The Plight of Africa’s Cheetah

Despite being classified as a CITES Appendix I endangered species, cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) numbers have dropped from about 100,000 in 1900 to probably 6,800 today. Of these, only about 2,000 live in protected areas.

Is there a need for captive cheetah breeding programmes, and if so, how do these programmes contribute to species conservation?

To find answers to this question, I met with Chantal Rischard, co-founder of Cheetah Experience Ashia for a guided tour of this recently established wildlife sanctuary located in Paarl, a 45-minute drive from Cape Town.

Here’s what I discovered.

I arrived at Ashia on a cold and wet August morning with some trepidation. As an avid supporter of the Campaign against Canned Hunting and Fair Trade Tourism’s Wildlife Petting Policy, I know that many animal welfare lobbyists are trying to have the captive wildlife industry shut down.

Would Ashia, which only opened officially at the end of last year, be up to close scrutiny? Or is this just another addition to South Africa’s 80-odd captive wildlife breeding facilities who trade under the guise of cheetah conservation? I was soon to find out.

To say that Ashia’s facilities are above par would be an understatement. I was met in the expansive, and tastefully decorated reception hall, which doubles as a Boutique Shop and Café, by Ashia’s Marketing Assistant, Kirsty Pienaar and Chantal — both wearing water-proof hiking boots (as was I, fortunately).

As we proceeded with our muddy tour across the cheetah sanctuary and working farm (they grow wine grapes and olives, both of which are distilled locally and available under the Ashia label), I gleaned a lot of voluntary information and probed a lot of questions.

Here’s a summary of our discussion in no particular order (DL = Des Langkilde, CR = Chantal Rischard):

DL: Why? What compelled you to retire from corporate life in Germany to get involved with wildlife conservation in South Africa?

Riana van Nieuwenhuizen, founder of Cheetah Experience Bloemfontein.

CR: My husband Stephan and I both have a passion for photography and an equal enthusiasm for big cats, especially the cheetah, and so we travelled frequently to Eastern and Southern Africa on photographic safaris and fell in love with Africa’s wildlife. In 2015 we decided to make Cape Town our home as a base for further exploration where our dream of becoming personally involved in animal conservation was revived. We then met Riana van Nieuwenhuizen, the founder of our partner project Cheetah Experience Bloemfontein, and decided to combine our dream with ‘The Cheetah Lady’ — and to fully finance the purchase of this farm and the establishment of Cheetah Experience Ashia.

Note: Read more about Riana and Cheetah Experience Bloemfontein here.

Chanttal Rischard & Stephan Illenberger, co-founders of Cheetah Experience Ashia.

DL: Why Ashia? Is there some significance to the name?

CR: It’s a uniquely African name, usually given to baby girls, and it means ‘hope’, or in our case ’life and hope’, which I think sums up what we aim to achieve with our cheetah conservation efforts here.

DL: Why cheetah conservation in particular?

CR: Cheetah numbers have dropped from about 100,000 in 1900 to probably 6,800 today, and of these, only about 2,000 live in protected areas. So, as the cheetah has become Africa’s most endangered big cat there is a need for ethical breeding programmes to ensure genetic diversity and its long-term survival. The World Wildlife Fund says that cheetah now only cover about 23% of their historic range in Africa, and the species loss today is about 10,000 times higher than their natural death rate. This is mostly because of human/animal conflict in rural settlements and on commercial farms where cheetah are seen as a threat to their livestock. Cheetah, of course, are not to blame, so a lot more education about the cheetah is needed.

DL: So how does Ashia contribute to species preservation?

CR: Our aim is to help prevent the further decline of cheetah populations and increase the genetic gene pool through captive breeding programmes. These cheetahs will then be released into the wild through protected wildlife reserves by offering support to other ethical and sustainable conservation initiatives. Our second aim is to educate the public, especially the youth, about the plight of the cheetah.

DL: Where do you source your cheetah from?

CR: As far as possible, we buy cheetahs from our partner project in Bloemfontein, a registered Cheetah Breeding Project with advanced knowledge about cheetah’s health, fertility and genetics. We also buy from 2–3 other ethical and trustworthy breeders in South Africa. We also bought, or should I say rescued, cubs and adult cheetahs that were meant to be sold off to petting projects, the hunting fraternity or the middle east. To date, Stephan and I have used our own money to finance these purchases and the release programme. And when they, or their offspring, are released we will donate them to private game reserves that are part of the Cheetah Meta-Population project in South Africa. The 340 cheetahs that are currently living in 53 protected areas leave the meta-population well short of a genetically viable population as a minimum of 1,000 animals is vital to maintain genetic and demographic integrity.

DL: That certainly is a philanthropic gesture, but looking at all of the construction work and new enclosures being built here, not to mention the staff, feeding, and veterinary costs, how do you plan to sustain the financial burden and ensure the long-term viability of Ashia?

CR: Well, it certainly has been a large financial outlay and obviously there is a limit to our own financial resources, especially as we have a second project in Panama focussing on endangered turtles and rainforest wildlife, but that’s where our second aim for Ashia kicks-in. We offer opportunities for youth to learn about cheetah conservation through volunteer programmes, working holidays, and university research/internship programmes. We also offer two farm and animal tours per day with a maximum of 10 visitors per tour to participate in experiences, with the aim being to learn how to bring this precious species back from the brink of extinction. Guests can also watch our weekly runs from a secure fenced middle section in our running enclosure or accompany our staff taking some of the cheetahs on their enrichment walks. Through these educational experiences, visitors get to understand the urgent need for action and the critical need to protect these majestic animals. Then, along with revenue from our gallery, café and the self-catering suites, this money is ploughed back into the sanctuary to cover the daily running costs. Ashia is a not-for-profit organisation and all surplus is used to assist the funding of the Cheetah Release Programme, managed and financed by our registered non-profit organisation which gladly accept donations and corporate sponsorships.

