Story Highlights• On a South African track, a rugby star takes on the world's fastest land mammal
• The cheetah can reach a top speed of 70 mph
• Event was to raise awareness for the cheetah as a threatened species
• Cheetah numbers in wild have been in sharp decline for 100 years
By Jeff Koinange
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HARTEBEESPOORT, South Africa (CNN) -- It sounded like a joke from the start -- an almost primeval joke. Come watch a 100-meter race on a grass track pitting the world's fastest land mammal, the cheetah, against one of Africa's fastest human beings.
The cheetah goes from zero to 60 mph in three seconds, the Ferrari of animals. It can reach a top speed of 70 mph.
By contrast, the fastest human has been clocked at around 9:76 seconds in the 100-meter dash. Looking at the stats, common sense says there's no way man can compete with this big cat in any race.
But don't tell that to Bryan Habana. The 23-year-old is one of South Africa's most famous rugby players, a speedy winger who's been credited with some of the most memorable moments in the sport's history.
Habana runs the 100 meters in about 11 seconds.
For this race, Habana was chosen by the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust, a conservation group involved in cheetah awareness programs in South Africa for 35 years. (Watch raw video of the big cat overtake Habana )
Habana said he was pleased to be a part of this week's event, taking time off between his games to lend a helping hand to the trust's cause.
"It's not about me. The cheetah's the most important thing at the moment, and I'm going to do everything in my power to focus on the conservation of the cheetah," he said before the race.
Cheetahs are in imminent danger of being classified as an endangered species, according to De Wildt officials. Nearly a century ago, there were more than 100,000 cheetahs in the wild in Africa, they said.
Since then, the cheetah has been in sharp decline. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 are believed to be left in the wild.
"It's absolutely vital that we get to tell people that we are going to lose this beautiful creature and other creatures if they're not aware of the issues: habitat loss, illegal trade, poaching trade," said Vanessa Bouwer, executive director of the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust.
"All those issues face the cheetah, and they will disappear unless we put in place intelligent, realistic, pragmatic conservation plans."
It's hard to imagine that such a speedy animal would be in danger in the wild. But the encroachment of humans into so-called cheetah territory means the animal has to compete for space -- and space to run, De Wildt officials said.
Chasing a leg of lamb
The cheetah chosen to run against Habana was a 2 ˝-year-old female named Cetane. She was orphaned at birth after poachers killed her mother. She's been raised in captivity by the De Wildt center, and for the most part is quite tame. (Watch the cheetah in the race of its life )
But Bouwer was quick to point out that at the end of the day, Cetane is still a wild animal who reverts to basic instincts when she feels in danger.
To prevent the animal from attacking the rugby star, race officials brought in a Hollywood stunt team. The crew members tied a piece of bait -- an eight-pound leg of lamb attached to a teddy bear -- to the end of a long string to be pulled during the race, with the hope that Cetane would chase it.
Before the start, they waved the leg of lamb in front of the cheetah to be sure she had it in her sights. On the inside lane was Habana, who was given a 30-meter head start. Meanwhile, game wardens with tranquilizer guns were posted around the track to ward off the cheetah should she suddenly veer off course.
About 200 people -- conservationists, sports enthusiasts and race lovers alike -- crowded around the track. They were instructed not to flash any cameras should it distract Cetane from her bait.
Habana crouched forward; behind him, the bait was waved just as a man's voice signaled the start of the race. Habana burst off the starting line with smooth strokes and determined concentration. "Simply poetry in motion," one spectator said of the rugby star's movement. (Interactive: See how a cheetah compares in speed to airplane)
Just before Habana reached the finish line, a blur of spotted fur whizzed by him, and the stunned crowd erupted in wild applause.
Cetane was quickly collared, and Habana bounded back up the track to more applause. Most in the audience were too stunned by the spectacular event to conclude who had actually won.
Before the master of ceremonies could name the winner, the rugby star made an announcement of his own: He wanted an instant rematch. Cetane didn't seem to mind another go.
In the second round, Cetane leaped past Habana, passing the finish line by a full length. The beast had clearly beaten man.
Habana didn't seem too upset. "I guess I was very happy to see the cheetah pass me because then I know he wasn't looking at my rump," he said.
To the conservationists on hand, the close race seemed emblematic of the larger struggle for the cheetah.
"I wish it was not quite as close, but it leaves us with the question, is man going to win or cheetah?" Bouwer asked.
Whatever the answer, groups such as De Wildt said they will do all they can to make sure cheetahs are given a chance to live their natural lives to the fullest.
A cheetah named Cetane chases after bait, an eight-pound leg of lamb, during the race.
CHEETAH FACTS The cheetah is the world's fastest land mammal, with a top speed of 70 mph.
Cheetahs live in isolated populations, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
The cheetah has been on the decline as a result of being hunted for its spotted fur, loss of habitat and killed for attacking livestock.
There are believed to be about 8,000 to 10,000 cheetahs in the wild.
About 100 years ago, there were an estimated 100,000 cheetahs alive.
In some regions, about 50 percent to 75 percent of cheetah cubs die before they are three months old.
The animals were once so abundant in India it is said that Akbar the Great kept a stable of 1,000 cheetahs.
Sources: National Zoo, African Wildlife Foundation