Big cats and the newsreader

She made her name in the television news jungle. But now Jan Leeming can be found in the wilds of South Africa - working to save endangered cheetahs. Ciar Byrne hears why she swapped the studio for the veldt

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"We had the cheetah in the bedroom with us. He slept all night, but we didn't because we had old army beds. He had the run of a corridor." Jan Leeming, the former BBC newsreader, has just spent the night with a cheetah.

"This morning, I was having a shower when a little head peeped round the door," continues the writer and broadcaster, better known for her five marriages and being one of the first prominent women in television news than her interest in wildlife.

Leeming, at 64, is now training to become a cheetah handler. The face of news on the BBC in the 1980s has been touring schools in small towns on South Africa's West Coast as part of a conservation programme to raise awareness of the plight of the big cat. And in the hostel where she stayed last night, in a place called Aurora, she shared a bedroom with Shadow, a 10-year-old male cheetah, and his handler Dawn Glover.

It is all part of Cheetah Outreach, a project started in January 1997 by former fashion designer Annie Beckhelling. After seeing the problems faced by cheetahs in Namibia, where they are now a protected species, Beckhelling became involved with the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1992. She owned her first cheetah in 1991, and came up with the idea of using tame cheetahs as "ambassadors" to educate the public about their diminishing numbers.

With a hectare of land provided by the Spier Wine Estates in Stellenbosch, 25 minutes drive from Cape Town, Beckhelling set about breeding cheetahs in captivity. She established an education programme with Shadow, who was one at the time, and a six-year-old male called Inca. In the first year alone, Cheetah Outreach visited 50,000 men, women and children at schools, community centres, shopping malls and public events. With the arrival of three cubs later that year, the project started to grow.

"A hundred years ago there were about 100,000 cheetahs in Africa. Now in South Africa there are about 600, and in the whole of Africa, a couple of thousand. If these conservation programmes weren't maintained, in about 15 years they'd be extinct, because their habitat is being encroached by farmers and what the cheetahs feed on is being destroyed so they are coming nearer to farms and farmers shoot them," explains Leeming. "Today there are fewer than 10,000 cheetahs worldwide. In addition to the loss of their natural habitat, cheetahs have suffered from poaching and competition with larger predators and ranchers."

Despite Beckhelling's best efforts, projects such as Cheetah Outreach struggle to make a meaningful difference to the declining numbers of the cat, which needs large expanses of land to survive. Although the cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of more than 110km per hour, it is reluctant to fight. As a result, it loses much of its prey to more aggressive predators, such as lions and hyenas. Its sensitivity means it is less able to cope with the disruption caused by massive human population increases than other animals.

Leeming became involved in the Cheetah Outreach almost by chance. "Just before Christmas I bought a cheetah print by the artist Paul Dickson. His wife took my money and we talked about cheetahs and Cheetah Outreach. I explained that I'd be in broadcasting all my life and I'd be very happy to make a video for nothing. The next day Annie, the founder of Cheetah Outreach, rang me.

"She told me what they were doing. It's a very far-reaching programme. They take the cheetahs into schools and children get to touch them. They make the public aware and raise funds, which go back into conservation. I immediately asked if I could get involved. Annie said, 'Right, we'll have you trained as a cheetah handler.'"

That was 13 years after Leeming first fell in love with cheetahs while on holiday in South Africa. "In 1993, we took the Garden Route to Outdshoorn, about six-and-a-half hours from Cape Town. That was the first time I ever touched a cheetah and heard it purr. It was just amazing. If you know what a domestic cat sounds like, magnify many times and that's what a cheetah sounds like when it's happy. The cheetah is beautiful, with those appealing tear marks." And suddenly, Leeming, who bought a flat in Cape Town in 2002, was becoming seriously involved with cheetahs.

"It's hard work. I've just come back from a three-hour journey in a bakkie [a small pick-up truck] with the cheetah in the back," she says. But the effort is worth it: "I love animals. I can't bear to see them hurt. I've had dogs all my life. There is a feeling of peace and oneness with nature when you touch a cheetah.

When she has gained more hands-on experience, working alongside other handlers at Outreach, which is run by just eight people helped by enthusiastic volunteers, Leeming will give talks in schools. She insists: "I'll be of limited use because can only give talks in English-speaking schools."

The handlers use everyday objects, including trainers to demonstrate grip, a piece of thick wire to recreate the flexibility of the cheetah's spine and a picture of a racing driver with black under his eyes as an illustration of how they cut down glare. "When the talk is finished, all the children line up, very quietly, and get a stroke," says Leeming. "You should see their faces. They range from apprehension to total joy."

It is a far cry from the peak of her fame at BBC News in the 1980s, when her private life became a source of fascination. But after years in the television jungle, she has willingly embraced the challenge of educating the public about cheetahs.

As part of her training as a handler, Leeming is hoping to bond with a male called Kaya, who will be four on 30 March. "They choose as ambassadors the cats they think will be most amenable to school work and having the children touch them. All of the cheetahs are good-natured," she says.

Visitors can also pay to see the other cheetahs and cubs living at the Outreach facility - with proceeds going towards their upkeep. Leeming defends the breeding of cheetahs in captivity. "Dawn says: 'Wild is not species specific.' People say you shouldn't have a wild animal in an enclosure. These cheetahs are reared in captivity. They haven't had a mother to teach them how to hunt. The only thing I can equate it with is feral cats who should be domestic. This is the reverse situation, because these cheetahs are brought up by human beings they become very attached to them."

Beckhelling also runs a programme to raise awareness of Anatolian Shepherd guard dogs, which protect livestock from predators such as cheetahs, so that farmers do not have to shoot them.

"The cheetah is a shy animal and a dog barking at them is enough to frighten them away," says Leeming.

She says she has never been afraid of the cheetahs. "If I were frightened of them, they would feel the fear. The cheetah is the most human friendly of all the cats. People have kept them as hunting animals and pets for centuries. They are very handle-able and people-orientated. They have never been known to attack a human."

But she adds: "It's not a clean job. Cheetahs are just like everything else. You have to clean up after them and cut up their meat. Cheetahs at Outreach feed on chicken and turkey, which approximates to things like guinea fowl that they'd catch in the wild."

Born in Kent, Leeming now divides her time between England and South Africa and says she would definitely be interested if the opportunity to make a television programme about cheetahs came along. When she returns to the UK in April she also hopes to start fundraising for Cheetah Outreach here. But, for the time being, she is philosophical: "I don't try and plan my life any more. I'll take what comes."

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