:: playing with cheetahs ::

Sitting on the dusty ground about to put my thumb into a cheetah’s mouth, I had a momentary pause about the veracity of some of my life choices. Sure it seemed a good idea to go see cheetahs in a breeding centre, it even made sense to go into an enclosure where two fully grown cheetahs were involved in a training session to help them hunt in the wild. Heck, it was perfectly reasonable to walk into an enclosure with five adult cheetahs, but now here I was about to willingly stick a part of my body into a wild predators’ mouth.

Oh well, in my thumb went and what a weird sensation to have a cheetah sucking your thumb! I couldn’t help but laugh at the sensation as well as the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. Of course the cheetah was completely content, much like a child put at ease by their own thumb – the cheetah dozed off with my thumb firmly entrenched in its mouth.

Situated within Nambiti Game Reserve is the Kwa Cheetah Breeding Project. Started over ten years ago, this breeding, rehabilitation and education centre is one of the world’s greatest advocates and practical activists for helping the dwindling cheetah population. Their mission is to not only rescue and raise cheetahs, but to train them in order for them to be re-released into the wild, or at least into game reserves, which are still pretty wild! In addition to the 9 adult and 4 juvenile cheetahs, they have a leopard, three servals and a wild African cat.

We first realised we were in for something special when we got out of the car and saw a cheetah chewing on a large chunk of meat with a black Labrador laying not two feet from her. This cheetah was stepped on when she was a cub by her mother so her front shoulders were damaged so badly that she can no longer run – a major problem for a cheetah. She was the centre’s first cheetah and she and the black Lab have grown up together. They play together and have an agreement that the dog gets the remnants of all bones the cheetah doesn’t finish.

Some of the statistics around cheetahs are truly disturbing. There are only 7,500 cheetahs left in the world. That includes wild populations, game reserves, breeding centres, zoos and those in private hands. Cheetahs are facing dwindling numbers for several reasons, including some that play off one another to further exacerbate the seriousness.

Cheetahs are hunted both by illegal poachers and by farmers and ranchers who fear the encroachment of cheetahs on their land. Of course the cheetah habitat is shrinking due to the expansion of farms and ranch land. Cheetahs are also being pushed to the brink by natural causes such as hostility from other predators, mainly lions and hyenas and a propensity towards laziness.

The two most disturbing and surprising causes of cheetah decline are personal pets and a limited gene pool. Apparently cheetahs have become a trendy accessory for certain wealthy individuals, especially those in the Persian Gulf. The problem is that these cheetahs are taken from their mothers as cubs and then ‘domesticated’ only for the owners to find out that a two year old cheetah isn’t exactly a docile pet – so they are discarded, usually not in an appropriate manner.

The gene pool issue is far more challenging. According to research, all cheetahs can trace their genetic roots back to the same pair of cheetahs, but only from a couple hundred years back instead of millennia. This extremely small pool means that natural couplings of cheetahs can frequently lead to horrible birth defeats, such as cubs born with no legs or two heads. This is one of the things the breeding centre is trying to offset.  To this end they have recently brought in a male cheetah from Namibia which is offering about as significant a variance in genetics as possible for this challenged species.

The centre consists of several enclosures to separate the various species they have, but to also keep the cheetahs separate depending on their age, gender and development status. Two of the cheetahs are currently being actively trained how to hunt in the wild in preparation for their release. This is mainly done in a big field consisting of a series of wires making a huge loop and a stuffed bear tied to those wires. The bear is on a small harness that is controlled by the owners of the centre and they can zoom it around and back and forth making the cheetahs change directions and corner as if they were chasing something in the wild. It is pretty amazing to watch a cheetah reach full speed and realise there is nothing between you and it except it’s interest in catching a small stuffed toy!

Overall it is such a surreal experience. Having a chance to pet a leopard and interact so intimately with cheetahs. It is a rare experience to be able to sit down next to a sleeping cheetah and place its head in your lap! Not only don’t they mind, but they quite enjoy it and lie there purring and flicking their tails. To then to have cheetah cubs crawling into your lap and watch them playfully take off another person’s hat was quite a special encounter.

It might seem like just a gimmicky tourist attraction if it weren’t for the owners’ genuine love, respect and desire to help these cats. They are doing phenomenal work and you can’t help but leave there with a sense that anything is possible with the right people involved.

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