[ Project Watch ]

A hungry cheetah, a thorny problem—and an ingenious solution.

Ok, so you’re a cheetah and you’re hungry. You prowl around, scouting for a nice gazelle for dinner, but you suddenly realize that you can’t see very far because there’s a lot of dense thorny (ow!) brush in your way. Come to think of it, you haven’t seen many gazelles in the neighborhood for a while. There’s no grass here anymore; the thorn bushes have taken over. Which leaves you no open space to chase a gazelle, even if you’re lucky enough to spot one. Phooey.

It’s true: between cattle farming, fire suppression policies, and weather, acacia thorn bushes have taken hold in Namibia, rendering as much as 14% of the land essentially unusable. The acacia thorn bush is a highly invasive species that displaces grass, especially in arid areas that have been overgrazed. The dense thickets not only prevent farmers from using the land, they also disrupt the natural ecosystem—game animals are unable to graze, and cheetahs that depend on that prey are unable to feed themselves.

Enter Dr. Laurie Marker and the smart people at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF)Over the past 10 years, the CCF has developed a solution that not only addresses the problem of overgrowth, but also creates economic opportunities for the local community: the thorn bushes are harvested and turned into compacted fuel logs for cooking and home heating. As it happens, thorn bush wood makes an excellent biofuel. When chipped and processed, it burns slowly and very hot. And it’s environmentally sound—it’s smokeless and leaves very little ash.

bushblok

In 2008, Bushblok won the Intel Tech Award Prize for the Environment.

In 2004, CCF Bush PTY Ltd,a company founded by CCF, built a plant in Namibia to process the wood. The bushes are first harvested, by hand or mechanically, then dried in the sun. The dried wood is fed into a chipper and the wood chips are transported to the processing plant. They’re milled into smaller chips and put through an extrusion press. The heat and pressure of the extruder causes the natural lignin, cellulose, and hemicelluloses in the wood to form a natural binder, so no additives are required to hold the extruded material together. The final product is a densely compacted log that is cut to size, bundled, wrapped, labeled, and sold as Bushblok.

The project currently employs 30 Namibians, and has restored thousands of acres of habitat land for cheetahs and their prey species. The CCF hopes to replicate this program in other sub-Saharan countries, helping the local communities by providing jobs and clean energy while creating a less hostile environment for endangered cheetahs and their prey.

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