Wild Cheetah Arrive at Game Reserve

December 3, 2010

Wild Cheetah Arrive at Game Reserve

It all started with Samara Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape who contacted Gondwana Game Reserve looking for a new home for three of their cheetah.  Cheetah naturally occur in this area of the Eastern Cape, so their population is truly wild, which is always so exciting from a conservation standpoint.  It was necessary to relocate the cheetah for genetic diversity and more habitat was needed to support Samara’s growing population.

Gondwana’s wildlife team and Cape Nature pushed the permits through and once in hand the team was off to pick up the cheetah – 2 males (brothers) and one female. While darting them to move them it became clear that the female cheetah was a fighter. She kicked back while being lifted (supposedly fully sedated) and struck Mark Rutherfoord (owner of Gondwana) on the bicep. With that she left a mark on Mark in more ways than one.  After the suturing, the team started the long drive back to the Southern Cape in 2 bakkies and a trailer each carrying large crates with large sleeping cats!

The next morning at first light the crates were opened into Gondwana’s holding bomas to facilitate their habituation on the reserve. For the next few weeks whistles were blown at feeding time to make them associate the whistle with food, like Pavlov’s Principle with Dogs.  This is done to make them used to and comfortable with vehicles so that when the field guides are out on drive the cheetah will not flee every time they see a vehicle.

Unfortunately one of the males escaped from the boma after an elephant leaned on the fence creating a gap.  Because the escapee was part of a coalition with his brother who was still in the boma he stayed close on the outside calling to him.  There was a search for days to no avail to try to find him and put him back in the boma, in order to keep this brotherhood intact and safe.  You see Gondwana also is home to a very strong pride of free-roaming lion that were not happy new competition had moved in and the cheetah needed every advantage they could get to survive.  The cheetah outside the boma was like a sitting duck, so the team made the decision to release his brother to join him after collaring him.   Sadly, a few days later we found the newly collared male killed just outside the bomas.  It was a big blow to us all, but that is wildlife for you – it is real and it usually does not go according to plan.

We then put all our attention on the feisty female, knowing it is going to take a lot of patience to habituate this wild woman and hoped for the best that the one remaining male cheetah would make it on his own in the reserve without his brother.  Cheetah are by nature solitary, but you do occasionally find male coalitions which can be extremely successful in the wild.

The behavioral transformation in the female cheetah over the subsequent weeks was remarkable. Albert Swart our wildlife manager remembers the first time entering the boma for a feeding, she was nowhere to be seen, completely concealing herself under the brush cover we had provided. The first week she kept this up. The second week he started to see her ears sticking out from the young Fynbos in the camp when talking to her and blowing the whistle. The third week she started lying out in the open, but still keeping a distance. As the weeks past she became more and more comfortable with his presence and hearing his voice. Until one day he opened the gate to her boma and she was sitting up right in front of him. It was almost like she was excited to see him, and in talking to her he could see her responding. After dropping the meat he always backed away to give her space and time to come to him when comfortable enough, but that day she came in straight away. What a great breakthrough!

It was time to release this beautiful cat onto the greater Gondwana with the prize winners, Reggie and Chantelle, from Gondwana’s KFM cheetah promotion. They won the once in a lifetime experience to participate in her release. What a wonderful couple, the team really enjoyed having them as guests and participants in this exciting weekend.

Early Saturday morning everyone was at the boma with Reggie and our wildlife vet Brendon Tindallto dart her and move her in the crate to another area of the reserve. Everyone was on their toes because the lions were lurking just outside the boma area.  The bomas had become a new stomping ground for them as they were keeping a close watch on this new neighbour and also jealous of her meaty meals delivered to her doorstep. After putting a collar on her for monitoring purposes, everyone got a chance to touch this absolutely amazing cat. She went back into a crate on the back of a bakkie fully sedated, though once again she jerked awake when she should have been out cold.  It gave the team confidence that she was one tough and stealth cat and had a great chance for success.  We relocated her to another part of the reserve far from where the lions were at that time and into an ideal habitat for her to prey on small species such as Grysbok and Cape Hare.

That afternoon, when the cheetah awoke in the crate, the team went down to the remarkable Nauga Valley, which would become her new home and released her onto its beautiful and never ending grass plains.  She came out like a light, ran 20 meters and stopped in her tracks and just took in her surrounds – almost as if she took a deep breadth and surveyed the scene with great satisfaction.  As the afternoon light filtered through she slowly walked and sat letting everyone watch her for 10 minutes – for once a picture perfect wildlife release!  Everyone climbed down from the vehicles and just enjoyed the stunning scenery and afternoon light that was made even more beautiful by this majestic female cheetah exploring her new home.

Now 10 days later, she has now been spotted during a morning game drive for the first time, still in the Nauga Valley, on a Grysbok kill.  She will do just fine.  We still have yet to spot the one male who escaped and continue to hope he survived the lions and is also enjoying his new home.  They will meet up when she is in estrus to hopefully grow their endangered population.

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