Have you ever heard the sound a cheetah makes when it’s content – the deep, resonant rumble that sounds so much like a normal cat’s purr? Or perhaps you’ve watched a pack of wild dogs stalking something through the bush, listened to their eerie wails as their camouflaged shapes flit sinuously in and out of sight?
If not, then you’ve obviously never been to the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre in De Wildt. Although these experiences may not sound like something the everyday man on the street can anticipate, this breeding and rehabilitation Centre outside Pretoria promises just such an experience.
It’s been more than three decades since a pioneering lady from De Wildt cemented her place in world history. The lady in question is Ann van Dyk and the historic occasion was the first ever captive birth of a litter of cheetah cubs in South Africa.
Since it was founded in 1971, the Centre has bred more than 800 cheetah cubs. Van Dyk says, ”I never dreamed that from our humble beginnings we would have achieved so much. I have given my life to this charismatic cat and the rewards have been priceless.” The Centre is also responsible for the re-emergence of the mythical king cheetah, long thought to be an extinct sub-species. The birth of a striking “striped” cub at De Wildt cleared up the ancient mystery – proving conclusively that the king’s colour aberration is due to a recessive gene.
The wild dog breeding initiative has also been particularly successful, with over 500 puppies born at De Wildt. The ground-breaking reintroduction programme has shown that captive born dogs can be successfully released into the protected wild areas, making strides towards the survival of this often misunderstood carnivore.
Despite these successes, however, Van Dyk and the Centre have realised that breeding alone is not enough to preserve the future of our natural heritage. In light of this, the operation stationed in De Wildt has shifted it focus to include important aspects such as outreach and education, ongoing research and assisting farmers with so called “problem animals” whenever possible.
The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre is ensuring the future survival of threatened species through a holistic conservation approach aimed at raising public awareness.
Part of this process involves sharing the Centre’s work with visitors by taking them on guided tours. This is nothing like a safari through your average nature reserve, where you’re lucky to spot an elusive predator as a tiny speck on the horizon. Here you will come close enough to count the cheetah’s spots and hear it hiss; so near that you can even see the tatty raggedness of a wild dog’s ear.
The open safari vehicle rumbles down Lovers Lane, where breeding females lie lasciviously, waiting for their prospective partners to come strolling past. Now the tour heads past the Monastery where the poor boys who aren’t allowed to breed this season idle away their time beneath the shady spread of massive Acacias.
A definite highlight is entering the den of the dog, where you travel through a camp with wild dogs pacing and wailing alongside the safari vehicle. Any thoughts of hopping down to pet the dogs are soon banished as you witness the voracious feeders devouring their meal in seconds.
You’ll also visit the Vulture Unit, home to the vulnerable cape griffon, lappet-faced and white-backed vultures. These birds are at the Centre because of injury or poisoning. Those that can, are rehabilitated back into the wild, but long term residents become the core of the unit’s research pool, as well as providing visitors a glimpse of some of the vulture’s remarkable characteristics.
In addition to the standard tour, you can also meet the cheetah ambassadors – the cadre of hand-reared cheetahs that are taken into schools to spread the conservation message. By having your photo taken with Byron or one of his team, you help to fund outreach education work at rural schools.
The ambassadors are also participants in the regular cheetah run. This ties in with ongoing research, caters to the general well-being of the ambassadors, and affords visitors the opportunity to witness the cheetah’s renowned burst of lightning speed. It really is breathtaking.
Out of town visitors have the option of booking in at the friendly and comfortable De Wildt Cheetah Lodge. Alternatively, you can enjoy virtually everything on offer at the Centre as a full bush experience by visiting its sister facility, De Wildt/Shingwedzi Wildlife Ranch – a 900 hectare conservancy in the beautiful malaria free Waterberg region.
Visit www.dewildt.co.za for further information about tours or accommodation options, or call 012-504-9906/7/8 or 083 892 0515 for bookings.