When Laurie Marker met her first cheetahs in 1974, she was captivated. The feeling wasn't mutual. "They hissed and spit at me—it was great!" she recalls. At the time, Marker had a side gig at an Oregon wildlife park to support her fledgling winery. But the more she learned about these lithe, magnificent creatures (which can outrun any other land mammal, at speeds of 70 miles per hour), the more she realized that they were racing toward extinction—victims of livestock farmers and eroding habitats.
Fourteen years and many trips to Africa later, Marker left her vineyard and soon founded the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), which teams with biologists and other researchers throughout the world and has placed hundreds of guard dogs with Namibian farmers to protect their livestock (the naturally skittish cheetah shies away from the canines). Thanks to the CCF's efforts, farmers are also learning that the cats are team players, "sharing" remnants of their kills with other predators. "If a jackal has been fed, it won't come after your sheep," explains Marker, who earned her doctorate in zoology from Oxford in 2002, at age 48.
Now Namibians drop orphaned cheetahs at her doorstep faster than Marker can reintroduce them to the wild; next, she hopes to reestablish the cats in Zambia, India, and Eurasia. "In many regions, war and poverty leave people unable to think about their natural resources," she says, "but governments are catching on that cheetahs are a boon to tourism." Meanwhile, Marker often clocks 18-hour days, with no regrets. "When I decided to come here 20 years ago, it was a freeing moment," she says. "I don't take what I do lightly."