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The big cats' best friend

For more than 50 years, Ann van Dyk has championed cheetahs.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / March 11, 2010

Ann Van Dyk, founder and director of the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, strokes Big Girl. Her work has been instrumental in helping save the cheetah from becoming extinct as well as helping native farmers co-exist with the big cats.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Hartbeestport, South Africa

There are cat people, and then there is Ann van Dyk. Living on her family’s farm north of Pretoria, she bought two cheetah cubs from a local farmer – much as any farm girl might take in a stray dog or cat – only to have them confiscated because they were an endangered species.

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Chastened but unbowed, she and her brother would eventually offer 99 acres of their family’s farmland to the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria, which had a cheetah breeding program but needed rural land in order to expand it.

So in 1971, the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre (recently renamed the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre) was born. Its goal: Breeding cheetahs and educating native farmers about their value.

“I think the fact that cheetahs are an endangered species, and nobody was doing anything about it, that was the reason I started this center,” says Ms. Van Dyk, now in her 70s but still very much like the idealistic girl who started the center.

There were no books about how to raise cheetahs, she says with a smile. “It was very much hit-and-miss. We just put up camps for the cheetahs and slowly learned what was required.”

Today there are perhaps 7,500 cheetahs left in the wild, down from 100,000 around the turn of the 20th century, and some scientists believe that cheetahs could become extinct within the next 15 years. In the past, hunting and farming were the big cats’ main enemies, but now their numbers are so small that scientists worry about the dangers of inbreeding among those who survive.

What is needed is land and lots of it – without sufficient land in which to roam, cheetahs go into a kind of neurotic depression and stop breeding. This is where conservationists like Ann van Dyk can make a difference.

Van Dyk isn’t the only conservationist to successfully breed cheetahs, but few can match her numbers. Since 1971, she has bred 800 of the big cats, some of them tagged and released into the wild and others sent to zoos.

This success has won her respect from zoo authorities and other conservationists. In 2004, the Cheetah Conservation Fund named Van Dyk as Cheetah Conservationist of the Year, saying that her “years of dedicated work in South Africa exemplify how conservation has evolved” and calling her organization “one of the most successful breeding centers in the world.”

IN PICTURES: A Sanctuary for Cheetahs

But she has drawn some hostility from local farmers, some of whom still shoot wild cheetahs as a threat to their livestock.

“Cheetahs take their livestock, so you have to look from their point of view,” says Van Dyk of the farmers. But because her center offers to capture and remove cheetahs from their property free of charge, some see Van Dyk and her conservationists as allies.

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