PART 3: Update (Posted 25 May 2022)
Here is a video of the two cubs being released from the boma back onto the main reserve.
During October of last year we brought you the story of our injured female cheetah, her miracle surgery and subsequent tragic passing. As part of the narrative we reported that she had previously given birth to 2 cubs and that were around 11 months at the time of her accident. In the wild, cheetah cubs would remain with their mother for roughly 16 months, or towards mid-term of her next pregnancy, whichever occurs sooner.
Statistics show that the survival rate of translocated cheetah (cheetah that are released into the wild) is extremely low if released at 14 months (20%) but this increases to an optimum level if they are released at 22 months. There are obviously many factors at play here, but suffice to say that releasing young cheetah into a competing predator-rich environment, like Lalibela, below the age of 16 months would not be good practice.
To this end Mark Rippon, our Wildlife manager, become a surrogate to 2 cheetah cubs for the best part of 7 months. This entailed the procurement of fresh carcasses for their regular feedings as well as constant monitoring and interventions to ensure their optimal health and well-being throughout this growing phase. During this process, Mark took tremendous care to avoid any habituation towards people so as to ensure they remain wild cats, as is their birth right.
At the beginning of May 2022, at the age of 18 months, we released the 2 young cats out of their holding boma and back into the main Reserve. The relatively early release was undertaken only after weighing up their age versus the still present crop of December’s antelope lambs. The fact that there is still an abundance of half-grown prey (antelope) species out-weighed the temptation to keep them in the boma for an additional few months. Added to this thinking was that, being a pair, it exponentially increases their chances of successful reintegration, despite the ever present threats. These threats are not limited to competing carnivores like lions, leopard, hyena et al, but perhaps to a greater extent, other territorial cheetah on Lalibela.
To date they have fared extremely well, under the watchful vigil of surrogate Mark. In the absence of their mother, they are relying heavily on millennia of ingrained instinct when it comes to hunting. Initial reports are of a few close calls and near misses but they are showing a very promising intuition as to how to succeed. With Mark’s assistance they will go on to maturity and become part of our on-going drive to push lion-savvy cheetah back into the South African meta population, to improve genetics and re-populate areas from which these magnificent creatures have become locally extinct.
PART 2: Update (Posted 19 October 2021)
It is difficult not to attribute human emotion to mother nature. Animals are not cruel, nor are they vindictive. They are neither vengeful nor sentimental. They are merely doing what millions of years of natural selection has determined to be the best route to survival and procreation.
While we know this to be true, it is sometimes difficult not to fall into the trap of categorising outcome in terms of emotive terms.
By the 8th of October our female cheetah, who we named Ithemba (“HOPE”) continued to make a remarkable recovery. She was walking normally with every chance of a 100% recovery. Sometime during the night of the 8th a nomadic male lion tried to dig into the boma to get at the cheetah inside. The boma has a heavily electrified 15m buffer fence around it for exactly this eventuality and he was unable to get near her or her two cubs. The mere proximity of lion however must have caused her to panic and the resultant stress on her injury completely tore the prosthesis out of the bone. Dr Fowlds sedated Ithemba and did a further x-ray that confirmed the extent of the damage. The remaining bone was too fragmented to attempt further surgery and we were forced to put her down.
Again, one is tempted to be angry at the lion, who is merely doing what lions have been doing since the dawn of time. The ongoing battled between apex predators is as old as mother nature herself and it is only us who intervene and try to influence the outcome.
All is not lost. Ithemba raised 2 beautiful cubs. They were old enough to have learned some vital life lessons from her and importantly, have millennia of accumulated instinct so ingrained in their very DNA that, unlike lions, one is able to release cheetah and they are immediately able to fend for themselves. Being a sibling coalition will help them in their initial hunts and, with their mother’s inherited street smarts, will prove equally adept at navigating the sometimes hostile environment of our largely hands-off approach to conservation.
We will keep our Lalibela family informed with regular updates as to the progress of the twins and the events leading up their ultimate release and beyond.
