The past week saw one of the most impressive and unexpected stops on the tour so far - the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park in Namibia.
Until then I hadn't caught so much of a glimpse of the world's fastest land animal, and as I said to a travel mate, I might as well pack up and go home if I couldn't see one here.
The farm began in 1994, when the Nel family faced a huge problem with the big cats. In the course of one year, cheetahs took out 38 sheep and goats, plus an additional four calves on the family farm. But rather than shooting the cheetahs, as is both sanctioned and encouraged by the Namibian Nature Conservation, they opted instead to capture them - a decision they credit as having changed the course of their lives forever.
A pregnant female was among the captured cats, and when three of the five cubs survived birth, the family adopted them as house pets and decided to turn their working ranch into a private reserve for the protection of cheetahs. Today, the fenced reserve spans 250 hectares and provides a safe home for 22 wild cheetahs, in addition to their three current house pets.
Time spent with the 'domestic' ones was almost surreal, while at the same time feeling utterly safe. They began purring like idling Volkswagens as soon as we arrived, and all in we had about 45 minutes to spend with them in the Nels' backyard. As risky as you'd think the experience might be, there really was minimal (if any) danger. Cheetahs are specialized for speed and are notoriously weak compared to other big cats. In the wild, they will often get bullied off their kill by lions or hyenas, and although 'big' they stand at about the same height as standard sized dog. They were even left free to play with the family's Jack Russel, doing no more to it than rolling it end over end if it got to yappy or in their face.
After the visit with the house cats we survived an hour long deluge before piling into the back of a pick-up truck for feeding time in the wild reserve. These cheetahs were an entirely different story. Unlike their domestic cousins, these were fit, lean predators in the prime of their lives. Just one hundred yards into the fenced off reserve we were surrounded by no less than a dozen active, pacing animals with no more than the open rail of the truck bed between us and them. I never felt more like a cow being led to the slaughter than at that moment.
But again, it was surprising how little of a threat they were, despite all appearances. The guides stepped directly out of the truck armed with nothing more than a small stick about the size of a conductor's wand - just a prop to make themselves look a bit bigger in the face of a couple bluff charges by the more aggressive cats. Once on the ground, they hauled out the garbage bin of fresh donkey meat that had been riding in the back with us and gave each a healthy 2kg chunk.
I realize that all sorts of people have a problem with keeping big cats or other wild animals as pets. I've never endorsed it, but in secure grounds in the middle of nowhere I could see no harm. All of the cheetahs were in immaculate health, and the service the Nels are providing in giving these animals a safe habitat in the face of the farmers' rifle puts them far beyond most cheetah conservation efforts, particularly the Namibian government who continues to sanction their killing.
All in their are just 7,500 cheetahs remaining in the world, but through their "pest control" policy, the Namibian government endorses the killing of up to 500 to 600 every year. Meanwhile, the Nels are looking to greatly expand their efforts. Eventually, they aim to have their entire 7,500 hectare farm securely fenced for the benefit of the cats. It was more than a pleasure to leave them with a donation towards that effort. The cost of fencing is about $50 Namibian Dollars (about $7 per km), and every square meter of land included in the reserve means a better life for the cheetahs who live there, and more room to transfer other cats that are facing a death sentence on local livestock farms.
For more information on the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park, see the complete contact details below.
Tollie & Roeleen Nel
Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park
PO Box 60
Phone: 09 264 67 687056
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Mario@cheetahpark.com