Des and Shadow. Photo: S. Gunning
We’re at Le Sueur Cheetah Project which was founded by the owners of the Nambiti Private Game Reserve. I’ve been taken there by Ross, one of the game guides at Nambiti Private Game Lodge where I’ve been staying. It marks the end of another fabulous weekend there.
Des, who runs Le Sueur Cheetah Project is preparing us before we step into the cheetah enclosures and introduce ourselves – up close and personal – to these magnificent animals.
“Guys, I think we’re going to go in now. Just a couple of dos and don’ts. When you do approach them, don’t walk to them as if you are going to do something to them. They’re going to see that as a threat. Please don’t touch their feet. Their feet are extremely sensitive. They hate it when you touch their feet. You’re welcome to crouch down next to them and give them a rub. Don’t hold them and try and hug them. They don’t like that either. Watch where you put your knee so that you don’t put it on their feet or on their tail. Also, when you get up, be careful not to dust yourself off. Sometimes the noise gives them a fright. Other than that, they’re very pleasant. Shadow doesn’t like children. Not that she doesn’t like them but she’s extremely playful. Savannah’s more placid.
“When we come out, I’m going to give you an antiseptic spray to wash your hands with. These cats do eat raw meat, they do have bacteria around their faces. Shadow will probably lick you. Savannah doesn’t lick. It’s just so you don’t go home with a whole bunch of bacteria on your hands. “Stay away from their backsides and their stomachs when you rub them. You don’t want them grabbing you and kicking you like [domestic] cats when you’re rubbing their stomachs. “If you’ve got scarves here either leave them or tuck them in.”
I admit, it is not without a little trepidation that I step in. The lady with the baby has to stay out. Tame though these cheetahs are purported to be, a baby is still a meal ticket for them.
Once inside, I’m calm. It’s as if this is where I was always meant to be. I wish I could have stayed there for longer. Just me, sitting there on the dusty ground with a stream of sunlight embracing me and the wonderful cheetah next to me. I can’t even put into words what that felt like. I have always felt this strong connection between myself and cats, domestic or wild. And here I could feel that bond at its most primal, as if it went back centuries. Make no mistake, as tame as these particular cheetahs appear to be (the two sisters, not Mikka, he’s still a wild cat!), to me they are still wild animals that have the power to, even inadvertently, do damage, and whose basic instincts go back much further than mine.
I approach them with great respect. Even though they are in enclosures, I am still in their territory. I’m aware that things could turn at any time. They are not pets. They are cheetahs. In fact, Des spoke of his own apprehension when he first met them. There was no gate to the enclosures as there is now, so he had to climb over the fence and jump down into their space. There would have been no such thing as a speedy exit under those circumstances!
What he did was turn his back on them and face the outside of the enclosure. Slowly they came to accept him and see him as non-threatening. They are curious beings and will come up to you, given time. Mikka, however, still has his wild ways. He will spit and perform and is only now getting used to Le Sueur Cheetah Project team. We certainly weren’t invited into his enclosure.
I’m with Savannah whilst I chat to Des. She’s 3 years old and beautiful. In the wild, cheetahs get to about 14, in captivity to around 16.
I ask Des what’s been on my mind for awhile:
“When you breed the young ones, how are they going to get rehabilitated into the wild? Aren’t they in a similar predicament? By that I mean, won’t they be too tame to adapt to their naturally dangerous environment?”
“You take them away from the mother at about 5 days. The reason for that is they are not the best maternal parents. 40-50% of cubs born into captivity die if left with their parents. You take them away at 5 days and you hand rear them. The nice thing is cheetahs instinctively hunt, even if they have been hand reared. “These girls were hunting on 2 000 hectares on their own. It’s just an instinct to hunt. They don’t need to be taught to hunt. “What you do with your first batch, you release them onto a reserve that doesn’t have lion, leopard or hyena. They will then survive there, and then their cubs will be taught by the parents the ways of the wild. The second generation will be able to be released into the wild.”
The cat’s whiskers
If Savannah or any of the other cheetahs were a leopard, her whiskers would be much longer. The reason they are so short is that cheetahs have evolved but they don’t hunt at night so they don’t pick up vibrations through their whiskers at all.
Whiskas of a different kind
These cats get their daily exercise. Not only does Des and his team play ball with them – a sight to behold! – there’s also a pulley system on a run outside the cheetahs’ respective enclosures. Whichever cheetah is out follows one of the game guides up to the end of the run. The guide pulls a rope of sorts that is attached to a pulley much further away. When the game guide lets go of the rope, she cheetah tears after it. Due to the length of the run, she only gets up to a speed of about 60 to 65 km per hour.
Savannah, once out of her main enclosure, is reluctant to go back in. I watched her charge past me and wander back up the run. Des pulled out a special whistle and blew it, but to little effect. He then went and got a small packet of Whiskas cat food. Tearing a strip off the top of the packet to open it, he then offered Savannah the rich gravy and meat contents and managed to entice her back into her enclosure.
I imagined my cats eating Whiskas alongside her. Except my cats would probably be included in her meal, God forbid. We followed the purring Savannah back into her home. Whilst there, I got to speak to Jorik who is helping Des with Le Sueur Cheetah Project.
I’m from Germany. I’m here for a couple of months to help them get started with the project. So we’re just here to collect some basic data on them. So the main goal is to find out when these girls are in oestrous, so when is the best time to put them together with Mikka for breeding purposes. I’m a biologist by training.
So that scar on your forehead isn’t from a cheetah?
No, from a bad childhood experience, when I was falling down
Oh, well, change the story. (We laugh) Well, that’s fantastic.
Yes, yes, I’m very privileged.
And had you worked with cheetah before?
Yes, I have worked with cheetahs before, but with cheetahs in the wild. We did some energy studies. We injected heavy water in the cheetahs to find out how much energy they expended. So we had to follow them in the wild, like 12 hours a day, and collect faeces and urine samples. That was in a reserve called Karongwe in the Limpopo Province.
Wow, you’re very lucky to be with these creatures
Yes, yes I am.
Le Sueur Cheetah Project needs you to spread its story. Like this page. Talk about the project on Facebook or Twitter. Better still, go to Nambiti and meet the cheetahs yourself. Believe me, after being there, you will want to do everything you can to help. Le Sueur Cheetah Project is run by the founders of Nambiti Private Game Reserve who are based at Woodlands Lodge. Show your support by contacting 036 631 9029 or e-mailing email@example.com