Samara: walking with cheetahs

Samara is a private game reserve in South Africa with deep roots in conservation. This private game reserve includes vast flat plains and the escarpment of the Karoo mountain complex. It has four of South Africa’s seven natural biomes. It is sanctuary to a variety of antelope, bird life and an eclectic mix of carnivores from African wild cat and Brown hyena to cheetahs and lions. Samara has developed a well-respected reputation for its conservation efforts and its Cheetah Metapopulation Programme in particular.

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

Samara’s cheetah programme started with three individuals, including the well-known Sibella. From the start Samara’s cheetah programme has been a huge success.

What I find so impressive is that the Samara team works cooperatively with university departments and conservation bodies to ensure that these highly endangered big cats are given the best chance of survival. Through the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project, Samara periodically swaps individuals with other reserves. This ensures the long-term viability of the species and the genetic and demographic diversity of the South African population of cheetahs.

“Away, away, from men and towns,
To the wild wood and the downs,
To the silent wilderness,
Where the soul need not repress its music.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

We visited Samara in mid-August, which is late winter in South Africa. The sun rises lazily in the winter mornings. To walk with cheetahs you need to be up early and be in their area at or before sunrise.

Given the early start, which for a wildlife photographer is par for the course, we were on the side of the escarpment at first light. As good as the modern DLSR ISO capabilities are, I chose a little extra enlightenment with my flash.

“As I walk with Beauty. As I walk, as I walk,
The universe is walking with me,
In beauty it walks before me,
In beauty it walks behind me,
In beauty it walks below me,
In beauty it walks above me,
Beauty is on every side.”
~Traditional Navajo Prayer

Our guide used telemetry tracking to find the cheetahs. The cheetah mother Chilli, and the daughter of Sibella, had a collar which enabled the guides to find her in the thick scrub at the base of the escarpment. Without the telemetry tracking capability the chances of finding the cheetahs would have been low as they are highly mobile.

“We walked in the woods at dawn and came upon these wild ephemeral beings!!” ~ Mike Haworth

Cheetahs generally sleep at night in a safe place while the nocturnal hunters go about their business. What was unusual about Samara is that lions were only introduced into Samara in 2018. This gave the cheetahs many years to establish themselves in the terrain without major predator competition.

Chilli, the daughter of Sibella, is a capable mother and appears to be continuing her mother’s legacy. Chilli raised her entire first litter to independence, which is almost unheard of in the cheetah world, as first-time mothers are normally not very successful. Probably one of the key reasons for this was that predators like lions and hyaenas were missing until 2018 and since then the lions have remained on the escarpment’s plateau for most of the time.

In August 2019, Chilly had four sub-adult cubs. I did not take note of their sexes but I think there were two males and two females.

Chilly’s sub-adult cubs were almost as big as her but still very playful and their hunting skills still needed to be honed. We were very fortunate to watch the family take down an eland calf. This story will be the subject of next week’s post.

“The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it.”

~ Barry Commoner

One of the aspects about Samara which I found intriguing regarding the cheetahs was the terrain. This is not what I would have called ideal high speed chase terrain. As you can see from the next image at the base of the escarpment, which is where the cheetah’s seemed to have hunted while we were there, the vegetation was thick and it was very stony.

The young cheetahs dashed around chasing and playing with each other over this stony terrain but I never saw one of the cubs trip or put a foot wrong over the stones. It was interesting how well developed their spatial awareness seemed to be.

This was an image of Chilly and her sub-adult family in their environment at the base of the escarpment in the Great Karoo.

A little photographic licence showing the silhouette of the cubs playing in the early morning.

The cubs had spare energy to burn. They were very playful in the early morning but calmed down as the sun rose and it became warmer.

“The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.” ~Gaylord Nelson

One the benefits of the foothills of the escarpment is that it gave the cheetahs a good visual on the plains below.

We found the cheetah family late one afternoon resting on an earth embankment. This gave them an elevated view of the area in front of them and a degree of protection from unwanted visitors behind them.

It was not long after this photo that Julius, our guide, hurried us to our game vehicle because some of the cheetah cubs had been harassing the buffalo and they were getting quite agitated and we did not want to have to climb acacia thorn trees in a hurry with or without our cameras.

This was clearly a message post with the weekly news. These three young cheetahs spent quite a few minutes smelling all the messages left by passers by. I guess it must be the equivalent of a human finding a fascinating notice board with lots of interesting postings.

Chilly’s family chilling on a stony road along the north-western border to the reserve.

A huge part of the success of the cheetah breeding programme in Samara can be put down to the unique mothers, Sibella and now Chilly. It must also be said that they had an important break from major predator competition. What will be interesting to see is how the breeding balance changes as the predator population becomes more diverse across Samara.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead

Samara is a story about conservation and rehabilitation. This has involved and continues to involve countering habitat loss, it means managing the human-wildlife conflict and unfortunately it requires serious anti-poaching measures. Management, together with the collaboration of university research and international conservation organisation efforts, have engaged in indigenous flora restoration, the reintroduction of cheetahs in the early 2000s, rhinos, elephants and recently lions. Most of these wild animals have been missing from this wild place for between 130 and 180 years.

“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” ~ Jimmy Carter

By bringing back several of Africa’s endangered species, Samara has taken an active role in increasing the chance of building a genetically diverse, healthy population of wild cheetah, rhino and lions in Africa.

Samara appears to be looking to recreate a long lost haven in the Karoo, which last existed 200 years ago. A Karoo where wild lion, black and white rhino, and elephant (not seen in this area for 200 years) join buffalo, springbok, eland, black wildebeest, blesbok, aardvark, brown hyaena, black-backed jackal, Cape mountain zebra, leopard, and cheetah. There are also Ground squirrel and Blue cranes ,and if you take the time to look closer so much more.

“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.” ~ Leo Tolstoy

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

3 thoughts on “Samara: walking with cheetahs

  1. Mike thanks for your well researched Blog on Samara. I am happy that Samara left you with the same sense of wonder than it did with to me me and all the CNP clients that I took there in 2019. I am really looking forward to your next Blog post on the Eland calf kill. Just a small correction Chilli actually raised 5 cubs to adult wood! Photographic greetings Lou

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