When I was given the opportunity to walk with cheetahs at Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre my first instinct was to say no. I was concerned about the treatment of the cheetahs so I decided to do some research. I found out that Tenikwa is a rehabilitation centre located near Plettenberg Bay with an animal hospital and a wild cat awareness centre. I read numerous reviews and saw no mention of mistreatment. I decided that I should go and make up my own mind because who wouldn’t want to walk with well cared for cheetahs?
As soon as I arrived, I was charmed by the passion of the keepers and work of the conservation that takes place there. In order to fund the rehabilitation centre and raise awareness, Tenikwa offers numerous small group programmes each day including photography experiences and walking with cheetahs. We opted for the sunrise cheetah walk and wild cat experience combo. When we walked up to the 2 cheetahs, Chester and Zimbali, the first thing I noticed was how at ease they were with their keepers. They let them put their harnesses on without any hesitation. I noticed that Zimbali was purring, very loudly, and she did this throughout the walk. She seemed very content.
We were told to stay behind the cheetahs at all times, not to let the lead pull, to drop the lead if they tried to run or lay down and of course to always listen to the keepers. We were also reminded that the cheetah walk is for the cheetahs, not for us. Walking through the Tsisikamma forest with the cheetahs was amazing. It was clear that Chester was the dominant male and liked to lead the way. We firstly walked Zimbali at the back. I loved hearing her purr as we walked. Occasionally Chester or Zimbali stopped to lay down and relax and at these points we were allowed to stroke Zimbali; she seemed to enjoy the affection. We were informed that Chester, on the other hand, did not like to be touched.
When we walked Chester we had to walk a little faster to keep up with him. The story about how Chester arrived at the centre in 2007 is truly heartwarming. His 2 siblings died after neglect from their mother and Tanikwa made every effort they could to save Chester. He grew to be healthy and then Zimbali arrived as his companion, since then they have been inseparable. A few years later he became seriously ill and was then diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He is now given 2 insulin injections each day. We saw him receive one of these after the walk when he was fed. It is clear how much he trusts his keepers when he allowed them to give him this injection.
The cheetahs were full of energy throughout the walk which seemed to be very enriching for them. They are such majestic, incredible animals and being so close to them was magical. The cheetah walking all started when they had one cheetah at Tenikwa. The owners used to walk their dogs and one day they decided to take the cheetah with them. The word spread which led to more and more people hoping to visit Tenikwa and walk alongside the beautiful cheetahs. It became the perfect opportunity to raise awareness for these animals and their desperate state in the wild. It certainly worked for me, my love for cheetahs grew an incredible amount after getting so close to them and learning more about them.
Overall I was very satisfied with the treatment of the cheetahs. They are never taken out of the wild at Tenikwa and I believe they are raising great awareness for other cheetahs. I also love that they get a walk each day, which is far more than what cheetahs might get in other wildlife centres. I am extremely glad I walked with the cheetahs; I can honestly say that it is one of the best things I have ever done and would recommend it to anyone with one warning: you will most certainly fall in love with the beautiful creatures.
Practical information- the tour lasts around 3 hours and costs R780 (around £45). The minimum age requirement is 16 years old.
Tip: book early as not many can attend the walk and it gets full quickly. We had 6 people on our walk.