From Orphans to Explorers: A conservation victory

In the late winter of 2018, three cheetah cubs were found desperately calling for their mother. The cubs were too young to survive on their own, being only seven months old, but with cheetah being a vulnerable species Welgevonden stepped in to ensure their survival.

The cubs were so young when their mother disappeared, without intervention the cubs would likely have died © Pip Davidson-Phillips.

Deciding the best way to do this was a tough call with several considerations needing to be made. Following discussions with veterinarians and other animal specialists it was decided that rather than removing the cubs to be raised in captivity, the Reserve would feed them in the field.

Carmen and Gregory Canning with the cheetah during the relocation of the two cubs to Malawi © Welgevonden Research.

The collaring of one female cub allowed the Conservation and Research Teams to track the movement of the cubs and locate them to drop off regular meals until the cubs successfully learnt to hunt on their own (read their backstory here).

The three orphans survived and did remarkably well, with two of the three being relocated to start a founding cheetah population in Malawi and the last collared female still thriving on the Reserve. They truly are explorers!

Today we bring the fantastic news that the scientific article following this research has recently been published in the journal Conservation Science & Practice. The article titled “Successful in situ supplementary feeding leads to the independence of orphaned cheetah cubs” offers a novel approach to raising orphaned cubs, and in contrast to the current modus operandi, which is to remove cubs and raise them in  captivity, this allows cubs to not only remain in their natural habitat but also to learn to hunt under pressure of other predators (read article here). Cheetah are particularly prone to being killed by lions as well as having kills stolen from them and growing up predator savvy offers them a major advantage when it comes to surviving in the wild.

We spoke to Carmen Warmenhove, our Research Coordinator on how she felt having been deeply involved in driving this project from the very beginning.

Map showing the feeding points in the Reserve © Welgevonden Research.

“Seeing these cheetah orphans not only survive but grow, and knowing that it was because of us intervening was so satisfying. The twelve months with them was a rollercoaster of emotions, the anxiety of tracking them with the telemetry, not knowing if they had survived since we had  last seen them. The adrenaline of finding a suitable food option and shooting it as ethically as possible. The joy of bringing it to the orphans and seeing them ravenously feeding and then resting, relaxed with full stomachs. The proud feeling of seeing them ‘attack’ the carcass and later seeing them trying to hunt also meant we couldn’t take all the credit; their instincts and what they had already learnt from their cheetah mother certainly aided their survival. To see two of them go to a new home was a bittersweet moment because although we were losing them, it meant that our feeding technique had worked, and we had managed to keep them wild and part of important cheetah conservation in southern Africa. Publishing this paper means that their story and our efforts are recorded in history, hopefully helping cheetah custodians and future orphaned cheetah by ensuring that they do not have to spend the rest if their lives in captivity.”

A huge thank you goes out to all who played a role in the feeding, monitoring, captures and relocations as well as the guides for their valuable insights into the orphan’s hunting behaviour and interactions with other cheetah. Without these people none of this would be possible! Congratulations to the Research team for their fantastic contribution to science.

The collared female remains on the Reserve to this day © Carmen Warmenhove.

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