‘Prrrrrrrr.’ A cheetah comes bounding up to me from behind. He licks my hands with his coarse tongue before nestling down behind me, still purring affectionately. “Don’t move,” warns Mario Nel of the Otjitotongwe Cheetah Farm.
“If you look him right in the eyes, he might feel threatened and run off.” Little chance of that – I sit completely petrified; never before having such a colossal carnivore breathes down my neck. Before long, the animal loses interest in me and starts playing about with Mario. Were it not for the cheetah’s size (and raptor-like claws), it could easily be mistaken for a domestic pet. Mario has a lot of experience with cheetahs and is fairly at ease. He has, however, earned a few scars.
Otjitotongwe lies in the middle of Namibia's no man’s land. Hurtling along the gravel roads at 140km/h, I see nothing of interest – not a soul – for hours. “Our project started out with this one,” says Mario. “We found him and his brothers on our farm. Their mother was already dead, probably killed by a farmer wanting to protect his livestock. Farmers pose the biggest threat to the cheetah; they are allowed to kill any cheetah that brings down any of their herd. We are cattle farmers as well, but feel that the cheetahs have a place here too. We ask colleagues to bring us ensnared cheetahs, or sell them on to us, rather than shooting them dead. We keep them in here, but the fences aren’t foolproof. If a cheetah wants to make his escape, he will – this country is theirs too, after all.”
The cheetah is the world’s speediest land animal. Fine for catching prey, but in the race for survival it may ultimately not be enough
Mario’s family welcomes tourists to the area so they may familiarize themselves with the world’s speediest land animal. In just a few seconds, the cheetah can reach speeds of up to 115km/hr. Fine for catching prey, but in the race for survival it may ultimately not be enough. Those record-breaking top speeds can only be reached in brief bursts. Not built for endurance, they face heart failure or even death if they run for too long. Moreover, cheetahs suffer from weak and undiversified genes, and they are not just prey for farmers but also other carnivores.
The half-wild cheetahs react enthusiastically to their visitors and leap onto the feeding truck, to much gasping and ooh-ing from onlookers. It is pretty intimidating, to be honest. Surrounded by hungry Cheetahs I feel like prey. Mario’s mother settles my nerves somewhat when she later serves up a juicy kudu steak with delicious chutney for lunch, affirming my place at the top of the food chain.
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