We work in an area that is so vast, wild and large that being able to explore it all is nearly impossible. The land which Londolozi forms a part of is roughly six million hectares in size, the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. The beauty of this massive ecosystem lies within the wilderness, within the dark nights and the endless expanses. The raw feeling of wilderness lies within the secrets the land keeps to itself and only shows to those who are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. These secrets may surface at any time and could be of any form. The discovery of a new species of bird, never before seen in a certain area, a species of tree or flower never before identified or discovering a new lookout point or section of river to enjoy a sunset drink. However, for many, the most exciting spectacles fall on the animals.
One of the most elusive of these animals we speak of has to be the cheetah. Within the Sabi Sands, the cheetah often falls in line behind the more dominant predators such as lion, leopard and hyena and thus its chances of survival are more limited than in other wilderness areas. Over the last decade, sightings of young cheetah cubs have been rare and improbable. This however, changed dramatically two weeks ago.
In late June, ranger Andrea Campbell and tracker Bennet Mathonsi had the rare privilege to find a female cheetah who led them to her four very young cubs. They were estimated to be around seven weeks old and this would have been their first encounter with a vehicle on Londolozi. It is something no-one expected and the excitement lingered in the air. Each of us could feel it. For the first time in many years, we could say that there were cheetah cubs on Londolozi and the word spread like wild fire.
There was not a staff member on Londolozi who did not know about these little gems and we were well versed on their progress on a daily basis. Being an optimistic bunch, we all had high hope on their success and survival. However, as it is well known in this area, this particular large cat has difficulty raising young cubs with the imminent threat of other larger predators such an lions, leopard, hyena and wild dog. This put this cheetah family in a position were they were almost destined to fail before they crossed the starting line.
A cheetah will give birth to between four and six cubs after roughly 90 days in the womb. They are born without the ability to walk, see or move around and therefore need a safe den site or suitable safe zone to grow in the first few weeks of their lives. They will usually begin to follow their mother by six weeks old and nurse until about three months old. Young cheetah will begin to feed on kills around four to six weeks old, together with nursing on protein rich milk. This ensures a healthy start to life. For any young animal, the early stages in life are not easy and survival is the only thing that is important, besides nourishment, which fits into survival. Staying alive and out of harms way is the only goal a young animal has.
There was a period of two weeks when these young cats were regularly viewed on Londolozi, almost every drive in fact. We would all set out and there were sure to be rangers and trackers hot on their tracks. We tracked them through the, now dry, brittle, red grass in our open areas, through the burnt fire breaks, over crests and into valleys, using each and every sign Mother Nature provided. The tracks on the road, checking each termite mound, a scuff mark of an impala that ran from its foe. The ever alert tree squirrel alarm or a troop of vervet monkey sounding the alarms from high up in the trees. A soaring vulture dropping from the sky or the whistle of a young cub contacting its mother. We searched high and low each drive and on many occasions we got lucky. For this short period, the sightings were amazing and many tears of joy and fulfilment were shed and shared.
This young family had the makings of an incredible story here on Londolozi. Would they be some of the first successful young cubs this decade? We waited with baited breathe to learn the outcome, one that only Mother Nature could tell. Mother Nature is a beautiful thing that is to be cherished and protected, however, in her beauty there is also sacrifice and in her wisdom there is purpose. There is a reason for each and every happening out here, an ecosystem that runs itself. A true wilderness.
I will never forget the night. The sun was a huge orange spectacle in the sky and it lit up the land until its dying moments. In these last few moments of the burning sun, myself and ranger Dan Buys and our guests enjoyed an incredible sighting of the Mother and her four young, budding cubs playing and running through a newly burnt area of the property. They were headed west, directly in the path of the Selati/Southern Pride of Lions who were no more than one kilometre away. For this reason we decided to leave them as to not put any pressure on their movements and let nature take its course. It was with a very heavy heart that I left the cheetah and cubs ambling into the fading light, with the knowledge that one of their greatest enemies was directly in their path. What happened next is completely unknown to us. The secrets of the darkness. But what is known is that the following day, the cheetah cubs were no more and a desperate mother spent the next few days in search of her missing cubs. Calling and vocalising and patiently listening for their reply. But nothing came, and still nothing has come.
This sad ending has been a shock to us all. It has been a huge eye opener and a brutal look into a harsh reality that is the wild. We speak of it each day and we explain the hardships of life out here, but to experience it first hand is a totally new feeling. However, with death comes life, and with sadness comes growth and learning. We look forward to a new litter and a new generation. A more successful future is hopefully waiting for this cheetah and her future family.
Written and Photographed by: Mike Sutherland