Article by Amy Green, Hills of Africa Travel’s Client Services Director
On a recent visit to the incredible Elephant Camp in Zimbabwe, I had the rare opportunity to come face to face with a rescued cheetah, Sylvester.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why exactly Sylvester needed rescuing and why he is at a wildlife sanctuary and not in the wild . . . Here’s his story:
Sylvester was orphaned at a very young age when his mother and four siblings were attacked and killed by a male lion. Unable to fend for himself in the wild, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust became involved in rescuing Sylvester.
Years of research on releasing orphaned cheetahs back into the wild have proved the strategy to be highly inefficient. Cheetah cannot survive in the wild without 22 months of maternal care. And thus, the Department of National Parks and Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust devised another plan to ensure Sylvester’s survival.
They have named Sylvester the country’s “Ambassador Cheetah” to help raise awareness for the importance of wildlife conservation.
Sylvester lives in a large open area without any predators where he can exercise naturally.
Now that you know Sylvester’s story, here is a look at what I experienced with this incredible animal:
Our day began at the Elephant Camp main lodge where we met with three handlers, one tracker, and Sylvester. The handlers spent time with us, explaining why Sylvester lives at Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary and letting him get to know us.
The handlers were excited because the day before, Sylvester had killed a baby waterbuck and had gone back to eat it. This was a sign that he still has some of his natural instincts. He’d made a kill before, but didn’t eat it. He didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. This was a great sign he still has hunting instincts despite being orphaned at a young age.
Off we went on a walk through the bush with Sylvester. He was off leash and wandering on his own. We walked through the property to the gorge, catching glimpses of Sylvester along the way.
During the walk we came across a few lone Cape buffalo, but the tracker was sure all was safe so we could proceed. The handlers were very friendly and knowledgeable. All were eager to chat and answer our questions.
We arrived at the gorge and the view was incredible! The mighty Zambezi River was roaring below us.
Sylvester finally made it to the gorge and laid down to rest. As we started off to head back towards camp we noticed a buffalo in the woods. Sylvester hadn’t noticed him and wandered over to a tree near the buffalo and started scratching his claws. This got the buffalo’s attention as Sylvester was in the “down dog” position and looked like he was ready for a pounce. The buffalo went on the defense, drawing Sylvester’s attention.
The silly cheetah acted as if he might go after the beast, so the buffalo turned to go, then changed his mind and turned back to challenge Sylvester. Sylvester made a few ‘pretend’ go’s, then decided to move on…wise move as the buffalo wasn’t having any of it and could have hurt Sylvester.
At this point Sylvester stayed close to our small group, so we were encouraged to walk along with him. The guides were happy to take our cameras and get some pictures. We had a time scrambling through the brush trying to keep up with Sylvester, but it was great fun. How amazing to be out in the bush, walking with a cheetah who loved letting us stroke his head! He would stop occasionally to check out the surroundings, so we took full advantage to get some selfies with him.
After a while we came to an open area and Sylvester decided it was time to stop for a break. In the distance we saw the elephants coming out for their morning walk (and as a side note, I highly recommend the Elephant Back Safari).
The elephant parade finally moved on, out of sight and we were able to get Sylvester moving again. We got back to camp and enjoyed more time petting Sylvester and chatting with the guides. He even licked us! He has a very rough tongue though…
I cannot explain how incredible this experience was. Being able to interact with such an amazing creature was a definite highlight of our trip to Zimbabwe. We both left with our clothes covered in cheetah fur and hands slimy with cheetah slobber from all the licks he gave us. We decided to wrap my husband’s t-shirt in a bag so we could share Sylvester with our pets back home. Let me tell you, the cat was quite interested in that treat!
This experience was by far the highlight of my trip to Zimbabwe!