In a world first, two captive-born cheetahs from the UK are starting a new life in South Africa.
Brothers Saba and Nairo were born at Port Lympne in Hythe, Kent, two-and-a-half years ago and have since grown up at the county’s Howletts Wild Animal Park near Canterbury.
They made the 6,000 mile journey to South Africa this weekend to begin a rewilding process and are being cared for at Ashia’s Cheetah Centre in the Western Cape, where they will learn to hunt and get used to the climate.
The pair will then be moved to Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, a 14,000 hectare property in Great Karoo, where they will be introduced back into the wild.
It is the first time hand-raised cheetahs have left the UK for rewilding in Africa.
The project has been steered by The Aspinall Foundation, which runs Port Lympne and Howletts.
Husband and wife Damian and Victoria Aspinall are at the heart of the foundation and have jointly raised the cubs, with Saba hand-reared by them both, and the couple are proud that the project has been a success.
Charity director Mr Aspinall told Sky News: “I am emotional but for me that moment when they run free over the Savannah of Africa, that for me is what conservation is all about.
“It’s not about keeping animals in captivity, it’s about setting animals free.”
The couple decided to accompany the cheetahs on their journey from the UK to South Africa and personally released them into their new home.
Mrs Aspinall, the foundation’s creative director, said she wanted to be there as a source of comfort:
“I want to go as far as I can every step of the way with the cheetah, just really for their reassurance,” she said.
“It’s a very scary process for them, it’s a full day of travel.
“They’re going from 2C (35.6F) here to 27C (80.6F) in Cape Town, so there’s a lot of change.”
Cheetahs are listed as vulnerable animals by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
There are an estimated 6,674 remaining in the wild and the addition of Saba and Nairo to the pool of wild cheetahs will bring much needed new genes to the breeding programme.
The rewilding process that the brothers are embarking on has been developed and successfully applied by the Ashia Cheetah Centre over the last two years.
While The Aspinall Foundation has rewilding experience, introducing gorillas, rhinos and others back into their natural habitats, for Saba and Nairo this is new territory – discovering their ancestral home, where adventure awaits.