MABULA, South Africa — “There they are!” exclaimed Howard G. Buffett, the Illinois corn farmer, philanthropist and unpretentious son of one of the world’s richest men, as he steered his dusty Toyota Land Cruiser toward a pair of nature’s fastest and most majestic creatures.
Orion and Titan — cheetahs bought at $2,000 apiece for the cheetah conservation reserve Buffett established here — sat in the middle of the dirt road. They licked each other’s faces and ambled languorously into the bush. Then one of them scented prey. His elegant body elongated into a tensile creep, the tip of his tail twitching.
“He’s on to something,” Buffett whispered. “Look how he’s moving.”
The cheetah’s crouch became a lope, but he pulled up suddenly at an electrified fence that keeps him from straying onto the adjoining game hunting farm. The ungainly ostrich he was stalking stood on the other side, blinking stolidly at the bewildered cat.
“You idiot!” Buffett said with a hearty guffaw. “You thought you could get that!”
Despite his affection for Orion and Titan, Buffett’s recent drive through the Jubatus Cheetah Reserve is likely to be among his last. He has decided to sell the 2,430 hectares of bush in Limpopo Province, along with the rhinos, giraffes and zebras that ramble through it. He will try to relocate the cheetahs.
The reserve was his original philanthropic stake in Africa and his most sizable commitment to animal conservation. Once it is gone, he will complete his evolution from a man galvanized by an enthusiasm for cheetahs, polar bears and mountain gorillas to one consumed by helping the poorest people: African farm families, starving children and victims of conflict.
The making of this accidental philanthropist — the accidental part being his birth as the son of the legendary investor Warren E. Buffett — is a tale of wealth and conscience passed on to a second generation. The elder Buffett, 79, did not believe in giving his money to his children to spend on themselves, but decades ago he did begin preparing them to give some of it away.
Howard, his middle child, was an unlikely candidate for globe-trotting philanthropy. As a teenager, he got an allowance for taking out the trash, raking leaves and shoveling snow. A college dropout, he made a living digging basements. “I just love that stuff!” he said. “I have a bulldozer today. There’s two things I’ve always had in my life, a Corvette and a bulldozer.”
Buffett’s affinity for machinery led him to farming when a loan he made was repaid with an old tractor. He remembers thinking as he rolled through a field, “This is more fun than digging basements!” He now owns a high-tech tractor with automated steering and plants eight hectares an hour sitting atop it, with his arms crossed.
When Buffett, now 54, was in his early 30s, his father set up a foundation so each of his children could give away $100,000 a year. Howard now calls this “the small money” — and he used it to support a bear rehabilitation center and mountain lion research, among other things.
Then a decade ago, as the family sat around a Christmas tree, Warren and Susan Buffett told their children they were giving each of them $35 million to donate to the causes of their choice. “Go and do good things,” Howard recalls his father telling them. The son said his father had gently challenged him at times about his focus on conservation, but never told him how to spend the money.
It was not until 2006, after his wife’s death in 2004, that the elder Buffett announced that he was giving away the bulk of his fortune, $31 billion, to the foundation set up by Bill and Melinda Gates. But he also committed about $1 billion worth of stock to each of his children for charitable giving.
Asked if he resented the huge gift to the Gates foundation, Buffett said, “I’m not going down that road,” and let loose with a great laugh.
Buffett’s engagement with Africa began serendipitously in the late 1990s, when he began coming to South Africa on business as a partner in a company that sold grain silos. Back home, flipping through television channels, he caught a program on cheetahs. “I’m watching the credits, and I see it’s in South Africa,” he said.
He began a decade of work to build a reserve that aimed to be a center of cheetah research and conservation, but said the results had been disappointing. He said he had hoped to establish that cheetahs could thrive on small private reserves without depleting expensive game stocks. But he found that the cats killed for sport, even when they were so stuffed from feasting on prey that they practically waddled. And the research did not take off. A state-of-the-art laboratory on the reserve sits unused.
“There are a lot of politics, a lot of turf, a lot of egos, and I think also part of it was that I’m an outsider,” he said.
But Buffett’s connection to the dun-and-olive landscape of Limpopo has become part of the emphasis on fighting hunger his foundation is taking across Africa. It has paid for 3,725 hectares of farmland not far from the cheetah reserve. Plant researchers there are now developing drought-tolerant varieties of maize.
And Buffett, who spends so much time in South Africa that he has permanent residency, is driving one of those auto-steer tractors he loves into the fields, planting crops that he hopes will yield improved seeds for African farmers.
A Republican and a farmer, he has a maverick take on the continent’s agricultural challenges — for example, he is a skeptic about subsidies for seed and fertilizer. In recent years, his foundation, which accepts no unsolicited proposals, has added ambitious projects related to clean water and increased farm productivity.
But so far Buffett’s approach has not reached a broad audience. His foundation has no Web site and a staff of only eight. And he does not go to conferences where experts debate policy.
“I don’t see him and his ideas out there very much,” said Julie Howard, executive director of the Washington-based Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa. “He’s not reclusive, but he’s a kind of to-the-ground person.”
Buffett said he was trying to become a more public person since he “can’t figure out how to change anything while being a hermit!” Recently, he posted a Web site to showcase his self-published coffee-table book, “Fragile: The Human Condition,” a collection of his musings and photographs. It was his travels, especially in conflict zones, that changed him.
“You see people who have been forced from their homes, daughters raped, husbands shot, killed, people who’ve had their arms hacked off with machetes, and you just say, ‘How can you find a more impoverished population?'” he said, his voice cracking.
“The more I saw that — that just gets to you,” he said. “You can’t just see that and ignore it.”