An American in Tsavo: Cheetahs, Children and Conservation

LONDON AND TSAVO VIA SKYPE—I first heard about Cherie Schroff from a Kenyan-based American conservationist and safari guide. Over dinner one night in Karen, a southern suburb of Nairobi named after “Out of Africa” writer Karen Blixen, I asked him if there were any other Americans in Kenya working on conservation projects. “There is some woman who is tracking cheetahs in Tsavo,” he said, rather mysteriously, “but I have no idea how to reach her.” So that, of course, made me want to find who this woman was, tracking in Kenya’s largest wildlife park, so far away from home in what can sometimes be a very hot, hostile landscape.

After a bit of searching (and a bit of stalking on my part to reach her), Cherie Schroff finally got back to me, apologizing that she had been out doing fieldwork and had not had much access to the Internet. A native of California’s Silicon Valley, Ms. Schroff first came to Kenya in 1992 as an undergraduate at Boston University, spending almost four months studying the Masai giraffe. After graduation, she worked at Yosemite National Park in California monitoring black bears and spent time temping as a feline veterinarian technician in between wildlife jobs in South Africa. She went on to do a graduate degree in animal ecology before getting a position with the Mara Cheetah Project on the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

In 2011 she set up the Tsavo Cheetah Project, which not only monitors the number of cheetahs in the park (there are estimates that there are between 200 to 300 cheetahs in the Tsavo East part of the park) but also works to educate local communities and schools on cheetah conservation. She is a one-woman band, relying on help from volunteers who periodically come out to work with her on everything from writing grants and working on school conservation education programs to traveling through the bush to collect data on cheetahs.

With no permanent base, Ms. Schroff lives between a number of lodges and guest houses scattered across the park and goes back to the U.S. for a few months each year to fundraise for the Project’s conservation work.

Of all the big African cats, there is something mysterious and special about the cheetah; the fastest mammal on the planet that can reach up to 60 miles per hour while on the hunt, their population is decreasing in large part because of human/wildlife conflict. “I can say the number one problem with the cheetah population here is the human/wildlife conflict and human population growth,” she told me over a Skype interview in early June. “We have a new railway line [running from Nairobi to Mombassa] and a lot of us are worried about the impact it will have on the animals. Cheetahs are such an important population here yet a lot of people do not understand them.”

She says that cheetahs also face problems because as a big cat, they are misunderstood. “When we go into the local schools, what often we hear from head teachers is, “this is a vicious animal, why are you doing work with them,’” she said “So there is a lack of knowledge and education as far as the cheetah is concerned. Because of developments and the railway, cheetahs can be blocked off from their natural prey. It is easy for them to take livestock even though they prefer the natural pray.”

Increased conflict also comes from people who are wealthy landowners who simply don’t want wild animals on their lands. “Cheetahs are not well understood by rural communities who have traditionally viewed them as competition, threats to their livelihoods,”  Dr. Laurie Marker, the founder and executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, wrote in an email to “Having dedicated conservationists and researchers on the ground is critical in ensuring a future for cheetahs. They can work with people to educate them and break down misperceptions. It is important rural people learn how to peacefully coexist with predators, otherwise these already vulnerable populations will decline past the point of our being able to save them.”

Ms. Schroff agreed that education is one of the most important things for cheetah conservation on Tsavo. “To some people [the education aspect might be seen as] simple and boring, maybe to people in the West who I talk to about my project, they want lots of fancy research being done,” she said. “But really I think that is the number one aspect that has to be dealt with, teaching people that the cheetah is not harmful. For example, they don’t know the difference between the cheetah and the leopard.”

Being a white female American working in conservation can prove tough at times in Kenya, a place that in many ways is still very much a patriarchal and closed society. She said in her early days doing her work, she saw a lot of skepticism form chiefs, elders and communities towards her work. “It might seem at first an issue being an American, a Caucasian and a woman but to the majority it has seemed more an issue of building trust like ‘why are you out here and what do you want from us,’” she said. “And there is the question that they see conservation as wealthy people coming to make everything ‘right.’” She added that the relationship has grown over the years.

“Cherie is a fearless pioneer in a territory that is very important for the survival of the wild cheetah,” wrote Dr. Marker. “It’s a bit ironic, the female cheetah is a strong-willed and independent creature, and in Kenya, it is being protected by a group of strong-willed, independent women like Cherie and Mary Wykstra at Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (which started as Cheetah Conservation Fund Kenya, 2001-2008), and Dr. Elena Chelysheva from the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project. All cheetahs in this area — male or female –would not really have much of a chance without them.”

There is no typical day for Ms. Schroff—some days she spends applying for grants (the project is also  funded also by donations), while other days she will be in the park for the day, tracking the cheetahs. And, of course, there is the education, where Ms. Schroff goes into local schools and works with children. When asked what her favorite aspect was of her work, she said it was a tie between going into the park “seeing them again alive” and teaching conservation in schools.

Ms. Schroff said that working with children to educate them on cheetah conservations brings her mood back up on tough days. “The children are so spectacular—your morale can be so down from this job sometimes working with the government and some of these communities and hearing of retaliatory killings [of cheetahs], especially one that you had been following [for years] and made you feel happy,” she said. “But children are excited and they just give you hope. So it would be interesting to know what happens down the road if these children have this attitude at this stage, does it make a difference and change their attitude towards cheetahs as they grow older?” With the work of Ms. Schroff, and a number of other women across the continent, here’s hoping for positive change in the future.

by Ginanne Brownell Mitic 

Photos: 1) Cheetah from Shutterstock; 2) Ms. Schroff with students; 3) a blackboard after one of Tsavo Cheetah Project classes


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