Cheetah Conservation Hopes Pinned on "Ambassador" Cat
for National Geographic News
A cheetah called Byron was received like royalty this week at a school in a sprawling black township on the outskirts of South Africa's capital, Pretoria. The pupils at the Kguagelo School called him a prince. Their choir sang, and they read a poem they had written for him.
Also known as the "cheetah ambassador," the tame animal is frequently taken to schools and to meetings with farmers and local communities as part of an initiative to win people's hearts and minds over to the cause—and ultimate survival—of this fleet-footed big cat.
Once roaming throughout much of Africa and Asia, today only some 12,000 cheetahs are believed to be surviving in the wild—almost all of them in patches of east and southern Africa. Many of them are trying to live on farmland, where they frequently come into fatal conflict with humans.
The cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Treaty.
As human populations expand and development consumes more and more of the cheetah's natural habitat and prey (mostly gazelles), the feline's fate looks dark.
Byron, the princely ambassador for cheetahs, is playing a vital role in an ambitious plan to conserve and restore cheetah populations in southern Africa.
At his numerous outings to schools and farming communities, people are encouraged to get up real close with one of nature's most accomplished predators. They are allowed to stroke Byron's soft body fur and tail in the hope that the hands-on experience will open their eyes to the animal's extraordinary beauty and inspire them to support the cheetah's cause.
With the indifference typical of cats, Byron takes all this human contact in his stride, alternatively sitting up regally or flopping nonchalantly on his side while purring contentedly.
But changing human attitudes toward cheetahs ...