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Saving Cheetahs: Foundation focuses on breeding, education

By: KATE JONUSKA
June 12, 2009
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From an office in Sedalia, Bobby and Renee Hartslief buy and restore historical buildings, raise their two children, and attempt to save a species that's quickly disappearing from the wild.

As surprising as it may be for the Pikes Peak region to have so direct a link to the cheetah, whose range stretches from Africa through the Indian subcontinent, it was just as unexpected as a career choice for the couple.

"My wife, Renee, was born in Norman, Okla. We met in South Africa, married and moved to a bankrupt dairy farm (in Africa)," says Bobby Hartslief.

Renee was running a Montessori preschool on the property when Bobby attended an animal auction in a nearby town and found himself thinking, "It would be so cool to have these kids see the indigenous animals. So I bought our first animal, a giraffe, who was actually named First."

Dozens of other animals followed, and the bankrupt dairy farm was soon a 4,000-acre game preserve called The Savannah Africa, with 25 species of animals - including the cheetah, which seemed fitting considering it's the animal mascot of the Free State province of South Africa, where the preserve is located.

"It was a natural thing that we got into cheetah," says Hartslief, who started breeding the animals for captivity in 2001, sending them as far as Toronto, Miami and Tokyo. He quickly learned that such methods were not truly aiding the animal, whose beauty and personality had stolen their hearts.

"You start with very pure intentions," he explains.

"But then when you actually see this animal you brought into the world sitting in a cage, you start thinking, ‘Hang on. Are we really, seriously helping this animal?'"

And thus The Cheetah Foundation, dedicated to maintaining and increasing the population of cheetahs in the wild, was born.


Challenges of smallest big cat

In the early 1900s, more than 100,000 cheetahs ran in the wild.

Today, there are only about 10,000.

"So if you do the math, you'll realize in about 10 years' time, there will be no such thing as a wild cheetah," says Linda Rosenlof who works at Savannah Africa.

Inspired by her mother's passion for the cheetah, Rosenlof worked at zoos around the world before finding a place on staff with The Cheetah Foundation, where she works educating visitors about the cheetah.

Through her photographs and books, currently in the process of publication, she hopes to begin educating the wider world.

Classified as a threatened species, the cheetah, the fastest animal on land in the world, faces multiple obstacles in the wild.

As the smallest of the big cats, the cheetah is easily run off or killed by its burlier cousins.

A lack of genetic diversity makes the cheetah population fragile, and they're extremely sensitive to environmental damage, such as pesticides and fertilizers. Plus, a diminishing habitat causes them to turn to livestock for food, and farmers respond with guns and traps.

Using a program of training the cats for reintroduction into large parks and reserves, the foundation aims to prevent those challenges from driving the cheetah to extinction outside zoos.

"It's a three- to four-year process to get them to be from a cub to be relocated," Bobby Hartslief says.

Gradually shifting the animals to larger, more hands-off areas of their preserve, the program reignites the cats' natural instincts.

As pioneers of cheetah breeding, the Hartsliefs learned many things along the way - such as you need three cheetahs, two male, before they will breed.

"We have no illusions that we can breed all the cheetah for the world," Bobby Hartslief says.

Instead, the foundation focuses on perfecting breeding and reintroduction techniques, and eventually publishing a comprehensive, step-by-step reintroduction guide for other groups around the world to follow.


Getting Colorado involved

Local businesswoman Jacqueline Lundquist and husband Dick Celeste, president of Colorado College, were intrigued when they continued to find safaris to a cheetah preserve cropping up as auction items for local charities.

The Hartliefs have donated about 16 such trips to benefit local charities, including the Colorado Springs School, Memorial Hospital, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and CASA, both as a way to give back to the Pikes Peak region and to spread the word about their cheetah mission.

Earlier this year, at a Catamount Institute auction, Lundquist won a seven-day safari.

"We were there for a week, and we had the most amazing time," says Lundquist. "I came back convinced that I wanted to help (the Hartsliefs) ... I think the future of the cheetah lies with The Cheetah Foundation."

Bobby Hartslief estimates that 160 local people have visited their preserve, thanks to auctioned trips over the years, and those visitors have been some of the foundation's most vocal supporters.

Visitors not only watch cheetahs run and play, they cut up meat for their dinners. They also ride ATVs and Jeeps through the preserve and camp in luxury tents.

"Sometimes in the middle of the night, something will run under your tent and you're not really sure what it was," Lund-quist says.

"Then you hear something lapping water just 15 feet away from you, and you go to peek to see a herd of wildebeests or zebras."

Staying in a preserve that hosts more than two dozen species of animals and more than 300 species of birds makes for quite a vacation.

But Lundquist says it was more than just fun. It created a bond between her family and the animals, particularly the cheetah.

"It's such a majestic cat, and we learned all the reasons why they're endangered," she says.

Cheetahs certainly know how to win your undying love, Rosenlof says.

"The cheetah can't roar. It can only purr," she says.

"If you stroke a cheetah, it's like an engine and it goes right through your hands, right up your arm and straight to your heart. Nothing beats that."



FOR MORE INFO

You can find out more about how to help save cheetahs by going online at thecheetahfoundation.org or e-mail savannah@parys.co.za.


Helping from here

Only recently registered as a 501 (c)(3) charity, the Savannah Cheetah Foundation is changing gears. While it hopes to continue donating safaris to benefit local charities, the Foundation also wants to begin raising funds on its own behalf.

While safaris to the Savannah Africa preserve are one way to help their cause - the money from paying tourists helps keep the preserve in the black - you don't need to go to such distances to be of assistance to the preserve's goals.

The Savannah Cheetah Foundation also offers an "Adopt a Cheetah" program. For $20, $60 or $100 a month, "you get ownership of that cheetah. We send you a picture of that cheetah, we send you a birth certificate, and then we send you a newsletter every month as to how your cheetah is doing," says Hartslief.

"Obviously it's a lot of fun. It also helps a lot of the children take an interest in conservation, nature and what's happening to the cat," he continues. "Where it also helps us is that we then have a regular cash flow which genuinely helps us to support the cheetah."

 

 

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