The cheetah is now Africa’s most endangered big cat. Sadly the population has suffered a dramatic 90 % decline over the past century, with the number of cheetahs having consistently dropped every year since 1900.
There are now fewer than 10,000 adults remaining in Africa, compared with over 100,000 in 1900, and one tenth of these cheetah now live in captivity. International Cheetah Day on December 4th aims to raise awareness of the drop in population and the challenges that the species faces, and to draw attention to the fantastic conservation work being done in Africa to help to protect them.
We have come up with two places where one can get really close up to cheetah, spending time with them, in Namibia and in South Africa. Here you can witness first hand the fantastic conservation work that is being done to help cheetah. Other fabulous places to see cheetah in the wild include the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania.
Okonjima is a beautiful private nature reserve in the central highlands of Namibia. The reserve is home to the Africat Foundation whose purpose is to conserve some of Namibia’s larger cats, particularly cheetah.
The cheetah project offers visitors a cherished insight into the welfare work of The AfriCat Foundation who operate a rescue and release programme, which is a welfare programme for those animals that cannot be released and they provide them with medical attention.
The reserve has been family owned and run since the early 1900s and to generate funds to carry out the Africat Foundation work. They’ve built a variety of accommodation on the reserve, where guests can stay and learn more about the work done by the Africat Foundation as there is an education and research centre on the property, as well as rehabilitation camps for various animals.
You may have the opportunity to experience these cats first hand, and learn about what is being done by the foundation to ensure the survival of these animals in Namibia. Okonjima’s rehabilitation programme provides the opportunity for the cheetah to learn to hunt and therefore be returned to the wild.
Successfully rehabilitated cheetahs are relocated to parks and game farms. Most of the cheetahs you will see at AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre are in-line to be rehabilitated into the private Okonjima Nature Reserve and are patiently awaiting their turn to get another chance to be released back into the wild.
There are, however, some cheetah who are too old or too tame to be released back into the wild, so these individuals will live out the rest of their lives under the skilled care of the AfriCat team and continue to be ambassadors for their wild counter-parts.
You can also track cheetah on foot. The cheetahs within the rehabilitation are radio tracked, and you can go out with researchers to track and view them. This is a great way to learn more about these animals.
There is also a guided mountain walk which includes identification of animal spoor, information on the local people, and the most spectacular views. I did this on my last trip in May and we watched a cheetah male bring down a scrub hare and devour it. We were within feet of him and he didn’t mind a bit – we spent an hour with him!
Two spacious hides are within walking distance of the lodge and Okonjima's night hide is always popular as well where one can choose, after dinner, to observe nocturnal animals such as porcupine and honey badger as they go about their business.
The AfriCat project encourages a very close affinity with the animals, and the rangers are both vastly informative and thoroughly engaging. This, allied to the wonderful work that the project does, and saying nothing of how charming the place itself is, makes Okonjima one of my favourite spots in Namibia.
In South Africa, in the malaria free Eastern Cape, Samara is privileged to be home to the highly endangered cheetah. It has been estimated that the last wild cheetah in this area was seen over 125 years ago. Cheetahs were seriously hunted in the Eastern Cape and the Great Karoo areas and the Samara cheetahs made conservation history as the first to return to this region after 125 years.
Part of Samara’s cheetah conservation accomplishment is the fact that Samara is free of the predator competition found in the Big Five game reserves. Without the pressure of other predators such as spotted hyena and lion, the Samara cheetah population has been able to prosper.
Samara works very closely with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to make sure that this highly endangered species is given the ultimate chance of survival. Samara swaps its cheetah populations with other reserves, ensuring that the gene pool is as varied as possible.
Samara Private Game Reserve is situated in the malaria free region of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. It is one of the largest private reserves in South Africa and sits on 27 000 hectares of lush wilderness. The openness and space of the reserve is striking and the Sneeuberg Mountains provide a stunning backdrop for the Karoo Lodge set below the beautiful escarpment.
Samara has excellent guides and there are also brilliant walking trails to be guided on. There is a sleep out where you can sleep beneath the African sky, whilst stargazing at the stunning stars. Samara is home to an impressive range of game species due to its diverse variety of habitats.
This area boasts a substantial population of eland, cheetah, white rhino, black wildebeest, giraffe, Cape Mountain zebra, kudu, gemsbok, springbok, red hartebeest, as well as a variety of small mammals like vervet monkey and meerkat. The highlight is looking for cheetah on foot!
Due to the unavailability of food and land and the hazardous threat brought on by poachers and conflict with local communities, a cheetah faces many pressures in the wild. The cheetah’s life expectancy in the wild is now only 4-6 years, whereas in captivity the cheetah will live for 10-15 years.
They really are the most fascinating and majestic creature to see in the wild, something I have been lucky enough to do a number of times. Many people know that the cheetah is the fastest land animal (it has been recorded at speeds of up to 75 miles per hour when hunting prey) and that they can reach their top speed in only just 3 seconds.
But not many people know that when running flat out, their feet only touch the ground twice during each stride – a stride being 21 feet! Also fascinating is that they have long, muscular tails which almost function like a boat’s rudder as they use it to maintain their balance and steering when running very fast, and they have semi non-retractable claws that give lots of traction when running.
Their distinctive tear marks that run from the corners of their eyes down to the edges of their mouth help to reflect the brightness of the sun when they are chasing their prey during the daytime.
If you’re not lucky enough to visit Okonjima or Samara, you can find out how you can help by going to the International Cheetah Day website. You can also discover more about what the essential charity the Cheetah Conservation Fund does to protect this magnificent feline. And remember ……the cheetah needs our help not just on December 4th, but every day of the year!
If you would like to discuss cheetah conservation further, please feel free to contact me.
This blog was originally posted in December 2018 and revised and updated in December 2019.