Protect our Species! The theme of this year’s Earth Day celebration is incredibly meaningful to me. Protecting the cheetah and its ecosystem is what I’ve spent the majority of my life working towards. Along the way, I have benefited from the help of many passionate people who supported my work and believed in what Cheetah Conservation Fund could accomplish. I am so thankful for all we have been able to achieve together.
Earth Day has always been a touchstone day for me. It is one of the moments throughout each year when I am reminded to pause and take stock of where CCF is in our mission to save the cheetah in the wild. I stop to consider the actions we’ve taken toward saving the species, where we can make improvements and how we can continue to help celebrate our organization’s successes. It is also a day for me to renew my own strength of purpose, to guide CCF through the difficulties we regularly face.
Each year, Earth Day organizers introduce a celebration theme to focus messaging and highlight the efforts of scientists, conservationists, educators and philanthropists around the world. Declaring a theme for the celebration helps create unity for the day, which I have noticed has expanded to also encompass the weeks before and after April 22nd! At CCF, we used the same idea when we declared 2019 to be the Year of the Livestock Guarding Dog – the 25th anniversary celebration of CCF’s LGD program.
To highlight this year’s Earth Day theme, two of the most iconic African species have been featured on the Earth Day website along with a list of other species and broad classifications of organisms like trees, plants and birds. Elephants and giraffes are widely appreciated for their beauty and strength. Children can easily recognize and name them at a very early age. Their likeness commonly appears on every product marketed to kids across the world. Without conservationists working to help save African animals in the wild, children may one day only be left with the illustrations in their story books or the designs on their water bottles.
African elephants have been on endangered species lists for over 40 years. In countries across southern Africa including Namibia, elephant populations are not as threatened as they are within the remainder of the continent. Regionally, on responsibly managed land, elephant populations have stabilized. Taken out of context, the data for these elephant populations makes it appear that the species is no longer in trouble. This is incredibly frustrating to conservationists. Stabilizing species populations on a regional level can create a false sense of security when regional success is taken to mean widespread success. When a species is seen as being stable, support can drop off. As the alarm bells become silent, steam leaks from the engine and conservation efforts stall. In 2004, the African elephant was downlisted from endangered to vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. In the years that followed, elephant poaching began to grow again at an alarming rate.
African elephant populations correlate with cheetah populations in that they have stabilized in overlapping geographic areas. If Namibia’s cheetah population was replicated across the species’ historic range, CCF could proudly announce that the cheetahs’ future was secure. However, the cheetah is currently extinct in over 20 countries and of the 31 populations in the remaining 23 countries where cheetahs are found, 20 of those populations are less than 100 individuals. While we celebrate our victories, we need to remember the battle for the species’ survival has not yet been won, as today’s world population of cheetahs is less than 7,500 cheetahs.