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SOUTH AFRICA CHEETAH OUTREACH ENCOUNTERS AND CONSERVATION

Story and photos by

Phoenix is purring a throaty murmur of contentment. "Cats that purr don't roar," says Vivienne Fouché, the cheetah's caregiver, as she gently pets his head.

Anatolian shepherd dog sleeps behind cheetah and caregiver.
Anatolian shepherd dog sleeps behind cheetah and caregiver.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The feline resides in South Africa's Somerset West Cheetah Outreach site. Located at Paardevlei on the coast, it's a 25-minute drive southeast of downtown Cape Town, just off the N2 highway.

The facility is about a 20-minute drive from the Spier Wine Estate Farm, its previous location.

Visitors enter the large wire-fenced enclosure to stroke Phoenix's tan and black-spotted fur. Fouché, who holds a leash attached to the cat's collar, advises them: "Don't bring in any bags. He'll think they're toys."

Cheetah protection

Entrance fees and donations help fund the Cheetah Outreach Program which campaigns for the protection of cheetahs and their environment. Orphaned and abandoned cubs, hand-raised by the program's caregivers, act as ambassadors.

By visiting schools, malls, community clubs and corporate gatherings, the cheetahs increase awareness of their plight. (The program's motto is "See it. Sense it. Save it.")

Cheetah information

In 1900, an estimated 100,000 cheetahs lived in 44 countries throughout Asia and Africa. Today, fewer than 10,000 remain worldwide. "There are only about 600 cheetahs left in South Africa, 400 of them in Kruger National Park," says Fouché. "Namibia has the world's largest number of free-roaming cheetahs, yet only 2,400 remain."

It was a vacation to Namibia that prompted Annie Beckhelling to launch the Cheetah Outreach Program. "She met farmers who proudly showed her skins from the cheetahs they'd killed," explains Fouché. "Namibian ranchers have shot over 9,000 cheetahs in the last 18 years. Annie, who lived in the U.K., gave up her career in the fashion industry to educate people about cheetahs."

Cheetah habitat

A sleek muscular body, large heart, wide nostrils and high lung capacity make the cheetah the fastest land animal in the world. With strides of seven to eight meters, and only one foot touching the ground at a time, a cheetah can reach speeds of 110 kilometers/hour in seconds. At two points in its stride, a cheetah has all four feet in the air.

A hunting cheetah
A hunting cheetah
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Unfortunately, this ability puts the cheetah in direct competition with humans. To achieve these high speeds, the animals require open flat land — precisely the same terrain used by man for agriculture and cattle grazing.

Farmers legally can remove cheetahs if they pose a threat to livestock or human life, but they often kill the animals indiscriminately. (It's difficult to pinpoint which animal is attacking livestock. Since cheetahs hunt by day, they're more visible than nighttime predators.) "Reducing the size of family units — mother and cubs, or brothers from the same litter — makes them vulnerable," notes Fouché. "Other families can take over their territory."

Anatolian shepherds

To diminish the conflict between farmers and cheetahs, other animals enter the picture: Anatolian shepherd dogs. Fouché introduces Merlin. The three-year-old is an ambassador for the non-lethal predator control program.

"We donate these dogs to farmers to guard their herds of cattle, sheep, goats and other livestock," she says. "Reared with the animals as pups, the dogs bond to them, fiercely confronting any intruders that threaten the herd."

In spite of the success of this program, the fastest land mammal is still losing its race for survival. Fouché explains: "Cheetahs hunt by tripping and suffocating their prey, rather than using force. Since they're reluctant fighters, more aggressive predators like leopards, lions and hyenas steal their kills and even their young."

Cheetah Outreach Program ambassador
Cheetah Outreach Program ambassador
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Loss of habitat and poaching further reduce their numbers and decrease the genetic diversity which makes cheetahs more susceptible to diseases. "If conditions aren't ideal for reproduction, females won't go into heat."

Cheetah babies

While breeding programs help, nearly 30 percent of all cubs born in captivity die within one month. In September 1997, the first litter of three cubs was born in the Cheetah Outreach breeding program.

Caretakers ensure that orphaned and abandoned cubs, reared at the site, receive proper nutrition, medical care and exercise. (Twice a week the cheetahs chase a bright yellow rag attached to a motorized pulley.) A photo on a poster board shows two cubs that were orphaned at three weeks of age. One year later, caregivers successfully released them in Botswana.

Even tame cheetahs retain their instinctive behavior. When a bicycle zips by the enclosure, Phoenix bolts upright. Rushing to the fence, he paces back and forth, stalking the intruder.

All petting stops. Visitors must wait until Phoenix is ready to relax and begin purring again in contentment.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Cheetah Outreach: www.cheetah.co.za


More African safari and wildlife information:

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The Complete African Safari Planner