Cheetah mischief in the buffalo camp

by Samuel Davidson-Phillips

Early one morning in April André Burger (Chief Operating Officer) was on his way to the office, when close to the end of the Main Airstrip, he saw a herd of impala looking into the grass and snorting as a sign of danger. Initially he caught a glimpse of an impala being held down a predator with spots. Initially he thought it was a leopard but closer investigation revealed a cheetah busy suffocating an impala.

It was clear the animal was a youngster and inexperienced due to the fact that it let the impala go before it was dead. However the impala was unable to escape and the cheetah started feeding on it while still alive.

After a short while the chirping contact call of a cheetah was heard and the second cheetah joined the first. Using the cheetah identikit identified the brother and sister as the offspring of an adult female living in the north of the Reserve that had obviously had enough of them and pushed them out of her territory, most probably due to the impending arrival of new cubs. They had then somehow broken into the Buffalo Camp in search of “greener pastures” and they certainly found it!

These two unwanted acquisitions to the Buffalo Camp made themselves right at home giving staff and guests amazing sightings for about a month. Initially there was no concern regarding their presence in the Buffalo camp as there was plenty of game and the chance of them catching a buffalo very remote. After all, cheetah are listed as vulnerable and they were only eating a few impala and the odd wildebeest calf. After about two weeks of the Cheetah being in the camp, one could notice that a lot of the game became “skittish” and uneasy as there was now a major predator within the camp. Alarm bells for Reserve management started ringing when these two, with eyes bigger than their stomachs, decided to capture a young eland close to Jenny’s Plains. It was at the time that some young sable bulls were being expected to be delivered to take up their home in the Buffalo Camp and though unlikely the cheetah would catch them the risk was considered significant enough to remove the cheetah from the Buffalo Camp.

As if sensing the intent to capture and relocate them into the main Reserve they disappeared for over 3 weeks. Much searching and tracking was fruitless and it became a game of cat or is that cheetah and mouse, then a break through! Late one Sunday afternoon, I encountered the two cheetah on the Main Airstrip stalking some wildebeest. Luckily a vet was available and while waiting anxiously for him before the cheetah disappeared again. While I was waiting for the vet, Jonathon Swart (Research Ecologist) and Bradley Algar (Conservation Student) kept an eye on the cheetah proceeded to catch a wildebeest calf on the airstrip. This was perfect timing as the vet was 20 minutes away. When the vet arrived we promptly headed over to the kill and the vet managed to dart both of the animals.

Five minute later the drugs had taken effect and the search was on for the drugged cheetah which were easily located, loaded onto stretchers and carried to the awaiting vehicles. All the scientific data was collected including photographs of key characteristics (full body, face, spot patterns etc.), blood and tissue samples as well as body measurements taken. These genetic samples are important for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Meta-population Project which Welgevonden Game Reserve assists with. The animals were then transported out of the Buffalo Camp and placed in the predator boma in the main Reserve. This is done to allow them to recover from the immobilization which may blunt their senses and make them vulnerable to larger predators. After 3days holiday they were released into the Main Reserve. It must be said that these two animals although a problem in the Buffalo Camp provided excellent sightings and were a joy to observe while there. It is hoped that they’ll continue to provide these great sightings in the main reserve.

Currently Welgevonden Game Reserve is looking for any photographs on our cheetah to further develop the Cheetah Identikit in order to better understand the dynamics (including population size, structure, home ranges and paternity) of the cheetah population on Welgevonden Game Reserve. Currently it is estimated that there are 11 adult cheetah and about 5 cubs living on Welgevonden. Any sightings and photographs would be greatly appreciated and can be forwarded to Samuel Davidson-Phillips  or André Burger.