PART 1 (Posted on 8 October 2021)
This is a story of Hope…………
During the 1st week of October 2020, one of our female cheetah gave birth to two cubs. Being a first-time mother and a very young cat herself, the odds of her successfully raising both cubs in what is an extremely hostile, lion-rich environment, were very slim. Despite our reservations she proved to be an excellent mother, showing a maturity and survival savvy, normally only seen in far more experienced cats. While any of the smaller ungulates are fair game for cheetah, individuals soon become biased towards a specific prey species. True to this trait, this young mother targeted big impala rams almost exclusively. For a cat of her size, this would definitely be considered boxing above her weight, but evidently nobody had bothered to tell her this and we witnessed her epic fights and ultimate victories over these big rams time and time again.
Whether or not this proved to be her undoing we do not know, but unfortunately, on the morning of the 18th September 2021, one of our rangers reported having seen her dragging a badly broken hind leg. In cheetah an injury like this is 100% fatal due to their obvious inability to hunt as a result. At Lalibela, we try to maintain a truly wild and self-sustaining environment. Despite an overall macro management plan, we tend not to intervene when nature takes it sometimes brutal course. Due to the critical conservation status of wild cheetah in sub-Saharan Africa however, coupled with the fact that her cubs, while matching her now in size, were way too young still to fend for themselves, we decided to dart them all and place them in a holding boma.
After consultation with our wildlife vet, Dr William Fowlds, he agreed to take on what would be a ground-breaking attempt to repair the terrible injury. He warned that it would require very complex surgery and the use of prosthetics to stabilize and secure the break. Cheetah are critically endangered mammals so every female cheetah plays a vital role in the overall survivability of this iconic species. We decided that to let nature take its course was not an option – we had to intervene. As conservationists and custodians of Cheetah, we simply have to learn how to deal with these types of injuries in order to play a positive role in their survival.
Dr Fowlds made the decision, in the best interests of the young mother, to call on the specialist orthopedic background of Dr Jimmy Lang, a vet from nearby Port Elizabeth. Without hesitation he committed his time and expertise into finding a solution. One of the biggest challenges was sourcing suitable prosthetics. Titanium spares for cheetah are hardly an off the shelf item and it took another week before the team was in a position to attempt what appeared to be an impossible task.
On the morning of the 23rd September Dr Fowlds darted the female and she was rushed through to Ikhala Clinic in Grahamstown where the 2 vets took on what turned out to be a grueling and extremely difficult 5-hour procedure. There was more significant muscle contraction and necrosis than anticipated which, coupled with the severity and location of the break, made the operation as complex as could be imagined. Surgery on any animal is risky. So much more so for a wild Cheetah with a lightening fast metabolism. Add to this the fact that their bones are, by design, incredibly light and one’s margin for error is extremely narrow indeed.
Like the fighter that she is, she came through the grueling procedure very well. Despite the unexpected difficulties, the two vets were cautiously optimistic about the way the operation had gone, though realistically warned that the next 48 hours would be critical to her survival, let alone her chances of a full recovery. Beyond anyone’s realistic expectations, by day 4 post operation, she had excellent mobility in her leg and could be seen walking almost normally on it. She has continued to improve and her outlook has swung from a very slim chance of coming through the surgery, to a possible hope of a full recovery.
A full recovery would mean she is once again able to fully fend for herself and raise both these and future generations of cubs on Lalibela. At the risk of jinxing her chances, we are all now starting to lean towards this becoming a realistic outcome. Should this prove to be the case, it will prove to be an absolute triumph for the Vets involved, cheetah as a species and the continued conservation efforts of the wonderful team at Lalibela Game Reserve.
Whilst we do not give names to any animals on Lalibela, the story of this female cheetah is so powerful – it’s a story of a mother’s love, of tragedy, of conservation, of 2 vets at the peak of their profession. It’s a story of HOPE. So, we have broken with tradition and have named her Ithemba – the Xhosa word for hope!
We will post an update on about 22 October about Hope’s recovery in the boma on Lalibela and about 2 weeks after that, we aim to be able to share with you her full recovery and reintroduction into the wild.
From everyone at Lalibela