DL: Fair Trade Tourism has a wildlife petting policy that does not allow for any physical contact with a cheetah by tourists or volunteers. Are you aware of their recently published Captive Wildlife Guidelines?

CR: To answer the first part of your question, our aim was never to finance a “petting zoo” but a long-term project that links education, conservation and human welfare. Visitors come to look and to learn — to experience — not to cuddle with cheetahs. Trained staff can take a few visitors per day to take photos without fences as some of our cheetahs are very comfortable around people. The cheetah relax on their mounds, and may come to greet you and walk off again to the high grass as they will never be kept on a leash or lured close-up with food. Then, as you saw earlier, the specially fitted room where cheetah cubs earmarked for release are getting a health and weight check has a glass viewing wall through which visitors can look and learn — only specially trained carers make contact with the cubs and follow strictly controlled procedures. Regarding the second part of your question, we have started the certification process with FTT and Stephan spoke with Jane Edge, the CEO of Fair Trade Tourism. We will see what the outcome is once all compliance checks and balances have been done.

DL: Earlier, you mentioned the meta-population. I read a 2012 EWT report about the cheetah trade in South Africa. According to this report, there is a need for a central database that contains information relating to captive cheetahs. How does Ashia react to this?

CR: I am aware of the report that you are referring to. It recommends that genetic records, as well as details on age, sex, history, and identification photographs of all cheetahs in captivity, should be kept in a central database. The report also recommends that these documents accompany each cheetah for its lifespan — much like a passport. A similar tool exists already with Studbooks where the pedigree and demographic history are registered and maintained.

Unfortunately, there is still no legal obligation for animal owners to register, which leaves the door wide open for unethical breeders and traders.

All our animals are registered both with the National and the International Studbook. (Reference: Record keeping by Cheetah Conservation Fund / Dr. Laurie Marker, Otjiwarongo, Namibia https://cheetah.org/research/by-type/international-studbooks/).

DL: Getting back to the feeding issue, how do you control the cheetahs’ diet?

CR: This is not easy. We have to be very careful about the quality of meat. Livestock meat has to be free of growth hormones and other chemicals that farmers use to control diseases. Occasionally we get game carcasses donated but we have to check if the antelope had been shot, and if so, what kind of bullet was used, as lead poisoning is a very real threat. Cheetahs are very susceptible to disease, so the handling of food hygiene is closely monitored. To avoid germ contamination, we have disinfectant treated water troughs at the entrance to all enclosures through which guests and staff have to walk to sterilise their shoes.

DL: Finally, how do you react to growing pressure from wildlife activists and lobby groups who claim that captive breeding does not contribute to species conservation.

CR: As foreigners, Stephen and I were probably the most vocal activists. It wasn’t until we made Africa our home, learned about cheetah conservation, and got personally involved, that we saw the real problems first hand. And that’s what Cheetah Experience Ashia is all about — a facility where lobbyists and wildlife activists can come to learn and get involved. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about captive wildlife breeding and release programmes, and we will soon be hosting a university graduate from the USA to complete her master thesis on this subject. I’m also very pleased to say that our first cheetah release permit has finally been issued by the conservation authorities. The release will take place end of August in cooperation with Kuzuko, a contractual area of Addo Elephant National Park.

Update: Ashia’s first captive-born cheetah release — a four-year-old female named Jasmin — arrived at her new home on Wednesday 29 August following a smooth and uneventful seven-hour drive from Cheetah Experience Bloemfontein. Read the full story here.

During our walk, Kirsty and Chantal let me inspect the guest accommodation which had been upgraded during their 6 months of closure for renovations and expansion.

There are four luxurious and spacious self-catering suites (3 x one-bedroom and 1 x two-bedroom) and each has been tastefully decorated in a different theme, with Chantal’s brilliant photographic prints of wildlife adorning the walls. No expense has been spared in kitting out each suites’ equipment and amenities. There’s Ashia labelled, home farmed, and locally produced wine and olive oil in each suite and a conscious effort is being made to avoid using plastic, such as water bottles.

Included in every guest stay are daily continental breakfasts and free access to explore the farm on an educational walk along enclosures and information boards about the species — for safety reasons, this excludes access to any animal camps.

Even the old farmhouse, where the admin offices, staff rooms, and the cheetah cub room are located, has been upgraded. The kitchen, in particular, has been retrofitted with 5-star catering equipment (to cater for daytime corporate functions, I’m told) while the communal lounge and verandah looks more like a luxury African safari lodge.

Cheetah Experience Ashia will be officially launching its reopening on 07 September, and personally, I can’t wait to attend this event in celebration of all that Ashia’s founders, staff and volunteers have accomplished in so short a time span.

In conclusion, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then Ashia is certainly the place for visitors to experience the beauty of Africa’s most endangered big cat — the graceful cheetah.

Protect, Preserve, Educate — these 3 words pretty much encapsulate what Ashia is all about.

For more information visit www.ashia.co.za or email enquiries@ashia.co.za