From National Geographic News Watch: Tourists traveling in the Cape Town area of South Africa often make the scenic drive through wine country, which is where Cheetah Outreach is located. Founded in 1997 by Annie Beckhelling, Cheetah Outreach started off as an educational project, bringing ambassador cheetahs to the public. Since then, it has grown to a facility that trains captive bred cheetahs for other international organizations, expanded its outreach and also cares for caracal, serval, bat-eared foxes and jackals. Annie is highly dedicated to the cause of conservation. Last December, when I discovered a stall in Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square trying sell a cheetah skin, she was the first person to respond and take action within less than twenty-four hours. Annie is also a member of many wildlife forums, taking part in the larger discussions on the future plans of range-wide conservation initiatives. For the full story visit Busting a Cheetah Skin Seller. (I have requested more information on the case in recent months from Cape Nature’s Biodiversity Crime Unit, but there has been no response on any progress as of September, 2012.)
To come full circle from my first encounter with an ambassador cheetah, Cheetah Outreach is where Tango was raised. (Tango is an ambassador cheetah with Project Survival’s Cat Haven, located in Dunlap, California.) As one of the best-known educational, cheetah conservation focused organizations in South Africa, they are consistently flooded with visitors. The high cost of safari, coupled with the sad dearth of cheetah in the wild make facilities like Cheetah Outreach of vital importance. Tourists can see them up close, learn about their plight and take the inspiration home. Sharing the story of this cat is a big part of the job conservation, just as much as the research and field work.
Facility Manager Liesl Smith took time from her busy schedule to give me an insider’s tour, meet some of the cats as well as photograph the cheetah run. The run track is a large grassy enclosure with a small hill in the middle and a grove of trees on one end. A mechanical pulley system sits low on the ground, which drags a thin rope around the track. A bright piece of cloth is tied to the rope, and when the pulley starts to zip around, the cats see a bright flash of an object and they tear off after it at their famous top speed.
Every cat possesses its own unique personality and mood, and some are clearly more interested in chilling under a branch or lounging on the hill. But when that lure starts to zip around the track nothing can stop the cats’ enthusiasm for the chase. In the early morning, numerous handlers position themselves at various points on the field and communicate through radios. There are no fences between us and the cats, and the staff takes safety very seriously even though we’re clearly chopped liver compared to the speeding ribbon. Given the old joke, ‘only food runs’, all handlers and extra humans (in other words, me) stay incredibly still while the cheetah chases the lure. A few times around the track, and one by one each cat slows to a trot and feigns indifference at the pulley, still zipping by them. Once the staff observes that one is clearly ‘over it’ for the day, the cheetah is led back to its original enclosure to do what all cats do well, relax.
Cheetah Outreach’s public facing facilities is just one part of their operation. Behind the scenes of fun and play is a very intensive, dedicated operation that takes place nearly one thousand miles from wine country. Stay tuned for a rare look into life on the road as I join Cyril Stannard delivering livestock guard dog puppies in one of the most remote regions of South Africa.
For more on captive cheetah runs in America, visit The Cheetah Run
All images & text: Marcy Mendelson © 2012 / Cheetah-Watch.com
This post can also be viewed with additional photography at National Geographic News Watch