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T.I.G.E.R.S. on the Savannah

Red dust blew in through the open window of the bus and collected in my hair, already travel worn after a day and a night in transit. I was sitting in the rear of the vehicle, looking at the backs of the heads of my nine travel companions, co-workers at T.I.G.E.R.S. (The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species.) All were looking a bit bedraggled, and anxious for a good washing. Enduring the eighteen hour flight to South Africa in a seat that wouldn't properly accommodate a small dog let alone a full sized human is always a trying experience, but having done it twice before I knew it would end up being worth the discomfort. You see, there is something about the country of South Africa that hooks you in and makes you crave it. I don't know what it is exactly, all I know is that as I sat there getting covered in dust, I was also breathing in the aroma that is completely unique to the Bushveld. It's kind of a mixture of sweet grass, diesel, warm earth and I don't know what else, but it reminds me of walking into my childhood home and hugging my mother after a long absence. It is a scent that nourishes.


We had recently met our guide at the airport, (a stoic and sun browned example of manliness), and been loaded along with all of our bags and fancy camera equipment into a cheetah spotted van.  We then drove away from the bustle of barbed wire and steel that is Johannesburg, past the fancy houses with glass shard studded stone fences, past the squatter towns or "impermanent settlements" as we were instructed to call them, and we were heading up into the hills. We came to film and train cheetahs in a place with no name that is a mere ninety minutes drive from the airport, but is as far removed from anything resembling a city as somewhere can be.

We wound our way along the dirt road and through layers of fencing, and finally came within view of the main building where we would be spending most of our down time. The main building was a one level red house full of comfy couches and books on African wildlife, with open french doors and windows. There were also several well appointed bedrooms in there, but after a short walk past the cozy pool area and down a winding wooden pathway the more attractive option ( to me anyway) were the raised tents arranged in a curving line around a little pond. My friend and coworker China York and I decided to share one of these, as did most of the other travelers.

The Foundation was created as a breeding facility for cheetahs, and also as a place for people of all kinds to come and learn about the plight of cheetahs in the wild. Most of the visitors to the preserve are local students, many of whom have been raised with the idea that cheetahs are nuisance animals that need to be eradicated in order to protect livestock. It is to these children of Africa that the message of conservation is most essential. This is why Dr.Bhagavan Antle and eight exotic animal trainers from T.I.G.E.R.S along with their veterinarian Dr.Sherri Duncan,decided to go and teach the staff how to train cheetahs to our lure system and make a video and photo documentary of this amazing event. Some of the T.I.G.E.R.S. 'staff have over twenty years experience working as professional videoographers and photographers. It is our hope that the sight of a beautiful cheetah pelting across the grass up close and personal both live and on DVD would help inspire their visitors and those who view the video and pictures, towards a more ecologically friendly way of life.

The staff of T.I.G.E.R.S. have dramatically shortened the learning curve for teaching the cheetahs having trained many other animals including; many tigers, pumas, wolves and birds or prey previously on the high speed lure.

Sleeping in the tents was one of the best parts of the whole trip for me. They all contained two real beds as well as a full shower, toilet and sink so we weren't really roughing it all that much. It was wonderful to sleep with nothing between me and the African night but a thin screen window. I fell asleep each night to the sounds of frogs from the pond, as well as the occasional crash of some type of hooved animal or another trundling through the grass to drink. And every night as we lay down we heard the tiny howls of the black backed jackals calling to one another over the miles of freedom that surrounded us.

We all seemed to wake with the sun in the morning, at around five AM. Shortly after we loaded into the land rover and headed over to where the cheetah stayed which was a very short distance from our camp. We brought along the lure system that we had built back in the US, which is essentially a two foot by two foot wooden box with a battery powered reel system inside it, controlled by a hand held button outside the box. The cord, with a rope toy, a bit of cloth, or a ball attached to the end is manually pulled out as far as you want it, and then when you are ready you can start and stop the reeling mechanism at will. When the lure reaches the box, someone has to close it inside quickly by pulling the open side shut with a string pull and locking it with a metal lock. The reel can travel at about 60 miles an hour, so we hoped the cheetah would as well.

