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Ann Van Dyk’s forty two years towards saving the Cheetah

A sudden flashback and Ann van Dyk  is once again a young woman working with her brother Godfrey on ‘De Wildt’, her late parents’ chicken farm, in the foothills of the Northern Magaliesberg farm.

Lana at De Wildt Cheetah Research and Breeding Centre

On this morning, the energetic 81 year-old, is leading us on a tour of what has now become known as the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, and explaining how the farm acquired its legendary status.

“Back then in the late sixties days were frenetically busy at our farm, with six to seven thousand dozen egg orders daily. Godfrey and I acquired two hissing and snarling cheetah cubs to care for through a farmer who had shot their mother for killing his livestock. It was a thrilling experience.”

Word spread and the Nature Conservation truck arrived confiscated and deposited the cubs at the Pretoria zoo.  Godfrey and Ann were already in love with the exotic bundles of fur and pursued the idea of possibly keeping cheetahs legally. They approached the director of the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, Dr. Frank Brand, who told them that due to the fur trade and expanding human population, cheetahs’ numbers had dwindled so dramatically since the mid nineteenth century that they had been placed on the endangered animal species list.  One of the planet’s fastest mammals, the cheetah is also the most vulnerable of the world’’ big cats; it cannot exist in mountainous and thickly forested areas: it needs expansive flatland on which to hunt and run down its prey.  But the open plains are also coveted by man. 

Dr. Brand added, “It is equally difficult to breed cheetah in captive conditions. The mortality rate in zoos is high, and the field for scientific study is wide open to researchers.”

Somehow an agreement was harvested between the zoo and the van Dyk’s, whereby the Pretoria zoo would lease 50 hectares of De Wildt land on a non payment basis, and a study would be made of the cheetahs’ breeding habits. In exchange the zoo would provide food, and veterinary support.

Godfrey and Ann were given nine cheetahs to care for; they began studying why cheetahs wouldn’t breed in captivity. Thus was born the De Wildt Cheetah Research and Breeding Centre.

At the time of the breeding programme there was an estimated population of a mere 700 cheetahs in South Africa.  The centre has so far managed to breed over 1000 cheetahs, and in later years, endangered African wild dog, hyenas, servals, riverine rabbits and a population of vultures.

Over the last four decades Ann van Dyk has gained legendary status with zoos’, foundations, scientists and researchers around the globe for her conservation efforts. We battle to keep pace with the 81 year-old as she strides towards a huge cheetah enclosure.  She gestures at the beautiful creature with its spotted pelt.  “We experienced many hiccups but the big breakthrough happened in 1975, when six females bred twenty-three cubs.  With the veterinarian’s assistance and advice we were on our way.”

In 1981 the centre made history with what newspaper headlines read as, ‘A New Species of Cheetah, Pretoria’s Miracle Birth.’ A striped cheetah cub, the little known King Cheetah, was born of two normally spotted cheetah parents.“My brother died suddenly at a young age. “My lease with the zoo had expired, and I realised I had to make a living, so I went into business on my own, using the profits from the sale of the chicken farm and by conducting guided tours around the farm, I was able to continue with this conservation effort,” explains Ann.

In 1986 the centre received international recognition when the cheetah was removed from the South African endangered species list, and in 1988 Ann received the gold medal award of the South African Nature Foundation for her work, the first of scores of honorary awards. The centre had by now received world wide acclaim, and International Zoos were requesting a supply of cheetahs, wanting the public to be taught the value of the fast disappearing charismatic cat.  The centre was registered as the first CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered species of wild fauna and flora) approved breeding Centre in the world. Cheetahs were exported to CITES approved zoos and animal sanctuaries in California, Miami, Nevada, Columbus, New Zealand, and Australia.

Leading us towards the enclosure where she keeps her “Ambassador” cheetahs, she says, “I wanted to discover if the cheetahs would fare if released into the wild.  Would their natural hunting instincts successfully kick in?  It was also important to ascertain the exact land size and requirements for cheetah in the wilds. And thirdly, I wondered, would they reproduce?   A female was released on 4 500 hectares and later a male.”

“The programme was monitored, and after a few hits and misses they hunted perfectly and reproduced. Her last decade has been more eventful than ever for Ann since she felt an obligation to begin educating schoolchildren on the vital role of the eco system and conservation of their own environments and about wild cats especially in the rural areas.  So she registered CHEETA (Community Help Enviro Education Through Animals), a non profit outreach organisation, and she trained educators to visit schools taking with the ‘Ambassador’ cheetah.

CHEETA has to date reached over 100 000 children from Limpopo and North West to Gauteng.

Ann says, “It was clear that to maintain a genetically viable population of cheetahs and wild dogs, it is essential that young animals run, exercise and grow in wide open spaces.  And, for health reasons it was considered not good policy to have all our animals in one place.  I acquired Shingwedzi Cheetah and Wildlife Ranch.  The 856 ha ranch near Bela-bela hosts two hour educational tours and has self contained chalets, each with their own swimming pool for staying guests. “I commute, dividing days between the Magalies and the Bela-bela centres,” she says

Now Ann insists on escorting us to the beautiful De Wildt Cheetah Lodge “next door” which she opened in 2002 to overseas visitors, and as a local weekend getaway spot.

It’s 6pm, time for the trek back to the traffic fumes of Johannesburg. Ann shyly hands me a gift, the second edition of her autobiography ‘The Cheetahs of de Wildt’, and with a faraway gazes into the distance smiles, “I hope in a small way I will one day have contributed to the survival of an animal that has lived on this earth for aeons of time- the cheetah.”

De Wildt Cheetah Research and Breeding Centre

In the 1900’s the cheetah population was estimated to be in excess of 100, 000.  By 2000 the population had dwindled to less than 10,000.

Their numbers are reduced by more than 90% since 1900.  Today in Asia there is a pocket of less than 100, mostly in Iran.

Cheetah can run 100-110km km in an hour and do from zero to 34km in less than three seconds.

Cheetah trafficking is very lucrative enterprise with well established networks.

The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre is a Non-Profit Institute.  It is financed partially by sponsors and partially by donations and income from tourism.

Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre

Tel: 27+12 5049906/7/8 
Cell:    28(0) 83 892 0515
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