Three Cheetah Cubs “Spotted” Without Mum

Welgevonden Game Reserve is famous for its dramatic and diverse landscape. From towering, multi-coloured sand-stone cliff faces, rolling hills of wooded bushveld, dense riparian thickets that wind along crystal clear rivers and grassy plains that appear to span infinitely over the horizon– Welgevonden has it all!

It is the numerous, large grassy plains that make the reserve suitable for sustaining a healthy cheetah population. Slender and agile, the cheetah is perfectly adapted for hunting in these open areas, making use of its excellent sight and superior speed to take down prey.

Accelerating at approximately 96km/h in under 3 seconds and reaching speeds of up to 112km/h, cheetah require a significant amount of flat, open space to optimise their hunting technique (just like a sports car needs a flat, open highway to reach its maximum performance).

Cheetah can accelerate faster than a sport car – click here to see just how!

Speed alone is not enough to secure a meal for a hungry huntress and there are still a number of challenges that a cheetah has to overcome before she and her cubs are able to enjoy their “fast food”.

To to overcome these challenges, increase the chances of hunting success and reduce the risk of injury, cheetah have developed a refined approach to hunting. In fact, of all the big African predators, the cheetah is second only to the wild dog in hunting success!

But how does a cheetah take down its prey?

Before commencing the hunt, a cheetah will use various observation points to scan the surrounding area to locate and size up its prey. Once the dainty predator has its target in sight, it will stop and tense, lower its head to shoulder level and stealthily approach its chosen victim. Slowly moving in, the silent assassin will wait until the perfect distance away from its selected prey, usually about 30m, before pouncing.

The chase has begun!

PIC BY Keith R. Crowley/ Caters NewsUsing its long muscular tail as a stabiliser, the cheetah matches every move of its fleeing prey, quickly closing in on the target. Once close enough, it uses its forepaw to slap the animal’s shoulder, thigh or rump to knock it off balance. Alternatively, the razor-sharp dewclaw is used to hook the leg out from under the prey, tripping it into a somersault.

Once down, the cheetah clamps its strong jaws over the victim’s windpipe or trachea in a strangulation hold, keeping it down with its forelegs and mouth, and twists the head so the horns face the ground.

As you can imagine, an enormous amount of energy is exerted during this process and the agile predator requires up to 30 minutes recovery time before it is able to finally consume its prey. A cheetah will usually drag its well-deserved meal to a safe spot and then quickly devour the carcass, constantly on the lookout for any larger predators or scavengers that might be lurking nearby.

Although a successful hunter, cheetah lose up to 50% of their kills to other predators.

Chasing down prey might be instinctive, but the intricacies that make a hunt successful are not. Over the course of 18 months, a mother cheetah will teach her cubs how to bring down their prey, direct a bite to the throat and hold their victim down in a successful stranglehold.

“A Mother’s Love” – Photograph: Izingwe Lodge

Through play, young cheetah develop skills required for hunting later in life – Photograph: Izingwe Lodge

Once fully grown and their “training” complete, the mother will separate from her cubs, granting them full independence and hence the responsibility to look after themselves. But, just like any adolescent that ventures out into the “big world” for the first time, these young cheetah still have a lot to learn, particularly about the identity and behaviour of their potential prey.

Although their mother will have taught them everything she knows, the youngsters will still be poor hunters by the time she leaves and will rely on one another for food, hunting together as a sibling group until their skills have been refined.

A young sibling group have recently separated from their mother.
Photograph: Nungubane Lodge

With learning to hunt being a long and delicate process, management was concerned to discover that three young cheetah cubs had been sighted on the reserve without their mother for over a day and a half. Only 7-8 months old, it is highly unlikely that the mother would have left the cubs on her own accord. Alone and vulnerable, the future of the cubs was in the balance.

Based on the “vulnerable” status of the species on the IUCN Red List, management decided to intervene.

After careful considerations and in-depth discussions with a number of animal specialists, it was decided that the best option would be to allow the youngsters to remain on the reserve in the hopes that they would somehow link back up with their mother. Until then, the cubs would be carefully monitored and their progress evaluated. In addition, management would act as a “surrogate mother”, supplementing the cubs’ diet where necessary.

All these measures would hopefully ensure the cubs’ survival and enable them to live the rest of their lives in the wild.

On the morning of the 8th of August, the three youngsters were spotted near Site 23 and monitored by Welgevonden’s research team until wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Paul Huber, arrived. The vet quickly prepared the necessary immobilising drugs and set out to dart one of the cubs – the selected individual would be collared with a VHF tracking collar to help management monitor the sibling group’s progress.

In order not to scare away the other two cubs and ensure that the group remained intact, the procedure had to be conducted as quickly as possible. Vet-nurse students from Writtle College University and international research volunteers stood by with Welgevonden’s three research coordinators, while Conservation Manager, Samuel Davidson-Phillips, and Dr. Huber moved in to conduct the procedure.

Vet-nurse students stand by and observe the procedure

Skillfully maneuvering over the rocky terrain, the two experts finally reached a position in which Dr. Huber could accurately dart the one individual, administering the appropriate immobilising drugs and rendering the cub unconscious. Once asleep, the young female cheetah was quickly carried to a secure spot where she was collared and given a number of immune-boosting drugs in record time.

After the reversal drugs had been administered, the entire management team proceeded to withdraw from the cheetah’s vicinity, giving the individual enough space to come to and reunite with her siblings.

Although slightly wobbly at first, the cub was back on her feet in no time and chirping at full volume, calling for her siblings to return. To the many that were hearing a cheetah’s call for the first time, this sound came as quite a surprise.

Unlike other large cats, cheetahs do not contain a special two-piece hyoid bone in their throat and as a result, many of their vocalisations are unlike any other cat. Click here to hear what a cheetah’s “chirp” sounds like.

After a short while, the management team could hear the siblings returning her call. “Look, there one is!” exclaimed one of the volunteers as one of the siblings emerged from the dense veld and proceeded to nuzzle her sibling affectionately.

The group was reunited.

 

Through regular updates from reserve field guides and tracking by the research department, management has since continued to monitor the cubs’ progress on a daily basis and supplement meals where necessary.

The youngsters are currently in great shape and managing exceptionally well on their own. Since the procedure they have been traversing all over the Reserve and seem to be avoiding the lions and other larger predators very well. We will continue to provide updates regarding their progress and are hoping for a positive outcome for when the start hunting on their own.

Students and volunteers discuss the procedure with Dr. Paul Huber

 

We will be sure to keep you updated on the cubs’ progress on the Welgevonden Facebook Page!

 

Photographs of cubs taken by research coordinator, Phillipa Davidson-Phillips