The cheetah camp was surrounded by a chain link fence, with several large cheetah enclosures and a meat prep station at the back. Walking in through the secondary we saw three full grown cheetahs right there in the front yard. After a brief introduction to the two girls, Jemima and Nala and Nikita, the only male of the three cheetahs, we started to set up. We decided to try it in the front yard with a run of about fifty feet. We grabbed some bowls and a bucket of horse meat for rewarding them after the run and for getting them all to the starting line, and we began. We called them all down to the end of the yard with some of the meat, and China showed them the lure and dropped it just as Doc pushed the button to start the reel. They spooked for a moment, but were interested, so they slowly followed it back to the box. Rajani Ferrante attempted to reward them with meat in the bowls, but they didn't quite get that concept at first. By the second run they had it though, and they actually trotted after the lure a bit that time. By the third they had the whole thing pretty much down and we actually got a good run out of Nala, who we could see was the dominant character in the trio. From that point it was all just fun. The cheetahs were having a ball pelting after that bit of rope at top speed, and we were all having the time of our lives watching them do so. We were filming and taking pictures the whole time, and getting some pretty amazing shots. When they started to tire we packed it in for the day and sat around the yard with the panting cats.

We were then introduced to a younger group of six, four girls and two boys, who acted much more like the type of animal I'm used to. They were a bit hissy and they didn't trust us very well, which I believe must be mainly due to the fact that it was a larger litter. After a few days we would get the chance to see them run also, although they didn't take to it as well as the other three but we did get to see some great action and fun out of the 6 younger cheetahs.

Over the next twelve days, our crew ran the cheetahs in the yard watching them progress into a much more unified force in chasing after the lure. We also worked through a few problems that arose like the cats trying to shorten the distance they had to run by attempting to stop at half the course length waiting at that point to catch the lure instead of going all the way back to the beginning. The only other problem was getting the lure to go fast enough to not be caught! We are now hoping to continue the lure training concept to help train the cheetahs to hunt, since CSP has a plan to release cheetahs into the wild in the relatively near future.

At the end of our stay we got some amazing high quality video and some unbelievable photos, but we were exited the most by the potential of the project we had become part of. This was one of the most significant experiences I've ever had. I have been living in close quarters with all manner of exotic creatures for most of my adult life, but being there with these exceptional cats in their native land, watching them running loose a few feet in front of me, working towards something so positive.... It was a feeling that I will never forget. Hopefully the future visitors to The Cheetah Project will get that same kind of feeling, and a true change for the better will begin blowing in that sweet African breeze.

My associates and I are proud to be part of this meaningful project to save the Cheetah from extinction.

Numbers vary and are speculative as to how many Cheetah roam freely in the wild, some estimates are as high as 12 000 but some experts disagree believing that number to be less than half that.

In his recent book on large predators Monster of God (Norton 2003) naturalist David Quammen says:“the last viable free ranging population of big flesh eaters (big cats) will disappear sometime around the middle of next century” sic (21st Century).

In his book “Cheetahs of the Serengti Plains”, (1994 University of Chicago,) Tim Caro says:

“If the goal of captive breeding programs is to reintroduce cheetahs into the wild, as is often claimed, it is extraordinary that so few attempts have been made in this direction.”

The Savannah Cheetah Foundation is “making an attempt in this direction” ---that is --Reintroducing captive bred Cheetah into the wild.

A vital link in the chain, for the SCF program to succeed, is the continuing education both here --in the USA and in Africa-- and captive bred cheetah are one of the main components in this process. We have seen that a first hand experience with a cheetah, is the quickest way to gain a connection with, and a deeper appreciation for these magnificent animals. Nothing like the beauty power and grace of a running cheetah can create a feeling in the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The cheetah run at the Savannah Cheetah Foundation is the essential component to make this educational process exciting and meaningful. We hope to soon recreate this experience in the USA with SCF cheetah.

The success of this program will depend on co-operation on many levels and between many institutions.

The cheetah deserve that.