Pioneer cheetah conservationist, Ann van Dyk, celebrates 90

Ann Van Dyk greets one of the cheetahs which lives at the DeWildt Cheetah and Wildlife Center in DeWildt, South Africa, Thursday, March 13, 2003. Van Dyk founded the center to protect the species which is facing extinction. (AP/Lori Waselchuk)

Ann van Dyk, the founder of the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, who is internationally regarded as having saved the cheetah from extinction in South Africa, turned 90 on Tuesday.

This remarkable woman who has dedicated her life to saving the cheetah, has still been at the helm of the cheetah centre until recently, after which she handed over the reins to her nephew, Eric van Dyk.

Ann founded the centre in 1971 on her family farm in De Wildt after she and her brother, Godfrey, rescued two Cheetah cubs in the late 1960s from a farm in the then Northern Transvaal. However, without the necessary permits, they had to send to cubs to the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria.

At the time, the Zoo was establishing a captive breeding programme, but further expansion was limited due to the lack of land available. Ann and Godfrey offered the use of their farm for the captive breeding programme. This offer was accepted and the centre officially opened on 16 April 1971.

The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre has received international recognition for bringing the cheetah back from the edge of extinction and it was largely due to their efforts that the cheetah was removed from the endangered species list in 1986.

Since its establishment, over 600 cheetah cubs and more than 500 wild dog pups have been born at the centre, and it is here that the mystery of the King Cheetah was solved with the birth of the first King Cheetah in captivity. Originally thought to be a separate species, it was established that it is genetically identical to the true cheetah, but only with a variation of coat pattern and colouring.

Between 1975 and 2005, 242 litters were born with a total of 785 cubs. In a study done by Bertschinger, H. J., Meltzer, D. J. A., & Van Dyk, A. (2008), the survival rate of cubs was examined and it was found that cheetahs can be bred successfully and that their endangerment can be decreased through these breeding programmes.
Over the years various other endangered species have been bred at the Centre and these include African wild cat, Suni, Blue and Red Duiker, Riverine Rabbit, Vultures including the very rare Egyptian Vulture. The small antelope and Riverine Rabbit projects were handed over to other institutions such as the Karoo and the Kruger National Parks, once successfully underway.

Ann van Dyk received a gold medal award from the South African Nature Foundation for her contribution in 1988.
More than Eighty research publications have been written and undertaken through the facility and this research contributes to the well-being and survival of the species.

Her outreach education programme has reached over 100 000 learners since its inception in 2003.

Ann’s Wild Cheetah Management Programme successfully captured over sixty wild cheetahs that were considered “problem animals’ and relocated them into protected areas. As a result of this project and the introduction of the “Cheetah Friendly” farmer boards, two hundred and forty thousand hectares of farmland have been converted into areas that demonstrate that the cheetah and farmer can live together.

Today the centre provides a home for nearly 80 cheetah and over 20 African wild dogs.It is also a safe haven for wild animals that have been illegally kept and confiscated.

She is regarded as a pioneer in her field and the centre, that celebrates its 50th birthday next year, will continue to be a testimony to her extraordinary conservation work.

Happy birthday Ann, and thank you!