If Lente Roode was a novelist her book would rival that of Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’. Lente’s story is steeped in contradictions of farmers and their respect for their livestock and lack of regard – often most cruelly – for the predators that too have a right to the land. She was given an orphaned cheetah cub as a child; its mother had been shot by a farmer and there began her lifelong captivation by this magnificent animal. They were hardly apart.
Fast forward to her wedding day and a union with a man who transformed his cattle farm into a game farm and a new chapter began. Her passion and a series of remarkable serendipitous events, like being ‘given’ custody of 35 cheetahs, led to the infrastructure of what would become the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre. The arrival of these cheetahs led to The Hoedspruit Cheetah Project, which was conceptualised with the help and guidance of Professor David Meltzer of the Onderstepoort Faculty of Veterinary Science (at the University of Pretoria) and Des Varaday, the man who gave her the cheetahs.
Very quickly other endangered species were added to the list and African wild cats, ground hornbills and bald ibises were transferred to the centre in 1991 and 1995. African wild dogs (considered “problem animals” by conservation authorities) are also included in the breeding programme.
Sixteen years ago the centre started a black-footed cat breeding programme and then the blue cranes arrived as farmers brought in abandoned chicks. The centre has an impressive list of accreditations from environmental watch dogs and, having had the privilege of visiting there and seeing a King Cheetah in all its wild glory and a pack of Wild Dogs, I had to temper my questions about what would happen to them if the centre ceased to exist, or if there were fewer people in the world who actually did something for the animals they revere.
Fred, the intrepid ranger from neighbouring Camp Jabulani where I stayed was a dedicated guide through the many cheetah enclosures and watched quietly as I gagged when we arrived at the vulture’s ‘restaurant’ at feeding time. I had never seen a vulture except for circling high up in the thermals of a bright African sky, and here they were gathering to feast on the left over carcasses from the carnivores, right in front of me. They are regular visitors to the centre and it is good that they do because they too are under threat – from the muti trade and poisoning from farmers.
This place does amazing work in educating and helping to preserve the creatures that make SA so environmentally blessed.
There are a host of environmental initiatives you can be a part of. Visit www.hesc.co.za
For an elephant tale, Camp Jabulani is the place to stay. Visit: www.campjabulani.com