Driving the Garden Route Day 2: Visiting big cats at Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre

After a 20 minute drive from our guesthouse in Plettenberg Bay, we arrive at Tenikwa Wildlife Rehabilitation and Awareness Centre just before 730am this morning, exploding with excitement, ready to see some big kitties on our full day “Crazee Cat” tour. From its humble beginnings as just a shed behind the house of husband and wife conservationists, Tenikwa has since developed into one of the largest rehabilitation centres in South Africa’s Western Cape, rescuing and returning more than 2000 animals back to the wild since 2009. The awareness aspect of the centre was introduced as a way to educate both local and international visitors on the importance of protecting native animals and to raise funds for the ongoing rehabilitation efforts.

Despite the expense of caring for all the animals that pass through the centre, however, I really admire that Tenikwa has taken a strong stand against unethical tourism practices like allowing guests to hold lion cubs or pet cheetahs— there is absolutely no contact permitted between guests and any of the animals and guests are also not allowed to see any of the animals in the rehabilitation program that will be returning to the wild, as a fear of humans is essential to their survival and it is important to limit disruption of their natural instincts. The animals we will be seeing today are either unable to be rehabilitated due to the nature of their injuries or illness, or they were bred in captivity as part of conservation efforts. And Tenikwa is distinctly not a zoo, as the animals who do live here permanently are given huge enclosures that mimic their natural habitat and as much of their wild routine as possible has been preserved.

Following an introduction to the centre, we meet our private guide, Sizwe, and head over towards the cheetah, getting slightly pre-occupied along the way with a pair of caracals. These gorgeous African cats pose quite a threat to livestock, so they are often killed by farmers, dropping their numbers dangerously low in the wild. Awareness Centres like Tenikwa are therefore advocating for the use of dogs (to guard the sheep) or neck collars (to protect the sheep) rather than taking a shotgun to one of these beautiful animals. We can tell that Sizwe is incredibly passionate about this cause, as he chastises the farmers for not watching their livestock better and then being surprised when a wild animal does what wild animals do. Seriously though, just watch your sheep and stop shooting cats!

Finally, mum manages to pull me away from the little caracals and we continue towards the cheetah, soon catching sight of a huge male pacing along the fence, eagerly awaiting his morning walk. Sizwe introduces us to Duma (which means “cheetah” in Swahili) and I am instantly beside myself. Everything about him is beautiful, his piercing orange eyes and black tear-track markings; his strong shoulders and long, muscular tail; and his little spots and sleek, golden coat… Cheetah were the only animal on my wishlist that I didn’t get to see on safari in Kruger or Sabi Sands, so it’s pretty exciting to encounter one this close and to observe him at length in a relatively natural setting.

Duma has been bred in captivity, as was his mother before him, as part of a breeding program that aims to better adapt cheetah for changing conditions in the wild. Unlike leopards and lions who use stealth and sheer strength to hunt, cheetah rely primarily on their speed and therefore prefer open plains and flat grasslands as their habitat. Unfortunately, this flat land is also prime for building, so the cheetah are losing much of their territory to developments and are dying as a result of poor adaptation to varied landscapes. The aim is that, in a few generations, cheetah will be released into the wild and will be able to survive in thicker bush.

In an effort to mimic their natural routine as much as possible, the cheetahs are taken for walks in the early morning and late evening, as these are the times they would be most active in the wild. Even though Duma was bred in captivity, he still has many of his cheetah instincts intact, so he prowls in front of us, spraying trees as we pass, trying to get his back end as high as possible so that any passing cat would catch his scent far up the tree and know they are in the territory of a huge cheetah. He also takes to flopping down on the ground every few minutes, rolling around to really leave his smell all around, and stalks around the perimeter of his acreage, making sure that no cat has wandered into his territory.

