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Cheetah Ambassador Enlightens People About Big Cat

Through photographs, conservation photographer Marcy Mendelson documents the work of cheetah ambassadors, wild animals trained to teach appreciation of the species by allowing people to approach and see up close the magnificence of the world’s fastest land mammal. By Marcy Mendelson One hundred years ago, there were more than 100,000 wild cheetahs inhabiting 44 countries....

Through photographs, conservation photographer Marcy Mendelson documents the work of cheetah ambassadors, wild animals trained to teach appreciation of the species by allowing people to approach and see up close the magnificence of the world’s fastest land mammal.

By Marcy Mendelson

One hundred years ago, there were more than 100,000 wild cheetahs inhabiting 44 countries. Today, cheetahs exist in only two dozen of those countries with the total global population somewhere between 7,500 and 10,000, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The primary threat to the survival of cheetahs has been its loss of habitat due to agricultural expansion, poaching, and game hunting for hides and trophies. As human population continues to increase there is a higher demand for land rights. This affects the cheetah as increased agricultural pressures and subdivision of land with numerous fences means a decrease in available habitat for the cheetah and other wildlife species.

Cheetah running at top speed outside Reno, Nevada at Animal Ark. Their specialized track and lure system keeps the cats healthy and assists with fundraising initiatives as an event open to the public.


Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

Cheetahs have been forced into smaller areas where they have to compete for food and ultimately onto farmlands seeking goats and livestock. Farmers have been known to see cheetahs as pests or varmints and routinely trap, shoot or poison them when they threaten their livestock.


Cheetah range map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Namibia, more than 90 percent of wild cheetahs live on privately owned farmland.

In the mid-1950s there were an estimated 40,000 cheetahs in the world. By the mid-1970s, their population had dropped to half due to a spike in agricultural expansion. Farmers killed cheetahs by the thousands as pests or to sell their skins to the fur trade until 1975, when researchers began to realize the cheetah was in danger of becoming extinct.

In July of 1975, CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) placed the cheetah on Appendix I, making international trade in live cheetah or cheetah products illegal.

Today, the cheetah occupies only 24 percent of its historic range according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is particularly concerning to conservationists who view cheetahs as an excellent indicator species due to their vast range. If there are cheetahs, there is a healthy ecosystem.

The IUCN Red List assesses the cheetah as Vulnerable–considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

Day in the Life of an Ambassador Cat

Tango, ambassador cheetah, for Project Survival's Cat Haven in Dunlap, California.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

Tango is a cheetah that hails from South Africa’s Cheetah Outreach, and resides with his people at Project Survival’s Cat Haven just outside Kings Canyon, California.

An ambassador for the species is an animal that, while not tame, is trained to make public appearances on behalf of educational outreach for conservation. Until one sees an animal in real life, all the factual information in the world isn’t going to drive home the emotional and stunning impact of a live cheetah 10 feet away. It is an event that nobody forgets, and brings the issues surrounding the cheetah to another level for an audience that lives on the other side of the world.

The Landrover/Jaguar dealership in Corte Madera, California is located in a rather tony area of Marin County. An Aston Martin on display, and some rather serious looking salespeople give the impression this is a location where people do more than window shop. They’ve hosted a customer appreciation day, and welcomed Cat Haven as a featured guest.

Tango's handlers walk wih him into the Landrover Dealership. They go slowly, and on his time. If anything catches his eye, they stop and patiently wait.
Photos courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

Tango’s presence helps raise funds and awareness for the Soysambu Cheetah Center in Kenya. According to Project Survival’s website: “The Cheetah Center at Soysambu will work to educate people about the plight of the cheetah through education programs both at the Cheetah Center and also off-site programs. These programs will include cheetah encounters, school presentations and fundraising opportunities to aid the Soysambu Conservancy and Cheetah Conservation in Kenya.”

Tango frequently looks to Wendy for comfort and direction as handler Jolien, a vital part of the Cat Haven team, assists.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson
Tango holds court for an enthralled group.
Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

Purring nearly the entire time, Tango started out his visit hopping up on a long table and settling in with his back to the audience in charming indifference. Conservationists Dale Anderson and Wendy Wichelman-Debbas gave a lecture about the species, their plight, and the aims of their organization. I observed there is no shortage of times people will want to know the basic facts about the cheetah’s speed, and consistently gasp upon hearing: “68 mph, 26 feet at 3 strides per second.” As a fundraising initiative, guests could donate $20 per person to have their photo taken in one of the dealerships floor models with Tango in the frame, just off to the side.

Tango looks to Wendy (off camera) as a woman poses for her picture. Donations go to Project Survival.
Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson
Tango is uninterested in the child's overwhelmed state, however the Dad is clearly enthralled at the site of a live cheetah.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

As surreal an event as it was, the looks on the faces of not only, predictably, the children in the room, but of the adults too was obvious. Despite having his back turned to most of them, they were enthralled. (Eventually he turned around, taking interest in the small crowd.)

Going on safari isn’t a reality for many animal lovers, and traditional zoos with their bleak prisons break our hearts. The work of animals such as Tango, and he did purr loudly for the duration, is a vital piece in the puzzle of outreach and fundraising.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson
Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

Right now, March, 2011, Wendy and Dale are in Kenya supervising the progress of the Soysambu Cheetah Center for Project Survival, giving out multi-vitamins for children in the nearby villages, and according to their Facebook updates, assisting in putting out arson brush fires in the region. Without the hard work of their fundraising these tangible conservation actions would not be possible.


Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson
Wendy gives a lecture about the cheetah and conservation.
Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

Conservation can be grueling leg work, but teaching people, young and old, the nature of animals and the importance of sharing the land with them, is a vital aspect because saving an animal requires human energy.

Tango started life at the Ann van Dyke Cheetah Center in South Africa, and was raised from bottle age to eleven months with the conservationists at Cheetah Outreach, near Cape Town, who trained him to be the ambassador he is today. Cheetahs born in captivity cannot be returned to the wild, thus they become spokescats, if you will, for their wild cousins.  Project Survival’s Cat Haven takes the utmost care with the health and well-being of Tango, and his calm demeanor is reflection of the people who care for him, and the cause of protecting the future of the fastest animal on land.

Marcy Mendelson (above) is a conservation photographer working on a project to help save the cheetah through visual storytelling and reportage of the hard work by fundraisers, farmers, NGOs and local communities. She will be traveling to Africa this coming fall and reporting to National Geographic News Watch in addition to her site, Cheetah-Watch. In the meantime, she resides in San Francisco, California and works with nonprofits like Cat Haven and Animal Ark in observation of the outreach they do with animal lovers eager to help and learn. More about Marcy’s photography and interests can be found on her website, Mendelson Images.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn