It is with great sadness that I relay the news of the passing of a dear friend and colleague, Ann van Dyk. She passed away at age 90 on Thursday, 25 February. Outstanding conservationists are often unknown outside their professional field. But Ann was larger than life, and both she and her De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre in South Africa garnered international attention for their work. Ann’s passion and dedication to cheetahs preceded her into any room. When you met Ann, you instantly knew what she was all about. I loved that about her.
During the 1970s, when I was in Wildlife Safari setting up North America’s most successful cheetah breeding programme, Ann van Dyk was establishing her world-class sanctuary and captive cheetah breeding programme in South Africa. Ann founded the centre in 1971 on her family farm in De Wildt after she and her brother, Godfrey, rescued two cheetah cubs in the late 1960s from a local farm. Lacking the necessary permits, they had to send to cubs to the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria. At the time, the Zoo was establishing a captive breeding programme, but further expansion was limited due to the lack of land available, and Ann offered the use of their farm for the programme. This is how the De Wildt Cheetah Centre – also known as the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre — was born.
For 50 years, Ann dedicated her life to running the Centre, and she had still been at the helm until four years ago when she handed things over to her nephew, Eric van Dyk. She is widely credited with bringing the cheetah back from the edge of extinction in South Africa. Cheetah are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, but under Ann’s guidance, the De Wildt Cheetah Breeding Centre successfully bred more than 1,000 animals since the early 1970s. Ann also introduced the Wild Cheetah Management Programme so that wild cheetahs that were considered “problem animals’ could be relocated to protected areas. This program is now managed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, and has developed a successful meta population of cheetah in South Africa.
For her contributions, Ann received a gold medal award from the South African Nature Foundation in 1988. In 2004, it was my great honour to present Ann with the CCF Conservationist of the Year award. Ann’s cheetah breeding programme supplies animals to recognised zoological parks and cheetah breeding centres throughout the world. More than 80 research publications have been written and undertaken through the facility and De Wildt’s research contributes to the well-being and survival of the species. Her wildlife outreach education programme has reached more than 100,000 young learners. In 2017, I was pleased to include information about the impact of De Wildt and Ann in our seminal textbook, CHEETAHS: Biology and Conservation.
Ann’s 50 years of dedicated work exemplify how conservation efforts have had to evolve to succeed. Many who do not have the benefit of scientific training in the modern science of conservation biology do not appreciate the need for captive breeding. They dismiss it as an easy way out or even a hindrance to attacking the issue of survival in the wild. They think it is something undertaken lightly, putting the survival of individual animals above that of the population. Not so. Let me finish with a quote from Ann as she contemplated the future after a tragic fire in her compounds in 1990:
Ann van Dyk was a remarkable woman. She lived her life for cheetahs, and she was an inspiration to us all. I miss her already.