In all the excitement over the past few months at Inverdoorn with the elephants and baby rhinos, the focus seems to have strayed from the cheetahs. This is, however, not the case and there is a lot of activity at the Western Cape Cheetah Conservation (WCCC). It is always a pleasure to catch up with cheetah handler Leah Brousse and she eagerly recounts developments at the WCCC. The good news is that "Banzi and Nushka will soon be released into the breeding facility." This is a major step for the siblings, particularly for Banzi. Born with a growth plate deformity, he successfully survived experimental surgery against all odds and is still very much alive and kicking.
The question which automatically springs to many people's minds, and which several do ask, is whether Banzi and Nushka will mate. As they are brother and sister this goes against what the WCCC aims to do. By pairing up unrelated cheetahs, they aim to strengthen the cheetah gene pool, which will lead to fewer cubs born with genetic deficiencies. "They like to mate with strangers," Leah explains, "they won't naturally interbreed." The fact that the cheetah population declined to the point where they were forced to interbreed is an indication of how threatened the species became and how much human development affected them. Banzi and Nushka have not interacted with the wild cheetahs yet as "they might kill them. The females are solitary and coalitions have been built". Releasing the cheetahs is a meticulous process and at the WCCC each step is carefully completed and monitored to ensure the health, safety and happiness of each cheetah.
The wild cheetahs are making progress as well and will hopefully be released into the main part of the reserve soon. Up until now they have been kept at the cheetah centre which spans 1 000 hectares. Having been rescued "they have not hunted naturally at Inverdoorn, but instinct will tell them what to do and they've been trained with the lure. After their first successful hunt they might overkill because of the fun of it, but they will get used to it". This is easy to imagine. Being held back from something your whole life – especially from something within your nature – and then unleashed and freed to live the way nature intended, would cause anyone or anything to go a bit overboard at first. Many have asked about the cheetahs being kept separate from the main part of the reserve, but considering the atrocious conditions the cheetahs have been rescued from it is imperative that they are properly rehabilitated and that they get used to the environment.
Shady and Joti, two other WCCC cheetahs, have already been released into the breeding camp and the team has tried to pair them with Lotta, "but she's very shy and only comes out for food" Leah says. "That's why we need more volunteers, so I can spend more time with Lotta. If one of the wild females is in heat we put them in the breeding camp with the males and I need to spend time with her to know when she is on heat". She further explains that the females are moved when they are ready to mate so that the males can remain in their own territory. She is also looking forward to Iziba's first run. The tame cheetahs run alone and not with the wild cheetahs, as they would be run down. Leah has been working on building the relationship between Iziba and Velvet. "It's good for Iziba to interact with the other cheetahs". Velvet is thus helping Leah keep Iziba in line, as anyone who has met her knows about her mischievously playful streak.
In addition to the breeding programme, there is always the mission to rescue cheetahs. "If they're a baby we will probably tame them, but if they're old they are usually already wild and we will keep them that way." Considering the assistance the WCCC has to give the rescued cheetahs who come from situations where they have been mishandled or mistreated, it is interesting to ponder how they normally learn to hunt. Leah explains that this is a skill their mothers teach them and thus we see that as many of the cheetahs have lost their mothers the running exercises they are put through with the lure are imperative to their survival and, ultimately, their conservation.
"I have the best job in the world," Leah enthuses when she is out in the middle of the reserve walking Velvet, and no one will argue. It is also a highly unusual job, as not only will you see her strolling with a cheetah by her side – a peculiar sight on any given day – but every now and again she has a bizarre misadventure too. Just the other morning she and Velvet walked past a Cape cobra and although both girls remained calm and simply walked away, it was an incredibly unnerving experience. Needless to say, a typical day at work for Leah is never quite typical.
To find out more about volunteering at the WCCC click here.