Sunday, 9 August 2009
Rabbiting with a cheetah in Essex
You can't really see him from this angle but I promise he looks like Jude Law. Jonny Ames would ignore offers of acting stardom, however. He is absolutely single-mindedly attached to his cheetah Boumani and to the reintroduction of Boumani’s cubs to parts of Africa where the cheetah is now endangered.
Watching him work with Boumani, coaxing the animal to go and catch a rabbit on the farm we went to in Essex, was an emotional experience. Big cats do that to you. I have been in the African bundu with lions and leopards just a few feet away, in the forests of Nepal with a tiger stalking me (I thought until then that I had been stalking the tiger) and you get a metaphor-mixing, spine-curdling chill that effectively turns up all your senses by half. Being in the presence of a big cat calls to some prehistoric survival technique that hides in all of us.
Jonny keeps Boumani at his dad’s wildlife park in Kent, Eagle Heights. The staff there have already gone a long way down the road to teach Boumani these skills. They attach Boumani via a line and a ring to a zipwire at country shows, then they get him to chase a muntjac skin at speed. It wows the crowds, gives him good exercise and reminds him for what he was uniquely designed, the fastest land mammal on the planet, top speed 70mph.
So, when we said we could find a paddock with a rabbit problem and a two-metre fence height - and when Jonny said that the easiest way to fight the red tape involved in moving a big cat around the UK was if he were to be filmed - we gave The Sunday Times a ring.
The journalist bit my arm off. And that, when we arrived at the Essex deer farm, was much the theme of Jonny’s safety talk to us. “Boumani,” he told us, “has a bite like a bad bite from a big dog.”
Then his recommendation: “If he bites you, don’t react. We’ll go and get a fire extinguisher, which will make him let go.”
We set off into the field. The entire Fieldsports Channel team including two children were there, the deer park owners and staff had turned out, The Sunday Times mob were there and there was a gang of cheetah wranglers from Eagle Heights. We crept up on the field in a way that would surely send the bunnies scurrying. But the field was thick with rabbits when we got there. The deer park owner had kindly left them alone and not shot them for the weeks before our visit.
Peculiarly, the rabbits let Boumani come right up to them before working it out and dashing for cover. My dog took one sniff of me returning the following morning smelling strongly of cheetah and she backed off barking.
Perhaps the rabbits knew they had nothing to fear. Boumani had no idea what he was meant to do with them. He kept turning round and staring at the crowd hidden behind the camo netting draped over the 6ft gate. Jonny’s got a long job teaching this one to hunt. “I think he’s got stage fright,” he observed.
At last, a foolish bunny bolted in front of Boumani. For a few seconds he turned from Bagpuss back to Bagheera and chased after it, but it was quickly through the fence and into the safety of its own hole.
That was when we had one of those clever ideas that come from too many TV people, journalists, photographers and willing helpers in one place. Whey don’t we drag a rabbit carcase (we had some shot earlier) behind a car and get Boumani up to speed that way? Cameraman David and I would sit on the tailgate of the vehicle filming and taking still pictures. What could go wrong?
Jonny’s dad Alan drove and we set off across the field. Boumani loved it. He knew all about dead rabbits because they are his main diet. We hit 40mph and Boumani was hardly out of a canter. But the sight of the rabbit bouncing along was revving him up. He knew he was about to eat.
Then we hit a bump and I went up into the air. I remember thinking at that exact moment: “I’m about to learn about inertia.”
I twisted in mid air as I fell out of the back of the car and grabbed on to what turned out to be David, clonking him on the nose with my camera as it went past. Cameraman never give up on ‘the shot’, so he could only offer one hand to grab hold of me and that reluctantly. My knees and feet were dragging along the grass with a hungry cheetah just yards behind.
“Stop the car!” we yelled.
Alan has a highly developed sense of humour and he did stop, though not as quickly as he could have done. And Boumani fell on and devoured… the rabbit. Phew. Still - the footage should make it on to our Christmas blooper reel.
Jonny’s aim to reintroduce Boumani’s cheetah cubs is exactly what zoos, circuses and wildlife parks should be doing - and why we should support them. It was the principle aim of Gerald Durrell at Jersey Zoo, which he established in 1959. It illustrates clearly that, when a wildlife species population is a basket case, we need to start treating them like livestock or pets. Our animal management responsibility goes from being to the wider species, as with other wildlife, and instead to the individual animal. You could argue that Boumani is a pet, and should be treated individually in any case. But he is going to be the father of a new nation of cheetahs in the wild, so he has two feet in both camps.
Cheetahs are not uniformly endangered across Africa. Jonny doesn’t think much of cheetah hunting. But the only places in Africa where the cheetah is not endangered - notably Namibia - is where cheetah hunting takes place. Elsewhere, the animals are trapped, shot and poisoned by local goatherds because they are stock killers. In Namibia, the locals have worked out that the cheetahs are worth more to them alive.
I would defend sport hunting, especially when it has such a positive knock-on to wildlife populations. And I also feast on the sight of Boumani at full tilt. He is a gorgeous cat. We were there to make a film about how laughable the UK’s coursing and foxhunting ban has become and to countdown to its repeal. I don’t think rabbiting with a cheetah is a practical pest control solution but it great, great fun. And Jonny sat with his cheetah in between takes removing burrs from his belly. I now have all that cheetah fur and I am going to tie a killer trout fly with it - you wait. There’s totemic value in a fly like that.
Here's The Sunday Times article