Prof. Mary Ball Howkins' Cheetah Conservation Efforts in South Africa

Mary Ball Howkins pets a cheetah.

Volunteering recently at the Hoesdpruit Centre for Endangered Species in the northeastern corner of South Africa gave me a detailed appreciation of the survival status of the cheetah. Cheetah survival rates worldwide are dismal. Since India’s cheetahs are presumed extinct, and about 50 Asiatic cheetahs survive in Iran, Africa’s cheetahs are critical to the survival of the entire species. 

The largest surviving concentration of the cats is in Namibia. In South Africa the numbers are radically smaller. Most wild cheetahs hunt in the most northern reaches of the country along the borders of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana. According to the organization Cheetah Outreach, South Africa has about 850 cheetahs: 350 in conservation areas and 500 free-roaming in the Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape Provinces.

To shore up the dwindling numbers several breeding programs are under way. These not only breed cheetahs for reintroduction, but also to strengthen the gene pool. That gene pool is to date more and more corrupted by interbreeding among dwindling numbers of animals. The Hoesdpruit Centre for Endangered Species is dedicated to strengthening the cheetah’s future in as many ways as possible through informed breeding. I volunteered at the Centre in parts of April and May this year.

The survival of endangered predators like cheetahs depends not only on understanding animal biology and ecology but also on building a conservation economy that protects both farmers and predators. The relationship between predators and humans is fraught with conflict. Cheetahs need protected areas where their contact with humans is limited so they are less prey to trophy hunters and the guns of farmers. As the open lands of predatory cats are more and more encroached upon by urban and village sprawl cheetahs are shot hunting livestock.

There were only four us volunteers in Hoedspruit, a number so small that some mornings we shared a great amount of work. While the majority of our labor was the feeding of about 40 cheetahs, smaller wild cats, wild dogs and other endangered species, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings beginning at 6 a.m. we prepared large sections of cow for the feeding. Beef considered not fit for human consumption is donated to the Centre on a regular basis and arrives frozen by truck for storage in a refrigerated meat locker with dimensions of a good sized building. 

Two young cheetahs eating ground beef, dog meal with vitamin supplement.

After a portion of the beef was unfrozen, we volunteers, still groggy from awakening at 5 a.m., grabbed knives and went to work cutting off the parts that animals who hunt wildlife cannot safely digest: fat, cartilage and transparent membrane. That done, we cut slits in the meaty areas and worked in powdered vitamin supplement. We mixed this with liquid blood until the powder became fluid so that the cheetahs would not choke on the powder.

We wore rubber gloves during the process, which lasted about 2 ½ hours, and had to sharpen our knives after preparing each section. The meat, now in plastic tubs was loaded into the back of a small truck for the feeding. Pregnant females usually got the pieces with less bone and better quality meat. To our delight, thirteen cubs were born during our volunteer stint, all ferociously guarded by their mothers in separate enclosures. We could view one new cheetah family by live web cam.

Our living quarters were comfortable and engaging. They were engaging firstly because we slept in small thatched huts just feet from electrified fencing to keep predators out. Many curious creatures watched us day and night and sometimes seemed to linger near us for reasons of safety from big cats on the prowl.

Our quarters were engaging also because in addition to two human guides we lived with four rather unpredictable animals: a 6 month old Vervet monkey, a 6 month old warthog, and African Wild Cat (a specific species), and a miniature dog whose front legs had never straightened out. All were rescued by the Centre and put into the care of the two women guides who oriented and supervised us volunteers. 

A rare king cheetah. Only five are known to exist in the world.

Daily life in camp could veer from peaceful to chaotic in seconds. The monkey could be in a good mood, or bad, bite ears and faces, and pull hair with abandon. The warthog was teething (tusks not teeth) and was consequently miserable.To give himself some relief he would run up to our legs and shoes grinding his snout until he felt better. To have either the monkey or the warthog get into our huts meant a panicked call for help from others. They came to coax or shoo either animal out as soon as possible to avoid monkey theft or destruction, or a warthog digging backwards into open closets for an unwelcome lengthy stay. The antics and friendship of these animals made the hard work of butchering less daunting.

My favorite animals turned out to be a tame serval named Savannah and a ground horn bill, as large as a turkey. That nameless bird was charismatic and charming.  He would let me stroke his curved bill and trade small items with me; he gave me some of his food in exchange for a tiny piece of paper or other small item. He knew how to bat his upper and lower long eye lashes like a veteran Hollywood star. Alas, elephants, pressured by humans into smaller and smaller parcels of land, have pushed that species of bird close to extinction by destroying its nests in order to get food. Such is the fate of so many wonderful creatures in Africa and elsewhere. Conservationists have much work to do.