8 May 2012
Sometime ago, a small boy was probably out guarding his family’s cattle when he spotted five cheetah cubs. One can imagine him running home to tell his older brothers and father. One can also imagine what happened next: the capture; the crushing of the terrified animals into a small crate or wicker basket; the stress of the bumpy road journey; the faces peering at them; and then the shouting and jostling as the animals were confiscated.
When the little cheetahs first walked free from the crate, they were in the care of Günther Wirth, of German Agro Action, an NGO working in Somaliland. Günther and his colleague Janice cared for the cubs for over three months. One sadly died, one remained wild but three calmed down and adapted to life in Günther’s compound in Boroma. But they grew fast and something had to be done to find a permanent home for them. That’s when the no-fun and games really started.
Günther managed to secure approval from the Minister of the Environment and Rural Development for the transfer of the cheetahs to either Ensessakotteh our Wildlife Rescue Centre, here in Ethiopia, or Bertrand La France’s facility in neighbouring Djibouti. However, the local power brokers – knowing the value of the cheetahs – wanted to keep them to sell. Tensions were rising. Knowing we were the closest “safe” destination, Born Free contacted Günther to say we would receive the cheetahs – if he could get them out of Somaliland.
In a dramatic showdown, Günther was actually locked inside his own compound, guns were cocked and Janice had an extended wait in their Land Rover just outside the compound. With amazing bravery, Günther and Janice negotiated their way out, loaded the cheetahs into the Land Rover and began the dash for the Ethiopian border.
They made it! With assistance from our partners at the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority, the cheetahs were allowed into Ethiopia. Günther and Janice then drove through the night. They arrived on the outskirts of Addis early on the morning of Sunday 22 April. Bereket, BFF’s deputy project director, was there to meet them and he led them to Ensessakotteh. There, Alison Hood from the UK, Adam Roberts from BF USA, and our Ethiopian team were ready to receive them. Poor Günther and Janice were exhausted, not surprisingly, but surprisingly, the cheetahs were full of life, seemingly no worse the wear for their ordeal.
We kept them in the secure area for a week, so they could acclimatise and get to know Sinke and Meseret their new carers. Then, last Sunday, we moved them down to their new proper home; an enclosure alongside the three other juvenile cheetahs in our care. The three, called the “Tinkat” cheetahs after the religious festival which was being celebrated on the day they arrived last year, are about 18 months old. The four new arrivals are only about six months old. When the two groups first saw each other, there was curiosity rather than aggression. Later, there were a few hisses through the fence which separates them, but nothing serious.
The Somaliland cheetahs explored their new surroundings, climbed into the trees and then, as cats will do, lay down and went to sleep. It was great to see them so relaxed but, we also know now the hard work begins. They are in our care. We have responsibility for their future. The dream is it will be a future in the wild.