One of the most impressive and humbling parts of our recent trip to Cape Town was visiting Cheetah Outreach, located about 25 minutes from the city. In January 1997, founder Annie Beckhelling launched the project with two cheetahs and a small parcel of land provided by Spier Wine Estates located in nearby Stellenbosch, which is now now relocated to Paardevlei, Somerset West, South Africa. Annie gave us a guided tour of the expanding space she now oversees. She explained the goal of her non-profit organization as promoting the survival of the free ranging, Southern African cheetah through environmental education and delivering conservation initiatives.
Annie and Dawn (the Education Manager at Cheetah Outreach) described how it took four million years of evolution for the cheetah to become the exceptional animal it is today, but only 100 years for man to place it on the endangered list. “Now the fastest land animal in the world is losing its most important race: the race for survival,” is the theme of the staff. An impressive educational film is presented to visitors and to schoolchildren who visit Cheetah Outreach via the “Bus to Us” initiative. Visitors learn that at the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 100,000 cheetahs lived throughout Africa and in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. Today there are just 7,500 cheetahs left and South Africa is home to fewer than 1,000 of these majestic cats.
Cheetah Outreach has evolved into an education and community-based program created to raise awareness of the plight of the cheetah and to campaign for its survival. In its first year alone, Cheetah Outreach was visited by more than 50,000 people via traveling to educational facilities, community clubs, hotels, malls, and various public events.
Dawn described the primary reason for the cheetah’s decline is a shrinking range due to habitat loss throughout Africa. Drastic increases in human population and the proliferation of domestic animals has led to loss of the cheetah’s habitat and prey, and increasing conflict with man, specifically farmers. Later in our trip we saw a few cheetahs on safari, but Annie further described the challenge faced by the cheetah. Because it is low in the predator hierarchy, the cheetah faces competition from other predators and does not do well in parks and reserves with large lion and hyena populations.
Competition with other large predators takes the form of direct predation on cubs, occasional killing of adults and loss of kills by the cheetah. Being a daytime hunter, the cheetah is an easier target than other predators for harassment by tourists. In many parks and reserves, tourist vehicles routinely disrupt cheetah hunts.
As a result, most cheetahs in Southern Africa live outside protected areas and come into conflict with livestock farmers.
The cheetah living outside of reserves hunts on farmland and being a diurnal hunter is many times incorrectly blamed for livestock loss, and the farmer understandably shoots or traps the cheetah. We learned about how Annie and the Cheetah Outreach team have begun a successful initiative breeding huge Turkish Anatolian Shepherd dogs, which are then placed on South African farms to guard livestock in an effort to reduce the conflict between farmers and predators.
This brilliant effort has met with success in its eight years of implementation. Farmers have come to embrace the dogs as a far more humane way to not only protect their livestock but to halt the tortuous decline in the cheetah population. By turning around the gradual eradication of the cheetah population better biodiversity is assured, thereby diminishing the harsh effects of a limited cheetah gene pool.
Annie and Dawn then led us to the pinnacle of our visit, an encounter with a cheetah. Volunteer and staff handlers, who work for years with Cheetah Outreach, handled the cheetahs as we moved quietly, slowly and somewhat confidently into their large fenced areas. The cheetahs were lying down, but we knew that with their 24 foot stride and flexible pretzel-like spine the cheetahs could move faster than anything not motorized. We were told we could pet these magnificent cats softly, as long as we knelt down only on one knee.
Although the cheetah was in a relaxed position reminiscent of the position our house cat often assumes, I knew that the crucial differences of these cats were massive. I opted not to give the cheetah the brisk petting treatment favored by our house cat. With almost breathless movement, I partially knelt and stroked the gorgeous coat. The cheetah’s coat is tan with about 2,000 small round black spots, and the fur is coarse and short. Fortunately, I saw no evidence of its semi-retractable claws. The cheetah has a small head with high-set eyes. Black “tear marks,” which run from the corner of its eyes down the sides of the nose to its mouth, keep the sun out of its eyes and aid in hunting. Looking into those eyes at close range was primal.
After several timeless minutes, we left the cheetahs to their minders. It was hard to concentrate on what Annie was telling us, as the intensity of the experience was so strong. But soon we were focused on the expansion plans Annie was describing. Cheetah Outreach is situated ironically on the site of what was the largest dynamite production facility in the world. Cheetah Outreach will now have access to a far larger space, with a lake and attendant foliage.
Cheetah Outreach has a solid curriculum of teaching kids in three languages about the cheetah and the organization’s efforts to halt the animal’s eradication. Despite a tiny budget, various forward-thinking organizations have thrown their financial support behind the initiative and most school visits are free. Sponsors range from local organizations to global contributors (BP, British Airways) and zoos in New Zealand, Australia and America.
We were humbled to see what Annie and her staff has accomplished on a budget of only 1.5 million Rand (about $165,000). The protocols she has developed with Cheetah Outreach have been adopted globally. When I commented on how amazing it was to see her involvement with such huge beautiful animals, Annie noted that it is often the case that women are drawn to the big animals and men are drawn to birds.
Everyone who visits Cheetah Outreach undoubtedly leaves with a newfound appreciation of these beautiful animals and the effort of Cheetah Outreach to keep them alive.