THE BLOG

A Lucky Cheetah And A Lot Of Land

12/01/2011 09:37 am ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012

This is the story of a determined woman, of a badly wounded cheetah and a dream.

The woman is named Sarah Tompkins. She and her husband Mark own Samara, a private game reserve in South Africa. It's on the Eastern Cape in an area called the Great Karoo and noted for its beautiful wide vistas and semi-arid climate, ranging from grassland to high-mountain peaks to valley thickets. It's also malaria-free.

The area was once bursting with game -- cheetah, rhinos, wildebeest, antelope and Cape buffalo, just to name a few, and dozens of species of birds. But over the years, especially in the last two centuries, this wild country was tamed by the advent of farms that effectively cut off the migratory patterns of the game. There was a time when the annual springbok migration (last seen in 1896) would take two weeks with millions of animals creating a dust cloud that lasted for days.

Enter Sarah and Mark Tompkins. Neither had been especially ardent conservationists -- she was South African by birth and he was a financier based in London. But the two fell in love with the land and over a period of five years bought up 11 farms and tore down the fences.

"We were not involved in conservation anywhere else other than having a great love for the outdoors and animals," says Sarah. "We were not familiar with this area at all. I used to drive through it as a child on my way to my grandparents' home on the coast."

"It was a 'heart' thing," adds Mark. "We knew it was lunacy, but we just fell in love with the place."

Beginning in 1997, Sarah and Mark bought a total of 70,000 acres and called it Samara, which means "land of serenity." But there was no game to speak of, and the land had been all but destroyed by grazing cattle and sheep. To bring it back, the Tompkins let it lie fallow for several years, giving the land time to recover.

The next step was to introduce indigenous wildlife back into the reserve, which is a three-hour drive from the nearest city, Port Elizabeth. Sarah knew that cheetah, the fastest land animal on the planet, had been decimated in the area and she wanted to bring them back. She also knew about the De Wildt Wildlife Trust, a research and captive breeding facility for cheetahs and other endangered animals, so she contacted them.

"I mentioned that we wanted to introduce cheetah at Samara. They said they would help us source some wild cheetah and that they had a program that rewarded farmers for wild cheetah that were captured and not killed."

That's how they found Sibella, a female cheetah that had been horribly mistreated and mutilated. "Sibella and her sister had been hunted by men and dogs. Her injuries were nearly fatal. De Wildt did not know if she would live. The tendons in her legs had been cut through to the bone. They had put a rope through her jaw. The dogs had ripped her skin. She was tied up and practically left for dead. She would have died in a cage unless a farmer's wife remembered that De Wildt handed a reward out for wild cheetah. So the farmer's wife called De Wildt."

Sibella was on the operating table for four hours. It was touch and go, but she survived.

In 2003, Sibella and two male cheetahs were introduced to Samara. Although she occasionally showed a slight limp from her horrible mistreatment, Sibella adapted well to her new found home in the wild. She has so far produced 18 cubs, all but one of which survived. Several have been sent to other game reserves to help increase the cheetah population in South Africa. Sibella's offspring account for 2% of the total cheetah population in South Africa.

The dream, of course, is to promote animal conservation in this area of South Africa and, according to Sarah Tompkins, eventually reintroduce all the indigenous animals that had disappeared over the years as settlers made their way through the Eastern Cape.

"2012 should be a good year for animal introductions," says Sarah from the veranda of one of the guest houses on the property. "We have not taken a firm decision regarding lions as yet. We would never do anything to jeopardize Sibella (the name is a play on the names of Sarah and Mark's two daughters, Sienna and Isabelle).

But dozens of species of animals have already been reintroduced to Samara, including white rhino and various antelope, from swishy-tailed Gemsbok to tiny duiker. One recent addition, giraffe can be seen munching on treetops, and Burchell's Zebra are clustered in herds high up on one of the grassy plateaus that frames Samara.

There is talk now of creating a corridor linking several reserves with existing national parks. "Samara is the catalyst for change in the area," says Sarah, "and we will be the role model for what national parks will do here. We want to create the third largest national park in South Africa."

Meanwhile, Sarah and Mark Tompkins have opened their reserve to visitors. Guests can stay at the six-room luxury lodge, a modern-looking Karoo farmhouse with wide verandahs or the exquisite Manor house several miles away, with an infinity pool and spectacular view of the mountains. It's not unusual to see game passing by at close range, and there are even reports of cheetah lounging on the veranda.

As for Sibella, she is now 12 years old. She was outfitted with a collar that transmits radio signals so she can be tracked by the Samara staff. After all she's been through, Sibella only allows visitors within fifteen or twenty feet. Tourists are warned not turn your back on her.

In other words, you can look, but you'd better not touch.