DANTA Blogger Visits the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre

One of the first animals we viewed at the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre was a 23-year-old honey badger. We were told by our tour guide Betz, that honey badgers are one of the most fearless and dangerous species in South Africa using their long claws to rip the stomach or scrotum of much larger animals including lions. Betz then added, “They like to eat bee larva.”

And when the talk went from tearing scrotums to eating bee larva within a sentence, I knew it was going to be an enjoyable journey.

Betz, a woman small in stature, is big on all things wild. She, like our other guides in South Africa, was full of facts and figures. She was incredibly professional, a wonderful public speaker and an amusing storyteller. The excitement in her voice, demanded your attention. She also had this contagious laugh, which made my private tour so much fun.

Located near the Hartbeespoort Dam, the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre is about 160 acres with a staff of around 30 individuals, all of whom are passionate for conservation through education.

Betz who grew up in Thabazimbi, two hours North West of the Centre, was born and bred a farm girl. The farm had both cattle and game on it, so she was able to experience both worlds. “That’s where my passion is coming from”, she told me.

After the honey badger she introduced us to the meercats who I learned like to eat everything and anything. We then jumped into a safari jeep and was joined by Alfred, the man who would be feeding the cheetahs and other animals and securing the gates as we drove into their habitats.

Honey Badger

The fearless honey badger plays coy.

While male cheetahs typically form a brotherhood or coalition, and females are solitary, the first exhibit featured three sisters. Alfred feed them raw minced meat, which helps evenly divide the diet. Once a week the cats get a big bone to chew on.

Celebrating its 47th year, the Centre has continued to perform an important role in the preservation and protection of cheetahs and has bred over eight hundred cheetah cubs. In the lobby, as I was waiting for my tour, I saw thank you letters from U.S. zoos regarding cheetah breeding.

Betz said that Ann realized many years ago people were not get the breeding results they wanted with cheetahs. Working with local professors Ann came up with a system that helped this vulnerable species reproduce. In the wild males and females are separated for most the year. In zoo’s Cheetahs are usually housed together which apparently makes them act like siblings and not mates.

“Ann opened up lover’s lane,” Betz explained. When a female goes into estrus, they introduce a male in an adjacent enclosure. He does a catwalk and produces a noise.

“If she is interested she will answer and they have access to one another for one week. If it works, we’ll have babies 95 days later. Females hide their pregnancy by carrying their babies up high. All the cheetahs are microchipped, because they went through a bottleneck period, due to a reduced wild population, and inbreeding occurred. So, we don’t want to breed animals that are too closely related.”

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After the three sisters’ enclosure, we visited a king cheetah, Heathcliff. King cheetahs are the same species as the normal cheetah, but due to a rare mutation, some of their spots are connected, causing a beautiful blotching pattern. The Centre has three king cheetahs on site, and there are only 70 in the world. All king cheetahs are in captivity, as they would be hunted for their fur. There are an estimated 7,000 regularly spotted cheetahs in the wild and human care.

The next area was the vultures. We saw huge cape vultures and Egyptian vultures. Egyptian vultures are the smallest in South Africa, and sadly basically extinct.  They use tools like a rock or stick to hit and break eggs open. Their Rod Stewart hairstyle certainly make them comical. (My book A Tenrec Named Trey features an Egyptian vulture!)

“They get a carcass and like to leave it out in the sun to make it a little bit more matured,” Betz laughs.

Cape Vulture

Vultures are incredibly important. They are great for the ecosystem. They are the clean-up crew, eating the stuff we don’t want to mess with or think about. Their extremely acidic stomach kills germs and disease that would spread without these scavengers.

Unfortunately, vultures face many threats. Powerlines are an issue and thankfully electric companies are putting on spikey tops to prevent electrical collisions. Poaching, of all things are also a problem. After poachers kill an elephant or rhino, ranchers and farmers notice the vultures flying overhead. Poachers have noticed that vultures give them away and now will kill a bunch of antelope prior to killing the prized animal. They will poison the antelope corpses to cause neurological, nerve and organ damage on the vultures.

Internet research exposed another threat. In South Africa sangoma are witch doctors who believe that because the cape vultures fly very high and can see far away that if you take their eyes and brains, dry them and smoke them, you can see the future. These traditional healers also believe if you take the feet and hang them around your neck you will be more fertile and have more children.

“People don’t know about the problems and people aren’t worried about it,” Betz says. “That’s why education is so very important. We can take the humans out of the ecosystem and animals will have one hell of a party, but what will happen to us if we lose these guys?”

As we leave the vulture enclosures, I contemplate her question. A green wood hoopoe calls as we approach the African wild dogs exhibit.

In 1974 wild dogs joined the Centre. They were confiscated from the boarder of Batswana and the government brought them to Ann. In the early 1900’s people thought they were vermin. In the late 1900’s scientists learned that they were their own species, characterized by their exceptional fur pattern and Mickey-mouse-ears. Packs can be up to 25 individuals.

African Wild Dog

As we enter their enclosure, the small pack starts to scream and squabble, circling the vehicle. They then run through a forested area to later cut off the vehicle as if they were hunting us. It was an incredible experience.

The last exhibit Betz takes me to, consists of three male cheetahs, who are sporting fluffy manes from their head to their shoulders. Betz entertains us with cheetah facts referring to their speed, and the adaptations that enable the behavior. I ask her why people should visit the Centre.

“Education. Totally. Education is so very important. The more people we can get through the Center the better. Tourists today only know about the Big 5 and if they come here and meet or see the cheetahs and wild dogs they become ecstatic.”

She said that while the interest is mostly from people abroad, local people are also supportive. The Centre does not receive any government funding, and income generated from tours and the adoption program is used to fund conservation projects. Betz recommends for people who want to help to adopt an animal. There are five levels to choose from to fit everyone’s budget.

“For us it’s not a lot, but for these animals its everything.”

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To view more Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre photos that are synced up to music, click here.

My new book 99 1/2 Homesteading Poems highlights sustainable living. It is now available for pre-order.

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