- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

DEWILDT, South Africa — The cheetahs converge on the old woman in two bounding strides. First one, then two, then five big cats emerge from the tall, golden grass, tails twitching and eyes bulging with dreams of meat.Ann Van Dyk beckons them with a freckled hand.”Come here,” she purrs, “and bite my finger.”Miss Van Dyk, 73, is Africa’s original cheetah guardian. Among the continent’s more illustrious khaki-clad conservationists, she is an enigmatic, almost mythical, figure. To armchair adventurers glued to “Animal Planet,” she is a virtual stranger.Yet thousands of times since 1968 — 47 times in 2002 alone — Miss Van Dyk and her team have rescued hungry and cornered cheetahs with little more than a stick and a scowl.Some 600 times she has successfully bred the notoriously fickle and high-strung hunters. It’s a record that zoos and universities with state-of-the-art embryo labs can only envy.But it’s not enough.Miss Van Dyk now is erecting gleaming, prisonlike fences across tens of miles of scrubland near South Africa’s northeast border. Electrified and topped with barbed wire, the barriers are not meant to protect frightened neighbors from the predators.Instead, they prevent people from harming Miss Van Dyk’s rare and precious felines.The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal. But even in 70 mph bursts, it can’t outrun a Land Rover. Or a bullet.Only 200 cheetahs roam free in South Africa now. There are fewer than 15,000 throughout Africa. Since 1950, cheetahs have gone extinct in at least 13 countries. Their range is becoming a checkerboard of farms, suburbs and weekend retreats.The meager public funding once spent on wildlife conservation in Africa is being drained by staggering social problems — AIDS, poverty and displaced tribes wandering the countryside.If cheetahs are to survive, Miss Van Dyk contends, they must be relocated to privately funded reserves that are stocked with game.If it’s not exactly captivity, it’s not the wild, either.Miss Van Dyk shrugs off any rebuke. With the years accruing and her aches multiplying — she’s recuperating from knee surgery now — she’ll consider nearly anything to make sure the species outlives her.That means paying ransom to defiant farmers who would otherwise shoot cheetahs as vermin or, in a few sinister cases, scorch them with fire or gouge their eyes.It means pampering eco-tourists and partnering with wealthy foreign patrons. She even supports limited trophy hunting to raise cash.Cloning? Might be useful someday.”These days you can’t live on giggles and fresh air,” Miss Van Dyk explained in a high, clipped voice.”There are no more of the huge open tracts of land,” she said. “We have to think differently if we are to save the cheetah.”The sleek cheetah evolved 4 million years ago — long before much larger lions, tigers and leopards. Ancestors of Acinonyx jubatus spread throughout Africa and Asia until they were trapped by Ice Age glaciers. Ever since, DNA tests suggest, cheetahs have been inbreeding in an evolutionary bottleneck.An adult weighs about 100 pounds. Its small, aerodynamic head is riddled with gaping airways. Its bones are thin like a bird’s. It cannot roar.But its thick, coarse tail steers like a rudder. Its spine uncoils like a large, steely spring.The cheetah prowls plains and valleys for small antelope. Unlike burlier cats, it doesn’t crush its prey’s skull with a powerful bite, or break its spine with a clawed swipe.The slender cheetah creeps to within several yards of its target, then runs it down with a burst of speed that tops 65 mph, trips and suffocates it. Too weak to pull a kill into a tree, it must gobble the choicest parts before a whiff of the kill attracts lions and hyenas.The female cheetah remains solitary except for brief breeding periods, while males run in buddy packs.Miss Van Dyk first adopted a pair of orphaned cheetah cubs in 1968, but they were quickly confiscated by wildlife officers who reproached her for being neither professionally qualified nor properly licensed.Undeterred, she recruited veterinarians and biologists to her new cause. She applied for permits to raise endangered species at DeWildt, her family’s former commercial egg farm tucked in the scrubby, crumbling foothills west of Pretoria.Over four decades, DeWildt has survived a killer hailstorm, a catastrophic wildfire and the sudden death of Miss Van Dyk’s