By Joe Roberts @jrobertsjourno

CHEETAHS face a critical moment in their history, with numbers lower than ever and an increasing threat from conflict with human activities and shrinking habitats.

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Videographer / director: Nathan Pellow-Jarman
Producer: Joe Roberts, James Thorne
Editor: Tom Buckman

 

 

But a group of dedicated conservationists at Cheetah Outreach in South Africa has taken on the plight of the majestic big cat with unwavering determination.

Harry Hinds has worked with animals since his early teens, and now at 27 is Assistant Curator at the non-profit organization's facilities in Somerset West and Franschhoek, where he has formed an incredible bond with the cheetahs on-site.

Harry told Barcroft Studios: “You never take the respect that the cheetah has for you, or the respect you have for a cheetah for granted.

“They are an apex predator, so you’re always cautious, you’re always aware, and you’re always respectful.”

Founded by Annie Beckhelling in 1997, Cheetah Outreach has tackled the plight of the free-ranging South African cheetah since its inception, with educational programs, conservation support, and fundraising efforts.

The world cheetah population has dropped from close to 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century to around 7,100 as of 2019.

On top of that, the most endangered large African cat species are the approximately 1,300 in South Africa, with fewer than 500 free-roaming outside of protected areas.

But through education efforts and supporting conservation initiatives, the staff and volunteers at Cheetah Outreach are helping to combat these dwindling numbers and preserve one of nature’s most magnificent predators.

Volunteer, Jackson, said: “There’s not one single factor that's contributing to the decline of the wild population.

“It's something that’s difficult to fully grasp. And our goal here is to shine some light on the complexity.

“South Africa actually has the third-highest population of cheetah in the world, so it's incredibly important to keep that population plentiful and conserved.”

Harry added: “With human habitat and human population exponentially increasing, all these animals in the wild are losing their habitat. Cheetah is just one species that’s under threat.”

Harry, who is originally from Auckland, New Zealand, joined Cheetah Outreach in 2015 and says he has no concerns about interacting so closely with what he admits are ‘apex predators’.

“To be in an enclosure on your own is very special because it’s just you and the animal, and they really get to know you quite well,” he said.

“To have a cheetah come up and purr for you and groom you, or put his head on your shoulder is a very special connection to experience.

“Obviously cheetahs are apex predators and we’re always putting safety first. We’re never going to do anything that's unsafe. But also it's just really important to make sure that the cheetahs are comfortable. They tend to respect you back and have no issues whatsoever.”

The Assistant Curator’s daily routine includes feeding the animals, checking the integrity of their enclosures, and conducting runs where the cheetahs chase a lure and indulge their natural ability to run faster than any other land mammal.

“All of their physical adaptations are for speed,” explained Harry.

“They're not very good jumpers or climbers but they're very good at acceleration and their top speed is 100kmh which is very, very quick.”

But there’s more to the work than feeding the cats and taking them out for runs.

Harry is closely-bonded with all the cheetahs at the centre, especially Ebony, Romeo, and Rafiki – a five-year-old male who was brought to the facility after being born at a registered breeding centre.

“We took him on as an ambassador cat and he was integrated with Ebony,” explained Harry.

“They’re not blood brothers but if you integrate them at a young age, the male-to-male cheetah bond is one of the strongest in the animal kingdom and they form very strong coalitions for life.

“I’ve got lucky because Rafiki can be temperamental, but he really likes me and he greets me when I enter the enclosures.”

Harry has also helped raise cubs, rearing the young cheetahs on a bottle and helping the animals to become comfortable with human interaction.

It’s this hand-rearing process that allows the centre to bring the public on-site to interact with the fully-grown adults and have a truly unique experience up-close with the cheetahs.

Harry said: “I think the handling of the animals and allowing interaction with people has come with some controversy, especially online.

“But the best thing I can say is to come down to Cheetah Outreach and check out a cheetah encounter and see how we do it.”

Jackson added: “There's something special about bringing a group of guests in to meet the fastest animal on land, and Africa's most endangered big cat, and seeing the look on people's faces when they're able to stroke the cheetah for the first time. 

“So the elements of being around the cheetahs, contributing to conservation, and providing a once in a lifetime experience is hard to find anywhere else.”

Four of the seven cheetahs at the center regularly interact with the public, allowing the staff to educate visitors while they have an up-close and personal experience with the animals.

Aside from education, the center has seen real success in its fight against the very-real threat of cheetah extinction, with initiatives such as the Livestock Guarding Dog Programme, which has placed more than 300 dogs on South African farms since 2005.

Doing so provides farmers with an alternative to shooting or trapping wild cheetahs encroaching on their land, and so far Cheetah Outreach has helped conserve more than 400,000 hectares of land for cheetahs to exist safely through the program.

“You might think ‘what is a dog going to do to stop a cheetah?’,” said Harry.

“Well, actually, cheetahs can see five kilometers in detail, and if they see another predator like a big dog, they're not going to trade off conflicts with that dog in order to hunt something like livestock.

“So these dogs are actually a more effective deterrent for predators than an electric fence.”

Cheetah Outreach also has numerous research projects and education initiatives, including interactive presentations for children which see around 5,000 children learning about the cheetah’s plight annually.

Harry said: “I really feel that cheetahs need the support they can get from multi-faceted aspects of conservation and this is one way where we can really make a difference.”