By Hannah Stevens @hannahshewans

FOR this conservationist, there is only one way to start her day - by hanging out with leopards

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Videographer / Director: James Jones
Producer: Hannah Stevens, Ruby Coote
Editor: Grant Hanson-Vaux

Babette De Jonge, 50, founded Wild Cats World in 2010 to help conserve endangered big cats, such as leopards, black-footed cats and African wildcats.

Based in Kirkwood, South Africa, the sanctuary, started in 2012, is home to four leopards, and one cub, cheetahs, servals, caracals and Africa’s smallest cat - the black-footed cat.

By building up a mutual respect with the leopards - who were rescued from exploitation - Babette has been able to work hands on with them during their rehabilitation.

Babette told Barcroft TV: “I just go in naturally and I see how they behave and if it’s nice and fine, I’m staying. If not, I go out and the game is over.

“It’s nice to go in and they come to you and greet you. They give you a head shake, sometimes they spray you. I just respect them, I’m not afraid to go in with them to keep this special bond.

“They are always playful or naughty, but not aggressive, never. If they were, I don’t think I’d go in anymore!”

Babette is passionate about providing the best forever home and care for the cats, as well as supporting endangered species with essential conservation programs, but she does not encourage others to interact hands on with big cats.

She said: “The rescues were four leopards, Feline, her brother Felix, another male Felipe and his female Felicia.

“For years, I was just an average animal lover. When I started to volunteer at sanctuaries, I thought, well there are certain things I really don’t like - how animals are being kept, how they are treated.

“So I thought I’d like to make it better for them, so we decided to put our project up here.”

Babette has rescued cats from canned hunting, exploitative petting centres and trapped or injured cats and orphans from the wild.

The conservationist said: “Feline, is an African leopard. We got her in 2011 when she was born. She was at a breeding farm, who took her away from her mother.

“I saw how she just had to interact with people, that’s why we brought her here with a better enclosure. We took her brother, so we sort of rescued him to be company for her.

“There’s a few rescue animals and a few, also ‘rescues’, but they’re more like born in captivity. They were born for trade, and for abuse and for the hunting - canned hunting - so that’s why we rescued them and brought them here to give them a better life.”

The rescues at the sanctuary include wild caracal kittens that were orphaned after a farmer shot their mother.

Sanctuary employee Zanell McCarthy added: “Every cat has a very different personality, like one can be very loving, one can be very playful, some are a bit calmer than others. You cannot really compare one cat to another.

“It’s just something you cannot describe to someone, the bond that you build up with these animals is just amazing.

“If you see the power that these animals have and the way that they play with each other, you see how strong they are.

“You must always be careful for the behaviour, you can check when they’re going to be naughty but it’s all play. I don’t ever feel intimidated by them.”

Babette ensures that their diet is as close to what it would be in the wild, so they feed on mainly game meat; like impala and zebra or prey like rabbit and sometimes a whole chicken.

When possible, the conservationist’s goal is to release the animals into the wild and, for those animals that must stay in captivity, she aims to release into huge enclosures to give them an experience as close to the wild as possible.

Zanell said: “People think it’s like the king of the jungle, or that they’re the most aggressive animals, but they’re not. They’re actually very gentle animals - they’re very misunderstood.”

The four young leopards born for release have now been relocated to Mpumalanga Province at Ubhetyan OAfrica for soft release and, hopefully in another year or so, they will be released back into the wild in a National Park.

Babette said: “Cats in general, whether they’re domestic or very small or very big, I’m just attracted to their looks and also to the way they’re so independent but also so loving.

“The way they just look over you, like they’re the rulers of the world - I love that, it’s just great.”

Find out more about Wild Cats World at: https://www.wildcatsworld.org/