The cats of Tenikwa

Travel and Wildlife Photography – June 2016

Peter, my group’s guide at Tenikwa Wildlife Centre, is taking us to photograph Tenikwa’s wild cats. Our first stop is the serval habitat. Although servals are small compared Africa’s more famous feline species, I’m surprised when Peter opens the gate and strides confidently inside the enclosure.

Servals, Peter has already told us, are the fastest cats in the world, second only to the cheetah. They can leap two meters through the air to land on top of their prey before killing it with a bite to the neck. So, if I’m surprised when Peter goes inside the enclosure, I’m shocked when he holds the gate open, waiting for me to follow.

By providing the opportunity to have experiences like this, Tenikwa is giving in to the cravings of tourists, but only to a certain extent. In the wake of films like The Lion King, Africa has become virtually synonymous with its indigenous cats, and the chance to get up close and personal with real-life Simbas drives people to visit the continent. The result is a booming wildlife tourism industry and, unfortunately, one that has not escaped corruption. Too often profit takes precedence over the needs of the animals tourists pay to see.

Many people believe that all forms of wildlife tourism are unethical and should be abolished. However, it’s also an unavoidable fact that allowing people to see wild animals (like big cats) in real life, helps to ensure their continued protection. Part of Tenikwa’s mission is to serve as a model in the wildlife tourism world by granting tourists the close contact they want (within reason; Peter, for example, does not let us into the lion enclosure) while at the same time educating them, both about the plight of threatened species and about problems within their industry. Visiting its servals is a component of what Tenikwa calls its awareness centre, and besides learning about how servals are vulnerable to the pet trade, we’re also given tips for distinguishing between the good and the bad as wildlife tourists.

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But creating awareness is only a small part of what Tenikwa actually does to earn a sterling reputation. Its heart and soul is its rehabilitation centre, which is funded both by donations as well as income from the awareness centre. Tenikwa works closely with Cape Nature and South African National Parks to rescue the animals that go through the rehab centre. Anywhere from 150 to 500 injured and sick animals are treated every year.

Ultimately, the goal for each is to be released back into the wild, but inevitably some will never recover enough for release to be an option. If this is the case, Tenikwa works to place the animal. Sometimes the animal will stay with them, other times they will go to a different organisation trusted by Tenikwa, such as SANCCOB, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.

One rescued animal rehabilitated by Tenikwa is Elvie, the Rockhopper penguin, formerly “Elvis” before a blood test revealed she was female. Elvie is unique among Tenikwa’s rescue stories, because unlike the other animals who go on to stay with Tenikwa, she is completely healthy and could survive in the wild. The reason why Elvie will never be released, is that it’s impossible to know where she came from. Rockhoppers aren’t native to South Africa and Elvie was probably caught up in a current that swept her away from her colony before she washed up on the South African coast.

Today, Elvie works within Tenikwa’s awareness centre to educate both the general public and also volunteers interested in pursuing a career in wildlife tourism. In this way, Tenikwa’s programs are remarkably self-sustaining in their promotion of conservation. Rehabilitated animals like Elvie provide the foundations of Tenikwa’s awareness centre, earning money for food and medical bills, while at the same time educating people about the problems that their species faces both in the wild and in other, poorer, instances of captivity.

As I enter the serval enclosure, the cats wander close enough to me that I could reach out and stroke them if I wanted to. I even put out a hand and make a chirruping noise, the same as I would with my house cats. But even though they look and move in the same way that my house cats do, there’s still something undeniably wild about the servals. A flicker of something alien and untamable. So I sit back on my heels to enjoy what being at Tenikwa allows me to do: be an audience member, smack in the middle of the servals’ existence. I do not interfere.

– Imogene Robinson

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