In love with Sylvester, Cheetah Ambassador

wild horizons sylvester-1-8I got to meet a very special resident of the Wild Horizons Sanctuary: Sylvester the Cheetah. Guests at the Elephant Camp or Elephant Safari might just spot this guy when he’s out for a walk, and I was one of the lucky ones. He’s so much bigger, better looking and more … athletic than I imagined. All with a don’t-care attitude that definitely makes him the coolest cat in town.

Ethical note: It is imperative that you fully research all animal experiences to ensure that the animals are not being exploited. Encounters with this cheetah are not done on a paid-for basis, for ethical reasons.

For as long as I can remember, cheetahs have been my favourite wild animal. There’s something about that tear-stained face that has a certain poignancy to it. A cheetah’s sleek frame makes it more vulnerable than its bigger lion and leopard cousins; and predators kill 90% of cheetah cubs as a result. Yet a cheetah is perfectly designed for speed: its tail, which takes up almost half of its body length, acts as a steering mechanism at high speeds. Unlike other cats, a cheetah’s claws don’t retract, so that they get maximum grip when accelerating. Have you heard the noise that it makes? Adorable.

wild horizons sylvester-1-3I have a particular soft spot for Sylvester. His mother and four siblings were killed in the wild by a lion (as so often happens), but Sylvester survived. A game scout rescued the cub and left him in the care of a National Parks warden and his wife. Sylvester was just two days old; his umbilical cord attached and his eyes still shut.

As Sylvester grew, he needed a home. Not a place where he would be a pet, but a place where he could have the space he deserved. Release attempts have been tried with cheetahs in the past but unfortunately they don’t survive unless they’ve been under the care of their mother for 22 months. So Sylvester’s new home became the Wild Horizons Sanctuary, where he can have runs and walks every day. He has a dedicated team of handlers who ensure he has lots of time out in the bush. The Wild Horizons team have tried to make the best of Sylvester’s familiarity with humans by making him a “cheetah ambassador”. He and his team are particularly focused on educating local schoolchildren about the plight of endangered animals.

As you can see, at 3 years of age, Sylvester has grown into a wonderfully sleek, good-looking animal. He’s a long, lean running machine – the complete opposite of me! Seeing him was truly one of my highlights in Victoria Falls. He’s by no means a pet, and although he was on a lead in the company of tourists, his handlers didn’t attempt to restrict his movements. He was completely relaxed around this bunch of excitable visitors, and languished across the floor like he owned the place. He particularly liked the salty sweat on the men’s arms and didn’t approve of the ladies’ moisturisers at all. He gave me a lick or two, and although I’d been warned it would feel like sandpaper, I underestimated how rough sandpaper really is! That’s one impressive tongue!

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Cheetahs are perhaps the most vulnerable of the big cats, and their numbers in the wild are sadly decreasing. I’ve only seen a cheetah in the wild on two occasions, both when I was on honeymoon in Kenya. With conservation projects and education programmes on the rise, hopefully these beautiful animals will start getting the help that they need. Maybe on my next trip I’ll get to see cheetahs in the wild in Zimbabwe. I’ll be sure to tell them that Sylvester says “Hi”.

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Useful links: Sylvester’s Facebook page | The story of Sylvester | Read one of Sylvester’s newsletters for a deeper understanding of what his team does | Photos of Sylvester on his walks | Have a look at this fascinating video of a cheetah in action.

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I met Sylvester at the Elephant Safari base which was booked through Wild Horizons. Not everyone who goes on the Elephant Safari will see him, as his walks are dependent on time of day and mood! Guests at the Elephant Camp also have the opportunity of accompanying Sylvester on some of his walks.

Part of the Classic Zimbabwe holiday series. Read the next post where we are armed with sticks for Our Lion Encounter.

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Beth is the founder and chief writer of Great Zimbabwe Guide Travel Blog. Practical Zimbabwe travel advice since 2010.