Not all cats have 9 lives

2012-10-08 00:00

“HOLD this, I need to go and help Elizke”, Des Gouws tells me. The “this” in question is a leash attached to a 10-month-old cheetah cub named Sky, one of two being taken for a stroll around the Nambiti Private Game Reserve.

Sky and his sister, Storm, are among the cats being cared for and rehabilitated at the Le Sueur Cheetah and Wildlife Centre, situated at Woodlands Lodge inside the big five game reserve.

The project was started in May 2011 by Rob le Sueur, owner of Woodlands Lodge, and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Nambiti Private Game Reserve. Its aim is two-fold: to breed and restock the reserve and other conservation areas with this endangered species, and to educate visitors and the communities around the reserve about these graceful cats.

“Cheetahs are really endangered and they are regularly killed by lions and hyenas. So the owner decided to set up a breeding programme and to ultimately release animals back into the wild,” Elizke said.

Both Elizke and Des, who manage Woodlands and the sanctuary are, however, aware that while they have been successful in breeding and raising cheetahs, keeping them out of the way of lions, hyenas and leopards, who don’t think twice about killing these smaller cats, is a real challenge.

“We are planning to embark on a predator avoidance programme … it’s not been done before, so what we do will be ground-breaking … We plan to use audio, smell and visual signals of predators, and to get the cheetahs to associate their predators with fear. We need to get them to run away from their enemies,” Elizke explained.

The project is also busy creating a 50 ha enclosure to prepare the cheetahs for release into the wild. During our visit, the staff at Nambiti were hard at work, putting up posts and fences. Des revealed that he hoped to be able to let the cheetahs explore their new domain in roughly three weeks’ time.

In the meantime, he and his wife take Storm and Sky for regular walks, accompanied by their whippet, Sailor. The two cubs were part of a litter of five born at Nambiti, two of which were killed by either a lion or a hyena.

Their mother removed one of the remaining three cubs to a safer den, forcing the reserve management to intervene and give the then two-week-old cubs to Des and Elizka to hand rear. A few days later, the cub that remained with its mother was found dead near the Nambiti runway.

Storm and Sky are, however, just two of the cheetahs calling the sanctuary home. Des and Elizke also look after Mikka, a four-year-old male cheetah from the Kalahari, who was orphaned and would have ended up on the black market had he not been rescued by the Endangered Wild Life Trust.

Mikka arrived in April last year and was initially very aggressive, stressed and uneasy. Now, thanks to some intensive work by Des and Elizke, he is more relaxed and has become the proud father of four cubs.

The mother of those cubs, Shadow, and her sister Savannah, were born in 2008. Their mother had given birth to four cubs outside the safety of Nambiti, and during relocation back to the reserve she abandoned them. The cubs were sent to De Wildt Cheetah Rehabilitation centre to be hand reared, but only Shadow and Savannah returned last year. One of their brothers died and the other kept injuring his leg.

One cheetah who won’t ever be released is little Yakira, who was born with bone problems and finds walking difficult. “She will become an ambassador cheetah and will be used for education at the local schools and lodges,” Elizke said of the cub, which regularly shares a bed with her and Des and loves nothing more than to romp with the couple’s dogs, Sailor and Gina, and to wander round Woodlands greeting the guests.

She’ll join the lodge’s other permanent resident, the adorable meerkat Zulu, who lost half his tail to a veld fire and because of a faulty oesophagus could not keep any food down. Now eight months old, he joins the guests for breakfast and high tea when not foraging for insects in the lodge gardens.

In addition to the cheetahs, the sanctuary is home to 10-month-old Vega, a leopard cub that was found abandoned on a farm. “His mother was most likely killed by snares or poachers, or simply couldn’t care for him. He was about 15 days old at the time,” Elizke recalls.

“He is just over 10 months old now, and spends most of his time in his enclosure. We take him on long walks twice a day. The duration of his life in captivity will depend on his behaviour, and he might be released on the reserve, but that will depend on the male population in two years’ time.”

There are also two servals — Rocky and River — who were found abandoned in the Winterton district, and came to the santuary when they were about seven days old. They will stay at Woodlands for the next 10 to 12 months, and will then be re-introduced onto the reserve.

Elizke and Des also plan to release the two four-month-old caracals at the sanctuary. They were found on a farm near Harrismith after their mother was killed by a sheep farmer’s dog. “They were not handled much, and are therefore not very tame, which will make their release easier,” Elizke said.

• As part of its education programme, the Le Sueur Cheetah and Wildlife Centre offers visitors the experience of spending time with the cats at the sanctuary. You can take a walk with the cheetahs for R300 and learn about the sights, sounds and smells of the African bush.

There is also a one-hour session for R250, where guests learn about the plight of the cheetah and meet the reserve’s hand-reared serval, Diablo. They can also get interactive with the animals for 45 minutes for R200.

To find out more visit www.cheetahinteraction.com or phone Elizke Gouws at 083 377 9340 or send an e-mail to woodlands@nambiti.com

• arts@witness.co.za

• Cheetahs are the most endangered large cats in Africa. There are only about 8 000 to 10 000 cheetahs left worldwide, compared to about 80 000 lions in Africa alone.

• Cheetahs are killed by predators, such as lions, leopards and hyenas, while humans provide another threat. Encroachment and hunting for hundreds of years has led to a substantial destruction of cheetah habitats, decline of their prey species.

• The cheetah gene pool is another problem. Sometime in the Pleistocene era (6 000 to 20 000 years ago) the species hit a bottleneck in evolutionary terms.

The result was in-breeding that has resulted in defects, including sterility in males or cubs being born with physical deformities.

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