Orphan cub to Ambassador Cheetah – meet Sylvester and his handlers, find out who’s the boss

Orphan cub to Ambassador Cheetah

Sylvester in the National Park. Photo supplied.

From orphan cub to Ambassador Cheetah, this the story of Sylvester, the much loved and well cared for resident Cheetah at Elephant Camp, Zimbabwe, Africa.

Sylvester did not have an easy start to life, a ranger witnessed a lion kill his mother and siblings when he was just a four day old cub.  With the excellent care from his handler Farai Chikwara and his two colleagues, at the age of seven, Sylvester enjoys a good life in the national park and his role as Ambassador Cheetah in the community.

Cathy Beer, Pets4Life visited Elephant Camp in August 2016 where she met Farai Chikwara and Sylvester. Cathy chats with Farai about Sylvester’s life at Elephant Camp and finds out who’s the boss between Sylvester and his handlers.

Who’s the boss? How did Sylvester become an Ambassador Cheetah?

Farai: In April 2010, in the Southern region of Zimbabwe, in a conservation area known as Bubi Valley Conservancy, Sylvester was rescued as a very small cheetah cub at approximately four days old. A lion killed Sylvester’s four siblings and his mother who tried in vain to distract and withdraw the lion’s attention from her cubs.

Orphan cub to ambassador cheetah

Farai Chikwara and Sylvester. Photo supplied.

A game ranger by the name Sylvester witnessed the incident as they were monitoring the rhinos in that conservancy. Later he decided to pick up the cheetah cub and surrendered him to the managers of that area where he was hand-raised with some domestic animals such as dogs and cats.

When Sylvester was around one year’s old, they attempted to re-introduce Sylvester back into the wild, but unfortunately after several assessments it was discovered that he would not survive without people caring for him.

The Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust is a non-profit organization based in the Victoria Falls Wildlife Sanctuary, and this organization has got expertise in the field of Wildlife veterinary / management, and it runs a Wildlife Laboratory for helping sick, orphaned and injured wildlife in the area, as well as conducting research in diseases affecting wild and domestic animals. This is the organization with which National Parks entrusted to put Sylvester under its care. The trust being a non-profit entity relies on donations from Elephant Camp Guests and the general public for its day –to- day operations.

The Trust was authorized by Zimbabwe National Parks to provide Sylvester with all the care he requires for his wellbeing, and providing him with medications (Vet department), and to also use him as an ambassador cheetah educating local communities, visiting school groups, as well as tourists to Victoria Falls about his life and the plight of cheetahs throughout Africa.

Who’s the boss: Who are Sylvester’s handlers? How do they look after him?

Ambassador cheetah and his handler, who's the boss?

Sylvester gets affectionate with Cathy Beer (and she loved it!). Photo: John Clay

Farai: Three people (myself, Shelter and Gift) are employed to look after Sylvester. As his handlers we are very sensitive to all changes in Sylvester’s behavior towards food, play, other animals he encounters during his walks in the park, and his general behavior towards people. Sometimes a change in his general behavior might imply a health problem with him, so we get to be very observant. Sylvester receives equal amounts of affection from his three handlers, which means, in the absence of one handler, he still enjoys the good company of two.

Who’s the boss: What’s Sylvester’s daily routine?

Farai: Taking a walk twice daily within the park while he is off-leash for his daily exercise and mental stimulation are Sylvester’s daily routine. He also meets interested guests at Elephant Camp before and after his walks, which is only done during the coolest times of the day depending on the season. Every Friday after his bush walk, Sylvester meets children from local schools as well as adults from local communities for education towards Human/Wildlife Conflicts. Local farmers tend to have a direct conflict with wild animals as they affect their farms and livestock. For this reason we have seen the need to involve communities and discuss issues relating wildlife conservation, and how we can protect livestock from local predators in the area.

Who’s the boss: So, who’s the boss between Sylvester and his handlers?

Ambassador Cheetah and his handler

Sylvester at Elephant Camp. Photo: John Clay

Farai: Sylvester is a cat and it is our greatest pleasure to have him as OUR boss, for his and our comfort, as all cats like to be in charge. However it has been proven that cheetahs are cats with some dog traits, which means, somehow you can shape some of Sylvester’s behavior; and here we achieve this through “Positive reinforcement.” Sylvester may be asked to come, sit down, get up on a platform or the back of a vehicle, and a few other instructions which he complies to at his own like and pace. We only reward his positive responses and ignore what we don’t want from him. All this is done to ensure safety to all visiting small school children and the general public that meet Sylvester during his daily routines.