Running Cheetahs at the DeWildt Cheetah Reserve
On our last day in South Africa before flying home to the States we decided to do something we absolutely wouldn’t be able to do at home. While normally strict budget travelers we opened our budgetary belts a bit and sprung for a tour of the De Wildt Cheetah Reserve outside of Johannesburg.
The De Wildt center is a world class breeding facility with a strong conservation and environmental ethic. We loved the tour and learned all sorts of fun things about cheetahs and African wild dogs, among other animals.
The morning started out with the cheetah run. Kyle and I and the other guests congregated around the meeting point waiting to be taken to the course where we would watch the cheetahs get their daily exercise. In front of us was a series of chain link fence pens each with a cheetah inside pacing back and forth. They knew what was about to happen and were eager for the run.
When the guide came he told us to walk down the dirt road that bordered the pens and to keep away from the fences. It was funny, we hadn’t seen anyone release the cheetahs, but when we walked by the pens instead of pacing back and forth they were nowhere to be found. Strange. Just as we neared the end of the first pen out of nowhere the cheetah pounced and ran up against the fence. We were being stalked!
We laughed about how we would never ever survive in the wild with a cheetah on the loose. As we passed the next pen we looked carefully to see where the cheetah was hiding. Nothing. Then bamn! Pounce! Cheetahs: two, Kyle and Briana: zero.
We made our way to the course and were told to stand behind a fence. A very short fence.
Apparently this was safe because they began bringing the cheetahs out one at a time. They brought them out on a leash and led them to the rabbit. Not a real rabbit of course, just a scrap of red plastic that enticed the cheetahs to run after that and not toward us.
We got to see three cheetahs running and it was really incredible. It’s difficult to describe the scene of a cheetah running on a straightaway and making a 90 degree turn without stopping. It is really just something that has to be experienced.
Naturally there is an opportunity to pet the cheetah. The ambassador program takes the cheetahs that have been rejected by the mother and required hand raising and brings them out to schools and for us to pet. It’s a pretty unreal experience to be petting a purring big cat. Every time the cheetah moved we kind of flinched, not that it would have helped us.
In addition to the cheetahs, De Wildt has become a refuge for many other types of threatened African wildlife. The animals you get to see are rarely seen in the wild which makes the trip there that much more valuable. We got to see a few honey badgers which are some seriously tough little guys and other cats including the caracal and the African wild cat which looks surprisingly like a house cat.
The definite highlight after the cheetahs was the African wild dogs. These guys are very social and have a fascinating pack system. They also like to eat fast. The first group we saw was being fed by one of the handlers. As soon as he appeared they all started foaming at the mouth and making a bizarre chirping noise.
African wild dogs are endurance hunters. They are not very fast but they can run forever. They surround their prey and can run them for up to 8 hrs or until the animal collapses. From this point they eat the prey as quickly as possible for fear a larger predator may steal their kill.
With one of the larger packs we got to drive through the enclosure and the dogs surrounded us, chirping and jumping around, trying to stop the truck. The sound they make is really eerie.
We eventually stopped in a clearing and the dogs surrounded us waiting to strike. Then the handler dumped the food in their tray and the feasting started. I’m sad to say these guys are endangered. They are really amazing animals.
If you are planning a trip to Jo’burg I definitely recommend DeWildt. The tour is 270 Rand and the tour and cheetah run is 380 Rand. In my opinion it was worth every penny. You can find more details on the DeWildt website.
Oh and by the way, cheetahs meow, just like little kitty cats.