The Samara private game reserve is doing remarkable conservation work saving several species and protecting the fragile Karoo environment within its fenceline. One of the many success stories have been the thriving cheetah families in Samara. Chilli, the daughter of Sibella, has recently reared eight cubs to adolescence. Five cubs were her own and three she has “allo-mothered” which were her daughter Inara’s cubs. The circumstances around this unusual “allo-mothering” situation was covered in a previous post.
“The beauty of Africa is not man made, it is natures gift to humanity.” ~ Paul Oxton
This “allo-mothering” situation offers researchers a wonderful opportunity to better understand cheetah’s sociality which may offer new opportunities for rearing orphaned cheetah cubs and add another “string to the bow” of cheetah conservation.
“Conservation efforts today are planting seeds for a future with more balance between growth and diversity. It is buying us time to learn about the wisdom and intricacies which mother nature has to offer. Quietness, acceptance and focus are necessary for us to see beyond just looking. “~ Mike Haworth
Cheetah.org shows that cub mortality is higher where proximity to large predators is greater in protected areas like national parks and wildlife reserves than in non-protected areas. In such areas, the cheetah cub mortality can be as high as 90%. Samara is unusual in that its success with cheetah cubs has been considerably higher as lions were only introduced in 2019 but spend most of their time on the Cambdeboo plateau and so far have not ventured much down onto the plains at the foot of the escarpment.
This adolescent was smelling a scent signpost. Cheetahs have semi-retractable claws which they extend to increase traction when running at speed. Cheetahs sharpen their claws on a tree or fallen log like other cats.
Play among cheetah adolescents is vital. It hones their skills in stalking, chasing, boxing, wrestling, tripping, pouncing – all the tactics they need for hunting as an adult. Cheetahs do not have fully retractable claws like lions and leopards so need to be able to catch and force its prey to the ground by tripping it or forcing to lose its balance at speed and quickly get a grip of the neck to suffociate it.
While cheetahs are not good climbers, as they do not have the large curved claws and the build of a leopard, they do climb trees to get a better lookout to search for prey. They also scent mark on trees. This signpost is normally worth a detailed inspection to understand who has been there previously, their gender and their condition.
“It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” ~ Wendell Berry
Early morning sun in this youngster’s face. According to Cheetah.org, cheetahs with their high-set eyes are able to gaze over a wide area, with a 210-degree field of view whereas people can see objects within only 140 degrees. In addition to the position of their eyes, adaptations in the distribution of cells in their retina help them scan the horizon with better acuity. Unlike those nocturnal hunters, cheetahs see better during the day than at night. This is because cheetahs have more cone photoreceptor cells and fewer rod photoreceptor cells in their retina compared with other cats. Black tear markings under the eyes are thought to protect against the sun’s glare and to help focus better on prey.
“I scan the horizon, searching near and far. Looking across the familiar for a sign. I know the bounty is out there. Patience be my virtue, and acuity and speed my ally.” ~ Mike Haworth
Two cheetahs backlit in the morning sun. Reducing the focal length enabled me to show more of the environment in which the cheetahs were hunting. The cheetahs operated at the foot of the escarpment and on the plains at the start of the Great Karoo.
This sub-adult was making its way through the thornveld. I have shown this image to illustrate the cheetahs’ ability to make their way through thick thorn brush. There must be many long acacia thorns on the ground which they seem to be able to negotiate with little trouble.
Each morning we got up to be out with cheetahs before sunrise. We often found them in an elevated section which gave them a good vista from which to scan for potential prey.
“Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization.” ~Charles Lindbergh
Looking out from an elevated position. Cheetahs have very good eyesight. Early in the morning they invariably would position themselves looking west so they did not have too look directly into the low aspect early morning sun. The height of the sun can usually be seen by the shadow cast in the cheetah’s eyes.
“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth!” ~ Stewart Udall
When we say we walked with cheetahs, in reality we mostly followed them. We had been following the cheetah family for a few hours one morning when they moved down toward one of the dry river beds. In a flash, Chilli was dashing through the thornveld. We heard kudu barking and realised she was off after one. When we eventually got down to the riverbed she had killed an adult female kudu. Interestingly, she managed to catch and kill it in the riverbed which was littered with rocks.
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us. We can never have enough of nature. “~ Henry David Thoreau
The agility and sure footedness of Chilli was exceptional and being able to take down such big prey in the riverbed highlighted just what a skilled hunter this cheetah mother has become.
The sub-adults practiced their killing technique on this already dead female kudu. The family fed on the kudu for around an hour almost finishing it before Chilli dragged the diminished carcass into the shade. The cheetah family were able to feed in peace but were always looking around alert for any sign of danger.
“We are complicated creatures, and ultimately, the balance comes from this understanding. Be water. Flowing, flexible and soft. Subtly powerful and open. Wild and serene. Able to accept all changes, yet still led by the pull of steady tides. It is enough.” ~ Victoria Erickson
It was becoming clear that the adolescents were becoming sexually active and would soon need to be separated. Mounting each other could be an act of dominance or could be the growing sexual development of these young males. It was clear that it was the males who were trying to mount each other.
One of the reasons why we visited Samara in May was that we expected the sub-adults to be split up because of their growing sexual maturity and it was a unique opportunity to see a family of eight sub-adults cheetahs with their mother.
At around 18 months of age, the mother and her adolescents will separate. Often the male and female siblings need more time to refine their hunting skills so to stay together after the separation from their mother. Once the female begins estrous cycling the dominant male in the area will drive off the female’s brothers. In Samara’s case, the brothers will be sent off to other reserves which are trying to build up their cheetah populations.
Samara’s objective is to regenerate South Africa’s semi-arid Great Karoo region through rewilding and responsible tourism. This private reserve is a member of “The Long Run”, which is an organisation of nature-based tourism businesses committed to driving sustainability. The Long Run organisation conserves over 23-million acres of biodiversity and is in the process improving the lives of 750,000 people living in those areas. The organisation seeks to support, connect and inspire nature-based businesses to excel in following the highest standards of sustainability encompassing Conservation, Community, Culture and Commerce (4Cs). Samara strives to achieve a balance of these ‘4Cs’. Judging from its cheetah conservation efforts it is doing a sterling job.
“It seems everything in nature that has beauty, also has a price.
Let the value of our planet’s wildlife be to nature and nature alone.”~ Paul Oxton
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.
Have fun, Mike
As always, your photographs and narrative are a joy.
Thanks Anne! It was a unique experience to see eight cheetah sub-adults with their mother. South Africa has some wonderful experiences to share!! Best wishes Mike