For my birthday this year (2014) , I was incredibly spoiled with a surprise birthday gift – a visit to the Cheetah Outreach programme in Paardevlei. Here, I had the incredible opportunity to take part in a ‘cub encounter’, where I was introduced to two of the five cheetah cubs currently residing at the sanctuary. I could barely contain my excitement upon seeing my first cheetah!
After purchasing tickets for the encounter experience (the money of which goes towards helping the Outreach), I made my way through the curio shop and lecture theatre, where seminars and presentations about the protected cheetah are held, and headed outside to the enclosures. I turned a corner and suddenly I spotted a big cheetah patrolling the fences of one of the more far-off enclosures. I quickly raced to the viewing platform (amusingly named ‘the Cat Scan’), where you can look out onto the fields of various cheetah enclosures. Here, I spotted several more adult cheetahs, and I just couldn’t wait to get into an enclosure myself. After having checked out the other animals residing here, including Black-Backed Jackal, Meerkat, Serval, and Anatolian Shepherd Livestock Guarding Dogs (which are placed on farms to protect them from predators such as cheetah), I made my way to the gated area where the cub encounters were about to begin.
Firstly, they had us put all belongings in a locker and sanitise our hands and feet/shoes. We then entered the first gate, and sanitised once more before heading into the actual enclosure (the cubs are very susceptible to picking up diseases, so hygiene is very important). My guide was a young British volunteer who seemed very enthusiastic about her work, and she couldn’t stop giggling about how excited I was. My guide asked me to step forward and introduced me to Masika, a gorgeous 6-month old cub. She may have been young, but Masika is one intimidating little lady! She eyed me out the entire time, and made sure I knew that she was being generous by allowing me the privilege of stroking her fur. My heart was beating so fast it made me feel dizzy, but watching Masika lick her trainer’s arm reminded me of my own cat back home, giving me a chance to relax and see her as a playful cat for a moment. I was instructed to stroke only her back and upper sides with an open, flat-palmed hand, (apparently stroking their backs with your fingers tickles the cheetahs, and they can become unpredictable).
After a couple of photo opportunities with Masika, she got bored and wandered off, which is when our guide explained that the encounters have to be tailored around the cheetahs and their moods. For me, this was great to hear, because it solidified the values of the Cheetah Outreach – to allow the animals to be themselves as much as possible. In fact, when I told my guide that I wanted to become a volunteer just to have the chance to play with cheetahs on a daily basis, she told me that even the volunteers don’t get to ‘play’ with their precious creatures. At the Cheetah Outreach, cheetahs are encouraged to interact and play with each other as much as possible, allowing for a slow disintegration of the volunteer/cub relationships and the instigation of cheetah-on-cheetah relationships. I was also informed that the cats are often taken out to a vast neighbouring field and are given free reign to run around and chase a plastic bottle attached to a whip. Apparently the cheetah runs are an incredible sight; as it’s not often you get to see the true running speed of these magnificent animals at such a close distance. The cheetahs are also taken on frequent walks, with harnesses and leads that ensure their safety.
After I was introduced to the other cub in the enclosure, Kerrera, we managed to snap a few photographs before having to exit the gates with everyone else (there are only about 8 people maximum allowed in at a time). I felt like the experience went by far too quickly, but it was an unforgettable encounter. I can still remember in detail the way their course fur felt against my palm, and how Masika sat next to me with her tongue sticking out, making a couple of us laugh.
However, after leaving the enclosure and reading up on some of the facts provided on tourist brochures in the lobby, my heart sank knowing how threatened these beautiful animals are out there in the wild. Their decline is largely due to loss of habitat, decline in prey, poaching, persecution by livestock farmers, and competition with other big predators in protected areas. I was sure to leave a donation on my way out, figuring it was my way of paying them back for a priceless experience.
It took 4 million years of evolution for the cheetah to become the exquisite creature it is today, but only 100 years for man to place it on the endangered list. Currently the fastest land animal on the planet is losing its most crucial race: the race for survival. At the turn of the 20th century, approximately 100,000 cheetahs resided throughout Africa, and in areas of the Middle East and Central Asia. Today, there are only 7,500 remaining, of which South Africa is home to less than 1,000. The Cheetah Outreach was founded by Annie Beckhelling in 1997 at Spier Wine Estate with just two cheetahs, but has since relocated to Somerset West for bigger grounds, and is now the premier cheetah protection programme in the Western Cape of South Africa – most certainly worth a visit.