The raising of cubs by any of the predators we see at Londolozi is never a small feat. In an incredibly predator-rich environment, there is a lot of competition between the predators. As such, the cubs often succumb to the jaws of a different species than their own. Luckily, not only do we have a high diversity in our fauna but we also have a high diversity in our flora. What this means is that there are areas where some of the species further down the predator hierarchy are able to find pockets of space where they too can be successful in raising their cubs.
We have been very fortunate to see this play out in the open savanna areas in the southwestern parts of our reserve. A mother cheetah and her cub have provided some exceptionally rare sightings for us over the past few months. So what exactly has she been through to get her cub to this age?
The first few months of a cheetah cub’s life
After a gestation period of 90-95 days, she gave birth to a litter of cubs. To our knowledge, there were only two in the litter although it is possible that there were more that we didn’t have the opportunity to see. Cheetahs have, on average, between three and five cubs in a litter. They are born blind and helpless, and so, for the first six weeks of their lives, they are kept very well hidden in the long grass of the open savanna.
The mother will move them from one den to the next, which may come in the form of a thick clump of grass, a fallen tree with some undergrowth, or occasionally in some rocks but these are not abundant in the open grasslands where the cheetah roam. The mother has to leave the cubs alone when she goes out to hunt. During these first few weeks, the cubs are incredibly vulnerable to predation from other carnivores.
After six weeks they were big enough to start following their mother but our sightings of them from this age until they reached three months old were limited to only three different occasions. The next time we saw her there was only one cub left but it was already seven months old and very capable of following its mother as she would go out hunting trying to not get in the mother’s way and jeopardise any opportunities to capture their next meal.
Her cub is currently about 13 months old and at this age is spending all of her time with her mother. This is a crucial time for the cub to learn how to hunt. What mother cheetahs will often do is catch a young antelope but not actually kill it. They then allow the youngster the opportunity to practice delivering the final blow.
How often do we see the two cheetahs?
Even though sightings of the two have been more frequent we still do not have the luxury of simply driving down to the open savanna areas and finding them easily. Their golden coats blend extremely well into the tawny colour of the autumn grass, combined with the fact that we have had an incredible two years of rainfall means the grass is much longer than it has been at the same time of year in years gone by.
Luckily, we have some of the best trackers in the game and this can aid us in using the clues the bush leaves behind in order to better our chances of doing just this. Tracker Tshepo Dzemba and I were driving along our southern boundary recently when a guest spotted a journey of giraffe in the distance. All we could really see of the journey were their long necks and heads sticking out at the top of a crest we were approaching. Before all of the guests on the vehicle had even seen the giraffe Tshepo immediately said,
“Look, those giraffe are all staring in the same direction and not feeding. There’s something there they don’t like but I think we might like.”
We eagerly approached the giraffes to investigate and all we could see was a herd of zebra and a rhino. The giraffes were looking directly towards where the rhino was but we were not convinced that they were that interested in a lone rhino bull. We drove around the rocky area a bit but with many rocks around and the fear of the pink pouch, we decided our best bet was to get off on foot and dig a little deeper.
Tshepo and I jumped off the vehicle and walked around the Sicklebush thickets for no more than five minutes when all of sudden we spotted the white tip of a tail running away from us. We scanned with our binoculars and with absolute excitement we realised we had found the mother cheetah and her cub! Exhilaration exuded from the smiles on our faces as we got back to the vehicle. The guests immediately knew that we had found something incredible. It was their first trip to Africa and so they had never seen a cheetah before but could tell from the utter glee from Tshepo and me that it was to be a sighting to remember.
As we found them again, we watched the two cheetahs walk right past a very inquisitive and alert herd of zebra and giraffe and settle at the base of a Vachellia thorn tree to rest in the shade.
What’s next for the two cheetahs?
When the cub reaches the age of around 18 months, it will have gained as much experience as it can from its mother and it will start a life of independence. If she had any siblings, they would spend a few months together away from their mother before separating completely but as she is the only surviving cub from this litter, she will have to learn how to fend on her own immediately after splitting from her mother. Her mother will start to look for a mate again and will potentially raise another litter towards the end of the year or the beginning of next. Until then, we will hopefully still have many more sightings of the two of them together.