Published: 13:55, 22 January 2020
| Updated: 15:02, 22 January 2020
A groundbreaking wildlife project will see two Kent-born cheetahs re-introduced to their natural habitats.
Saba and Nairo, both two, will become the first captive-born hand-raised cubs to head back to Africa when they leave Howletts Wild Animal Park in spring.
Saba was raised by Aspinall Foundation chairman Damian Aspinall and his wife, Victoria, in their home and has become something of an Instagram star.
He and Nairo will travel 6,013 miles to Ashia’s Cheetah Center in South Africa’s Western Cape before eventually moving to Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve, a 14,000-hectare property in the nation's Great Karoo region.
Mount Camdeboo is home to many rescued and rehabilitated animals, including a bull elephant rescued by The Aspinall Foundation in October.
Mr and Mrs Aspinall will accompany the pair on their journey and will personally release them into their new home.
Cheetahs are listed as 'vulnerable' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with an estimated 6,674 remaining in the wild. Habitat loss, conflict with humans and increasing pressure from the illegal pet trade means cheetah only inhabit around 10% of their historic range.
A major fundraising campaign has been launched to support the move. Big cat-fans will have the opportunity to donate, adopt the feisty felines or purchase limited edition merchandise on The Aspinall Foundation website. All profits will go towards the cats' move and ongoing care.
Mr Aspinall said: "It will be difficult to say goodbye to Saba & Nairo but finding ways to return animals to the wild is something I believe in passionately. This approach may challenge the zoo community, but it is the right thing to do and I sincerely hope more zoos around the world finally take notice and follow suit.
"With fewer than 7,000 cheetahs remaining in the wild, it is more important than ever to support the wild population by bringing captive bred animals back to their ancestral homes for rewilding. We at The Aspinall Foundation have proven time and time again that it can work. We have already successfully rewilded animals in Congo, Gabon, Java, South Africa, Tanzania and China.
"We have selected our partners for this project very carefully and I have complete faith in the teams at Ashia and Mount Camdeboo Private Reserve, who we will work closely with every step of the way."
The Aspinall Foundation, which manages conservation projects in the Congo, Gabon, Indonesia, Madagascar and Southern Africa, is KentOnline's charity of the year and is seeking to raise £100,000 to help rescue animals in South Africa.
It works Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve and Howletts and where possible, animals born at the parks are released into protected areas of their natural habitat, as part of The Aspinall Foundation’s Back To The Wild programme.
Last month Mr Aspinall sparked controversy by saying parents should not take their children to zoos which should in turn be phased out within 30 years.
More than 13,600 of our readers voted in a poll on the issue, with 37% agreeing with Mr Aspinall and another 45% backing reform.