Like all the cats we’ve seen so far, Duma is quite happy to put on a show and pose for photos, but always reminds us who is boss by walking in front and dictating the pace, even brushing past us to change directions abruptly. Mum and I are pretty delighted to have him all to ourselves. After 90 minutes, we start to edge him back towards his enclosure and he happily goes in, knowing that a delicious breakfast of raw chicken will be waiting for him and his brother, Zeus.

Speechless from our walk with Duma, mum and I return to the main lodge for a breakfast of our own (thankfully not raw chicken). Our little reserved table overlooks a pond and its heron and stork residents, who are also plenty amusing and more than a little odd looking. The marabou stork is particularly strange, with his giant pink air sac hanging below his neck, a head that looks like a balding grandpa with third-degree burns, and hollow legs (an adaptation for flight) that he has peed all over and turned brilliant white as a natural sunscreen. There is certainly no shortage of strange wildlife in Africa..

After breakfast, one of the animal keepers, Boniwe, takes us over to the rehabilitation centre and talks to us about the animals that are currently being looked after. Since we are on a private tour, she does actually let us see a couple of the animals that are being rehabilitated to go back into the wild, including a seagull who has developed botulism and lost the use of his legs. As part of his program, the seagull is in a pen with a pool where the animal keepers encourage him to swim and build strength up in his legs so he will be able to be released soon, which I find pretty amazing. There’s about a million seagulls (and they are always trying to eat my food at the beach), but here Tenikwa is taking the time to give bird physical therapy to one of these sick gulls!

We also get to look on as Boniwe feeds baby birds with tweezers, glance into pens where baby turtle hatchlings and 2 injured monitor lizards are being kept, and watch the penguin feeding, which is just as adorable as it sounds. Finally, we meet a little bush baby before making our way back over to the awareness side of the centre with food for the mongoose and meerkats. The mongoose gets a raw egg, which he holds in his paws and repeatedly throws at the ground until he’s able to crack it, and the meerkats get a bucket full of tasty compost (dirt crawling with thousands of earthworms). I absolutely adore meerkats, so the whole experience of watching them run out of their burrows to eat, always with one meerkat standing up on his hind legs and acting as the watch, is almost too much to handle.

After feeding the meerkats, we go back to the big cats with their midday meal and get to meet Chester and Zimbali, two other cheetah that live permanently at the centre. Chester was actually the first cheetah to come to Tenikwa, brought in at 2 days old and now approaching 10 years. When he was still very young, the owners noticed blood in his scat and some strange behaviour, but blood tests revealed nothing out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until he vomited and collapsed that a vet discovered Chester’s diabetes. He is fully insulin-dependent, ruling out the possibility of a release into the wild as he needs his daily shot, but he is now a happy and very healthy cat— you’d have no idea about his condition if the guides didn’t tell you.

Chester lives with Zimbali, a gorgeous female cheetah, and although the two are not related and could mate, they see each other more as siblings, which I think is extremely cute. Cheetah are not naturally social animals, as the females raise the cubs entirely alone and really the only interaction between the sexes would be for mating. Male cheetah do form “brotherly coalitions”, but females are completely solitary, so it’s a bit rare to observe this sort of relationship.

After meeting the other two cheetah, we do the rounds to visit the rest of the African cats starting with the serval. These medium-sized cats are often compared to cheetah because of their spots, but they have huge ears and extremely long legs that are distinctly different than pretty much all of the other wild cats. Sizwe takes us right up to the bush that the serval are sleeping in and we peer in at them through the brush. He has fashioned a cat toy that looks exactly like something I’ve bought previously for Henri and starts flipping it around, which draws the servals out immediately, but, unlike a house cat, when one of the servals latches onto the plastic ball, he crushes it in his jaw and rips the string clean off the stick. They may look adorable, but it’s a good reminder that I probably shouldn’t try and cuddle one.

Next on the list are the little African wild cats, which look just like pets, probably even smaller than Henri, but are allegedly quite vicious. Still, likely due to their size, the African wild cats regularly breed with domesticated cats, creating feral cats that then breed with other wild cats to create hybrids. Conservationists are hoping to prevent further dilution of the gene pool by desexing all of the hybrid and feral cats that they can possibly find, but of course it still happens (cats will be cats).

