Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Center is a sanctuary and rehabilitation facility for indigenous South African species. Through various programs Tenikwa aims to educate tourists from around the world about the perils their tenants face and how people can help preserve these animals as well as their habitats. One of the programs at Tenikwa stands out to tourists and animal-lovers alike: cheetah walks. On these walks, visitors have the privilege of taking an cheetah for a stroll through the native Tsitsikamma Forest and Cape Floral Fynbos. Visitors can choose to participate in a sunrise or sunset walk led by expert tour guides.
The first rule tour guides will emphasize is that you do not walk a cheetah; the cheetah walks you. You follow the cheetah’s pace, however fast or slow. If it wants to walk briskly, you follow. If wants to lie down to take a short siesta, you stand there waiting patiently until it is ready to trot along again. Throughout the walk Tenikwa tour guides will remind you that it is a privilege to be a part of this majestic animal’s daily routine and at no given time will you be deciding where the cheetah walks.
It is a common misconception that cheetahs run regularly in the wild. An average cheetah only runs if they are chasing prey and for intervals of only 20-60 seconds before it needs to rest. The only other reason cheetahs run is escape from a threat as their sole defense mechanism is sprinting at top speed. Because the cheetahs at Tenikwa are living a life of luxury by not having to hunt or escape predators it is vital that they go on walks as a daily form of exercise.
According to Tenikwa tour guide, Monwabisi Merile, the biggest challenges cheetahs face in surviving as a species is misunderstanding and lack of awareness among community members as well as the rapid loss of their natural habitat. Not only has farming wiped out their hunting grounds, farmers have killed off entire populations in order to protect their animals. In the last century alone, the cheetahs’ world population has decreased from over a 100,000 to less than 9,000 individuals, with South Africa being home to less than 1,000 of that overall population. Unlike other big cats, cheetahs are not aggressive animals and prefer to walk away from danger rather than confront it. Because their behavior is misunderstood, locals mistake cheetahs for ruthless killers lusting after their livestock. A key component of the cheetah walks is educating people so that they better understand a cheetah’s behavior and the danger they are facing.
Critics opposing this program deem it cruel to walk these wild predators like trained domestic animals. Merile points out that what critics do not understand is there are cheetahs at Tenikwa like Chester, a diabetic cheetah who was orphaned as a cub, who would not survive in the wild. Being an anomaly in medical animal world, Chester receives insulin shots twice a day for his diabetes; without this special medical attention he would perish in the wild. As a cheetah raised in captivity he cannot be released into the wild because he never learned how to hunt, a vital skill for this solitary predator. Only about 10% of all wild cheetahs make it to adulthood, most of them dying from complications or preyed upon as defenseless infants.
Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Center gives an opportunity to animals that would otherwise never survive in the wild. Tenikwa also gives the world a chance to experience these glorious apex predators up close so that one can understand the importance of protecting them.