, WATERBERG, Jun 16 – The three cheetah cubs roll around in the grass, totally involved in their game, the two males wanting to play with the wooden log their little sister has snatched away from them.
"They had a bad start in life as their heavily pregnant mother was shot," said Leigh Whelpton, a volunteer at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia.
"The farmer who killed it, noticed movement in the stomach of the cheetah, cut it open and found three perfectly shaped cubs in the womb, alive," she said.
The cubs — now eight months old — were brought to the CCF centre dedicated to the survival of cheetahs in Namibia, which has the world’s largest population of the cats and one of the most successful programmes at boosting their numbers.
Sadly, the three cubs will never be able to live in the wild and hunt like their mother because they grew up with humans.
"They will be trained as cheetah ambassadors," Whelpton told AFP. "Visitors will be able to come close to these beautiful felines to learn more about conservation."
Cheetahs are the fastest land animal on the planet, able to run at 120 kilometres per hour for short moments and accelerating from zero to 110 kilometres per hour in just three seconds.
But the spotted cats are increasingly endangered, with their population in Africa dropping from about 100,000 two decades ago to less than 10,000 now, said Laurie Marker, an American scientist living in Namibia.
"Namibia has the largest cheetah population in the world — some 3,000 — and 90 percent of them live on farms, and many farmers see them as a threat to their livestock and shoot them," Marker told AFP.
About 120 cheetahs are killed each year by farmers who see them as "problem animals".
— It gives us hope these cats won’t become extinct —
Looking for ways to help cheetahs survive, Marker in 1990 started the CCF on Elandsvreugde farm at the foot of the majestic Waterberg Mountain some 300 kilometres (185 miles) northeast of the capital Windhoek.
Intensive international fundraising has helped create a laboratory, a public field research and education centre plus a veterinary clinic on the farm, which is open to the public.
The centre also works with cheetah conservation experts in countries such as Algeria, Iran, Kenya and Tanzania.
"We believe in science-based conservation, that is why research is important," Marker explained.
The centre is creating a genetic database of all the cheetahs that pass through their care, hoping to prevent inbreeding when the animals are released back into the wild by ensuring that close relatives are sent to different regions. Some are collared and tracked by satellite.
Andronicus Tjituka still regrets he shot a cheetah two years ago. Tjituka is a successful emerging farmer on his own land in the area and regarded cheetahs as a threat to his livestock.
"I discovered the cheetah I killed had a collar round its neck with the address of the CCF on it. I phoned and informed them about the collar," he said.
It became a turning point for Tjituka, who then learnt about conservation and now looks after cheetahs on his land.
The CCF is teaching Namibian farmers how to live with cheetahs present on their property, which has helped increase Namibia’s population from 2,500 nearly two decades ago to the current 3,000.
Key among its programmes is training Anatolian shepherd dogs from Turkey — called Kangals — to help farmers protect their cattle, goats and sheep from cheetah attacks.
"We now breed them locally and over 350 dogs are now on farms and that greatly reduces losses to farmers," said Marker.
Namibia imposed a moratorium on cheetah trophy hunting this year to support conservation efforts, although by treaty the country is allowed to export 150 cheetah "trophies" each year — usually mounted heads of shot animals.
That’s a fate the three young cubs have avoided.
"The three cheetah cubs live on, although their mother died so tragically. This gives us hope that these magnificent cats will not become extinct," Whelpton said.