There’s little debate that wildlife is Africa’s main attraction. With nearly two weeks since stepping foot on the continent and no more than a few baboons and bird sightings, we were due. It was time to step it up a notch with an up close and personal encounter with South Africa’s wild cats.
On our journey down the Garden Route we learned of a unique experience at the Tenikwa Wild Cat Activity Park. The park is dedicated to taking in injured cats of all shapes and sizes to nurse them back to health. Those that are prepared to return to the bush are released back into the wild.
Putting a special emphasis on cheetahs, the park rangers make long walks with these magnificent cats a daily priority. At sunrise and sunset they walk these cats through the surrounding dense forests to give them a chance to get much needed exercise. They now allow visitors to the park to share in the experience, and it was an opportunity we would not pass up.
Arriving to the park on a misty spring morning, we were greeted with freshly baked scones and piping hot coffee before meeting our furry friends. Just outside, brother and sister Tandy and Shockra awaited us. When we caught our first sight of them, we were awe-struck with how just how beautiful they were. They also seemed much bigger, taller and brawnier than expected. Upon entering their man-made den, we could hear the rumbling roar of their purr and were quite hesitant when given the okay to run our fingers through their fur. Cautiously extending our hands into their hay-like hair, we were surprised to find the coarse spots on their coat actually raised above the rest of the fur.
The park is home to five cheetahs with Tandy and Shockra the youngest at 22 months. These cheetahs weren’t rescued directly from the wild but from other game reserves where they had plenty of human contact. Though there was no doubt they were wild cats, their upbringing ensured they were much more docile than many of their feral relatives.
We learned all about the beautiful animals with whom we’d be spending our day. The cheetah is the fastest animal on land, however, in recent years has become critically endangered. Its timid ways, non-confrontational demeanor and picky eating habits have all affected its survival. Unlike most cats which are nocturnal, the cheetah hunts during the day. They typically hunt at sunrise and sunset in open plains where they can use their speed to run down predators. We were surprised to learn that while the cheetah is fast, endurance isn’t their strong point. They can reach 60 miles an hour in three seconds flat, however, can only hold the speed for thirty seconds before needing a half hour to recover.
Another interesting factoid we learned about the cheetah is the function of the distinctive black “tear” running from their inner eye down to their mouth. This actually works much like sunglasses do for humans, blocking the sun from the cheetahs’ eyes, thus allowing them to hunt during the day.
After a brief introduction, we set out to begin our sunrise walk. The cheetahs were strapped into a small harness with leash attached and soon we were on our way. We were instructed to hold the leash and walk behind the cheetah, letting our Tandy lead the way. Should Tandy take off running, which she did several times, we were instructed to drop the leash. Of course there was no way we could compete with this kind of speed.
We were also told, for good reason, they don’t allow small children in the park. With children the size of their prey, cheetahs feel they can dominate them and may opt to take advantage. At my petite size, I learned this first-hand. Accidentally stepping in front of Tandy’s path, she closed in, wrapping her front paw tightly around my leg. Though I was soon freed, it certainly gave me a good scare.
The lack of endurance in the cheetahs was certainly evident. Tandy tired fast and plopped down several times, seemingly unwilling to take a step further. A few water breaks and toss of a soccer ball helped to get her going again as we lead her back to her home. Here she and her brother were delighted to find raw chicken awaiting them and within seconds they had torn into it and gobbled it down.
What a surreal feeling it was walking through the forest with a cheetah by my side and during our hour walk, this feeling never got old. I didn’t want this experience to come to an end, but it was time to say goodbye to our cheetah friends.
After quite a memorable morning, we were off to meet some other wild cats.
Next up was the spotted serval. It’s almost as elusive as the leopard, but a much smaller cat. It has large, bat-like ears and has a distinctive hunting style of using high leaps to pounce on prey. Entering serval land the little guy welcomed his visitors by jumping up in the air in excitement, and we got a chance to see the leaping bounds this cat is known for.
We closed this special morning with a visit with two caracals. The small cats have a brown coat and big, pointed ears. Though small and size, the father and son duo we met were a bit more aggressive than the other cats so we were warned to watch our backs when entering their den. Hard to believe these little guys, just larger than your typical domestic cat, could do any damage but we weren’t going to test our luck.
What a morning it was getting to know some of the many wild cats that walk this land. We left even more anxious to meet again out in the wild.