brother, who managed the farm.Her early breeding efforts were punished with so many heartbreaking losses that she ran out of burial space in the garden. Now the death of a single cub prompts a forensic inquiry.She has 130 cheetahs, along with wild dogs, brown hyena and Egyptian vultures — all species reviled by many white settlers here.A few zoo cheetahs have been laboratory-made in the United States with frozen sperm and air-expressed embryos.By comparison, Miss Van Dyk’s nurturing approach seemed quaint. If mothers rejected cubs, she warmed the newborns beneath her sweater. Bottle-fed them.Day and night.”It’s not all reduced to a science even now,” she said. “It’s 90 percent practical experience.”Without Miss Van Dyk, experts say, the species probably would have been erased years ago in South Africa — and beyond.”She had no scientific training, but she’s become one of the world’s experts,” said Jack Grisham, who directs the cheetah species-survival program for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. “What she’s done is something unheard of.”Her closest supporters wonder if Miss Van Dyk and her adoptees haven’t blended.Like a cheetah, she’s long and lanky. Small head. Blonde. Dark furrows down her cheeks suggest the cat’s distinctive teardrop markings.Wary. Solitary. Lurking on the periphery.Miss Van Dyk never married. Her simple quarters open to the cheetah nursery and infirmary.”Ann is more cheetah than human,” said DeWildt assistant director Vanessa Bouwer. “There’s a mirror image there.”Miss Van Dyk embraces the comparison.”I know all their little whims and fancies,” she said. “If there’s a problem, you can see it in their eyes. You know which ones you can talk to and which ones you can hug. I don’t think you can do that with any of the other big cats.”But cheetahs need more than an encouraging cuddle. The barriers to their survival are daunting. Among them: infertility, disease, captivity stresses and inbreeding. Genetic records and tissue banks are incomplete.Wild cheetahs haven’t been counted in decades. A proper census is complicated by national borders, wars, remote terrain and the cheetah’s secretive habits. Biologists must combine data from remote sensing cameras, radio collaring, airplane tracking, DNA analysis of hair and droppings and sightings by local witnesses.Those witnesses — usually native herders and white farmers — represent a separate, but equally vexing cultural problem.In Namibia alone, approximately 10,000 cheetahs were killed since 1980. The remaining 2,500 represent the world’s largest wild population. They are the focus of Laurie Marker, an American-born biologist who directs the Cheetah Conservation Fund.In South Africa, prospects are bleaker.According to a 2002 government survey, three in four rural citizens believe cheetahs threaten livestock and public safety. Many farmers forbid wildlife officers to cross their lands. Conservationists liken the conflict to the protection of wolves in the American West.Miss Van Dyk deflects some of the anger with her checkbook. She pays about $1,000 to save a cheetah, then charges zoos and game reserves for rehabilitation and relocation costs. She also sells DeWildt-born cheetahs to approved facilities.Other conservationists complain that this establishes a market price for poachers and rewards farmers who refuse to obey species-protection laws.”The economics are what’s pushing the South African farmers,” Miss Marker said. “And they are not the poor, underprivileged farmers. They are very rich.”Miss Van Dyk’s response: “If we don’t pay the farmer, he won’t call us — he’ll just shoot it. We have to put money in his pocket or he won’t value the cheetah.”One “farmer” who has become Miss Van Dyk’s most valuable ally is an American — Howard Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett.He serves on the boards of blue-chip corporations, including Berkshire-Hathaway and ConAgra. He tills 800 acres of corn in central Illinois and advises major conservation groups.Mr. Buffett purchased 10,000 acres of rangeland next to Miss Van Dyk’s property near the border with Botswana and Zimbabwe. The parcels are more remote than DeWildt and suitable for larger cheetah trials.”She reminds me a lot of Jane Goodall,” Mr. Buffett said. “Both have this incredible determination. Both are soft-spoken, but they have a certain charisma that demands your respect.”

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