I was among a small group of photographers who spent four days in Samara in May this year with CNP Safaris following and photographing a unique cheetah family.
“The secrets of nature are quietly revealed. Not the way we humans do it with noise and drama. Nature’s uniqueness, extraordinary skills and endurance are revealed quietly to those who take the time to look and appreciate. The truth lies in plain sight for those who care to look.” ~ Mike Haworth
Samara is a private game reserve, 67 000 hectares in area, located about 25 kilometres east, towards the coast, from Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape. The reserve’s lodges are positioned at the foot of the Camdeboo escarpment. The game reserve straddles the the Camdeboo plateau, its escarpment and the beginning of the Great Karoo.
In 2003, three rehabilitated cheetahs were introduced into Samara. These were the first cheetahs in the area for around 132 years. There were two males named Mozart and Beethoven and a female, Sibella. The female came from a Cheetah Rehabilitation Center where she recovered after having been badly mauled by a man and his dogs. Once in Samara, Sibella raised 19 cubs to adulthood but sadly died in September 2015 after being wounded while hunting a duiker.
Today, Samara is well-known for its cheetah conservation efforts and Sibella is one of the most famous cheetahs in southern African conservation history. She contributed to just over 14% of the current South Africa’s cheetah meta-population. Her genes are present in 17 cheetah meta-populations around the country.
Chilli, a daughter from Sibella’s last litter, was raising eight cubs on her own. The cubs are not all her own as three of them were from her daughter Inara. These two female cheetahs, Chilli and Inara were recorded meeting in 2020 when Chilli was eight years old and Inara three years old. Each was accompanied by her own litter of young cubs, born one month apart. After a short period of unease, both mothers settled and the cubs played together. When they eventually moved off in opposite directions, two of Chilli’s cubs, aged three months old, went off with Inara and her four youngsters aged four months old, instead of their own mother. Over the course of a few days, the Samara team witnessed these two cubs suckling from and being groomed by Inara. The mothers met up again a short while later, and once more swapped cubs and suckled cubs other than their own. The mothers continued to interchange their litters for some time until one day Chilli moved into new territory, taking all the cubs with her.
These two female cheetahs, both with cubs, exhibited what is known as “allo-mothering,” which is when young are cared for by individuals other than their biological mother. While this phenomenon has been witnessed in elephant herds, lion prides and several bird species, until now it had not been witnessed among cheetah. Female cheetahs are usually solitary except when rearing their own cubs.
Inara, left alone, eventually mated again and gave birth to two cubs which she has subsequently raised by herself.
“I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire.
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.” ~ Saint Patrick
The terrain at the foot of the Camdeboo escarpment is rugged, and very stony in places with lots of acacia thorn trees. I am amazed that these cheetahs can operate so well in difficult conditions under foot. Chilli on her own is a formidable hunter. She needs to be to feed such a large family. As the cubs have grown they have increasing joined in the hunt. This cheetah family now hunts everything from adult female kudu to young eland, springbok and sometimes young warthog.
“Land really is the best art”. ~Andy Warhol
There is a healthy population of kudu and eland in the reserve and for now the lions, which were reintroduced into Samara in early 2019, seem to prefer the Camdeboo plateau. One lionesses has ventured down onto the plains at the foot of the Cambedoo escarpment with dramatic effects on the aardvark population. No doubt the lions will affect the cheetah family dynamics in the months and years ahead.
“One of the things I love about my wanderings in the bush is that every time I think I am beginning to sense the interconnections, I am reminded that the the depth and complexity of nature’s interactions are far wider than my imagination and I am left in a state of wonder.” ~ Mike Haworth
Chilli is hunting every day for her tribe. A young kudu is just enough. Feeding time seems to be a tense affair which makes these cheetah sub-adults skittish. They often give each other a fright when reacting to an unknown sound from the surrounding bush.
It is exceptional to see a female cheetah successfully bringing up a family of eight cubs. Samara gives visitors the opportunity to get off the vehicle and walk with the cheetahs. It is an amazing experience to be able to sit quietly in the bush watching the cheetahs playing and cleaning the blood off each others faces after a meal. The rangers insist on visitors keeping a respectful distance from the cheetahs but sometimes the youngsters walk straight past you a metre to two away. We say we walk with cheetahs but mostly we follow!
“True inspiration comes from within. It is an intuitive recognition. It is a voice deep inside. Learn to listen to it. You have the wisdom within. It comes from incarnations of learning”~ Mike Haworth
One the reasons for going to Samara for a second time in just over a a year was that the sub-adults were due to be relocated to different reserves around South Africa to expand their metapopulations. This visit gave us an opportunity to see and experience this unique natural wonder of eight sub-adult cheetahs and their mother for which we were all extremely grateful.
“Wilderness of not a place. It is a way of life. Conservation of nature is the conservation of a sacred attitude to our world.” ~Alan McSmith
In the mornings and evenings the light can change dramatically with shafts of light illuminating corridors of thorn veld while putting the mountains in to deep shadow. The changing colour and intensity of the light in this part of the world adds so much interest to our photography.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Have fun, Mike