Big cats are just part of the family

Shaney Hudson tours a farm where endangered cheetahs feel right at home.

I don't fancy the little guy's chances but I do admire his spirit. The jack russell runs straight up to the cats, yapping in their faces and darting among them. One swipes a paw at him, another hisses and the third ignores him. Eventually, I take pity on him, stop scratching the cats and give the dog a pat. It can't be easy getting attention when the other family pets are domesticated cheetahs.

Despite being the fastest animal on earth, cheetahs are a fragile creature, with estimates placing their numbers about 10,000 worldwide. In Namibia, they are seen as a pest and are shot by farmers.

After losing 38 head of cattle to cheetahs in less than a month, the Nel family couldn't bring themselves to shoot the culprits. Instead, they trapped them. One of the cheetahs gave birth and the family hand-reared the cubs.

With nowhere to relocate the cheetahs, a tangle of government bureaucracy and a growing affection for the cats, the family began building an enclosure to keep them. Word spread and nearby farmers began to call on the Nels to trap problem cheetahs. Thus Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park was established, with the family offering tours and camping to offset the cost of maintaining the sanctuary.

The first part of our tour is a visit with the three house cats in the Nels' backyard. We're tentative about approaching them. One member of our group jumps onto the wall near the house, shaking her head and declaring: "I'm not a cat person." The cheetahs are largely indifferent to the drama and loll about on the grass in the shade.

Mario, the eldest Nel son, explains the cheetahs are, in every sense, house cats. They preen their coats, sprawl contentedly, purr when scratched, gorge on their dinner and play their favourite game: making off with the tourists' thongs.

I approach one and crouch down, running my hand over his coarse, spotted fur, marvelling at the symmetry of his famed spots. I scratch under his ears, the same spot my kitty at home likes. He purrs and begins to lick my palm. I am smitten.

Adding to the Otjitotongwe menagerie is a baby giraffe. Abandoned by its mother, the giraffe was nursed back to health by the Nels. It hangs around the house, roams outside the cheetahs' perimeter fence and drives them a little crazy. The giraffe allows us to stroke its soft fur. It nuzzles my fingers and within a few moments is sucking my thumb. It feels as though a wet vacuum cleaner has latched onto my hand. Peering down at me, her dark eyes are like brown dishes with long, delicate eyelashes. I'm in animal-lovers' heaven.

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The 40-hectare enclosure for wild cheetahs is built a few kilometres from the house, so we pile into a "bakkie"- a pick-up truck - and head out. As soon as we drive in, we notice a lithe, spotted creature marking us off to our right. More cheetahs begin to slink in and out of view as we crawl through the scrub.

We stop and are surrounded by 15 cheetahs. It's intimidating. These are not domesticated house cats. These are wild animals and they are hungry. Mario collects a green bin full of meat from the back of the truck, a large stick at hand for protection.

When the lid comes off, the donkey meat emits a stench. We recoil but it sends the cheetahs wild. There is a chorus of pleading howls similar to those my tabby makes when I open a tin of cat food. We're so close we can see the drool dripping from their jowls and the hackles on their back rising. Skirmishes break out as the cheetahs jockey for position.

Mario begins to throw chunks of meat into the air. There is a blur of black and yellow as the cheetahs show just how fast they can move.

Returning home, Mario has kept the best for last. We stop in front of a fence near our campsite. We can't see anything but we hear delicate, weak meowing. Suddenly, a cheetah races out of the scrub at us. She is so fast we didn't even see her coming. She prowls the cage line, hissing. Then we see why she's so alarmed - three small balls of caramel-and-black fluff stumble out behind her. Each the size of a domestic tabby, they rumble like kittens, swatting and crash-tackling one another. Looking at the kittens, it's easy to see how cheetahs have captured the Nel family's heart.

Otjitotongwe is run by people who didn't set out with a business proposition and an agenda. It was simply a family who needed to find a way to preserve their livelihood without wanting to destroy another living creature. And, in turn, they've created a truly unique African conservation centre.

It's just a shame there's a little jack russell who isn't quite so happy about it.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

South African Airways has connecting flights from Sydney to Namibia's capital, Windhoek.

Touring there

Otjitotongwe Cheetah Park is near the town of Kamanjab. It is best accessed by car and is a convenient stopover when driving from Swakopmund, Namibia's adventure capital, to Etosha National Park. See cheetahparknamibia.com.

- The Sun Herald

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