One of the wild cats at Tenikwa, Merlin, is completely blind and noticeably ancient. He struggles to walk normally and has to have his food sat right under his nose for him to find it. The little female kitty he lives with takes such sweet care of him, though, meowing loudly to tell him the food has arrived and helping to guide him around their habitat, so he is still enjoying a happy cat life and the centre is hoping to just let him pass naturally (hopefully peacefully in his sleep, dreaming of mice and birds).

Our last visit before lunch is possibly the most exciting of all, though. We saw several dozen lions in the wild on our safari last week, which was indescribably amazing, but the sheer size and beauty and proximity of these lions is breathtaking. The big male is a white lion who, while not an albino, is still at a great disadvantage due to the brilliant white of his coat— there are almost no white lions in the wild because they are unable to camouflage as well as their sandy-coloured counterparts. But, despite his poor adaptation for the wild, he is the definition of majestic.

He and his sister (who is also his mate because lions apparently have no boundaries) are simply enormous, far larger than any of the lions or lionesses we saw in Kruger or Sabi Sands. The size of their faces is basically the size of Henri, and Sizwe says they could crush a human skull in their jaws if they were so inclined. We aren’t allowed in the habitat with the lions, but we stand pressed up against the side and they get plenty close, trotting over when Sizwe pokes their ball through the fence. Unlike cheetah who will only look at you for a second before darting their eyes away, the lions are perfectly comfortable locking eyes with us, which is both incredible and a little intimidating. You have to humble yourself a little when you’re face to face with the king of the jungle. (Even though lion don’t live in what we would commonly refer to as “jungle”, the word itself is derived from Hindi and just refers to a place not inhabited by humans rather than specifically a heavily wooded forest area, so in this context it certainly includes plains and deserts.)

After a wonderful lunch back in front of the birds at the pond, we go back to see Chester and Zimbali for an afternoon grooming session. We sit with Sizwe as he brushes the cheetahs, ridiculously close to these gorgeous animals, almost deafened by Zimbali’s purring. Big cats that roar aren’t able to purr, so cheetah are some of the only African wild cats who are able to, and, by the sounds of it, exceptionally well.

It’s actually incredible to watch them interact with Sizwe— the love and respect between him and the cats is inspiring and makes our visit totally worthwhile. We want to support places that put the animals’ well being above all else and that aren’t willing to exploit these beautiful cats just for the sake of money. We have been very impressed that Tenikwa takes such great care to ensure that all animal interaction is done in an ethical manner and only in the name of educating people on animals and conservation efforts rather than just for a profit. We both feel confident that these cats are leading happy lives, and of course Chester would never have made it more than a few years in the wild due to his diabetes, so Tenikwa is truly his home.

Saying goodbye to the cheetah, we venture off to see the leopard, who, like the lions, can’t be viewed up close. It was wonderful to be right next to the cheetah and servals and wild cats, but the leopard is just too powerful and would happily kill a human just for sport, so we are kept opposite the fence to observe his feeding. In an effort to make him work just a little for his food, Sizwe chucks huge hunks of raw meat over the fence and the leopard takes off with frightening speed to grab it, devouring the food in seconds and coming back for more. We also saw plenty of leopards in the wild on our safari, but it’s still amazing to see one running about so close to us. We really get an appreciation for just how powerful these animals are.

Our last activity is to bring food to all of the animals, including the servals and wild cats (raw chicken), the mongoose (raw sardines), the meerkats (boiled chicken), and lastly the lions (kilos and kilos of chicken). We finally have to say goodbye to Sizwe, thanking him profusely for what has been such an amazing day with some truly incredible animals in a very special place, and drive on back to our B&B in Plettenberg Bay, but I am already planning to tell everyone I know about Tenikwa and spam people with my 1100 cat photos (not an exaggeration, I literally took 1100 photos today).

Read more about our road-trip along the Garden Route