a place where tame cheetahs stretch their legs chasing the van and trained "poop-sniffing" Aussie shepherds lead expeditions of cheetah-spotting and documentation, always hoping for a sighting of the camp's favorite wild male cheetah. Nicknamed Hi-Fi, this wily male admires "the Ambassadors," the resident lady cheetahs, but slips through the post, ghostlike, never menacing their goats, rarely photographed except by "camera traps."
This latest in the notable Scientists in the Field series takes middle readers to meet face-to-face with one of the world's most fascinating and appealing endangered animals. Plenty of "Fast Facts" pages, such as "Cheetahs by the Numbers," provide substance to the engaging narrative of one of our star environmental warriors seeking to save this amazing animal from going extinct in this century. This book is a must-have for school and public libraries and for nature-loving young readers. Included are a useful text and photo index and bibliography for student researchers, along with a plea from Laurie Marker to the casual reader:
"Don't wait for 'somebody" to do it. You can do anything.... Don't be afraid to take that first step! Animals need our help. If you don't take care of them, they'll go away."