It is estimated that there are less than 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild. Habitat destruction, conflict with farmers, and the illegal wildlife trade threaten the survival of the species. In fact, in the past 100 years the world's cheetah population has declined by approximately 90% and if the situation is not stabilised soon, it is very likely this rare and vulnerable species will be lost forever.
South Australia's Monarto Zoo is assisting the survival of the cheetah by raising public awareness, encouraging conservation efforts, contributing to conservation funds, and breeding cheetahs in captivity. It is a notoriously difficult task, but by replicating the environmental conditions and behavioural patterns of those in the wild, the open range zoo near Adelaide has established a hugely successful captive breeding program.
Two of the cheetahs born to the program, Tsotsie and Skukusa, were hand-reared by Monarto Zoo keepers as cubs when their mother unfortunately contracted an infection that threatened their lives. Now fully grown, the male cheetahs act as ambassadors for their species as part of the Cheetah Interactive program, which provides the general public with education, awareness, and the unique opportunity to meet a cheetah.
Visitors can pay to step inside the cheetah habitat at Monarto Zoo and learn more about this magnificent animal. Just sharing the same space with Tsotsie and Skukusa is exhilarating, but you are also able to pat (their fur is much coarser than expected), hear them purr, and be photographed with these beautiful big cats. Put simply, it is an incredible experience.
Learn more about the plight of the cheetah and how you can help
The cheetahs are so placid and probably better behaved than many domesticated cats. They respond to directions, enjoy a scratch behind the ears, pose for the cameras, and wait patiently to be fed. It is not until a slab of meat is devoured in a matter of minutes that you are reminded that while these felines may not be ferocious, they are still wild animals – powerful and agile creatures designed for speed and hunting.
It is also important to remember that if it were not for the unique and resolute bond developed over many years between cheetah and keeper, the general public would not be privy to Cheetah Interactive. It is an honour to meet Tsotsie and Skukusa in the fur and we are fortunate to be able to do so.
Cheetah Interactive is held three days of the week at 9.45 am in the Visitor Centre at Monarto Zoo. From there, you are driven to the cheetah habitat, about 5 minutes away to meet with the keepers for a preliminary briefing. Cheetahs are particularly susceptible to disease due to a lack of genetic diversity, so it is only after thoroughly disinfecting hands and shoes that you are permitted inside the enclosure where Tsotsie and Skukusa wait to be greeted.
During the session, and under the guidance of the keeper, you are encouraged to ask questions and take photographs as you get to know the cheetahs. You are also advised ways in which you can contribute to the survival of the species. This includes supporting the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which is dedicated to saving cheetahs in the wild.
As the world's fastest land mammal, the cheetah can reach speeds up to 110 kilometres an hour and the session seems just as quick. The hour long encounter is over before you know it and soon you are returned to the Visitor Centre and can spend the rest of the day exploring Monarto Zoo. If you are feeling active, there are walking trails around the zoo. Otherwise, take the Zu-Loop shuttle bus, it operates on about a half hourly basis and you can get on and off as you please.
Cheetah Interactive is conducted in small groups with a maximum of four people per session. For $180 (less for Zoos SA members), it can be purchased for yourself or as a special gift for family or friends and the cost includes admission to the zoo. Bookings and payments can be made from the Zoos SA website, but be prepared to wait awhile for the experience because it tends to book up months in advance.
You can see them from the Zu-Loop bus, but you get a much better view with Cheetah Interactive
There are a number of other behind-the-scenes animal experiences that might be of interest at Monarto Zoo, such as Lions at Bedtime, Rhino Interactive, Meet the Chimps, Giraffe Safari, A Devilish Native Experience, Meerkat Mingle, or even be a Keeper for a Day.