For the longest time there has been talk of releasing the wild cheetahs at Inverdoorn. It is something which the whole team has longed and hoped for, but it is a delicate process. Having been brought from different countries and often rescued from dire circumstances, it is integral that the cheetahs be properly rehabilitated before being released. That day has finally come and two of the wild cheetahs from the Western Cape Cheetah Conservation (WCCC) have been released into the main part of the reserve.
One male and one female were selected for the release. "Her we chose, because she is the most solitary of the group, which is good for the females," Leah Brousse tells me. In the wild, female cheetahs are solitary, and this girl looks more than happy to be out on her own on the reserve. Judging from her scrappy-looking ears, she's quite the feisty cheetah and has seen her fair share of cat fights. "The male we chose, because he has a strong personality," Leah adds. Deciding on a male and female, as you can guess, has been done in the hope that they will mate. We have yet to see what happens in future, but for now they are enjoying their new-found freedom.
Naturally, one of the first joys of their release was several successful hunts. The female was the first to make a kill. Wandering to the Lechwe Dam, she came upon a herd of Red lechwe. As semi-aquatic antelope, this is where you are most likely to find them, and why it was given the name it has. All the cheetah saw was a smorgasbord of delicious meat. But it was not just a matter of bringing cheetahs to Inverdoorn, letting them lounge around the cheetah camp and then releasing them. For those of you who have visited Inverdoorn and followed our social media, you will be aware of the breeding programmes and running exercises. The runs give the cheetah plenty of exercise and hone their hunting skills. The team at WCCC is satisfied to see how well these have paid off. Shortly after the Red lechwe kill, the male took down a black springbok; the female killed a duiker and a few more springboks have made a great meal for these cheetahs.
The handlers and rangers are tracking the cheetahs every day to monitor their progress. Leah took me along last week, as she went on one of her routine tracks. This usually entails getting up before the break of dawn to search for them and again later in the day. As we bounced along the well-beaten track within the reserve, Leah spoke to me about the cheetahs and how they are adapting. It is clearly visible how excited she is and as always she speaks with great passion about her work. Almost immediately we came upon the male. With the sun beating down, he was taking it easy beneath the shade.
Leah and I climbed out of the bakkie (or pick-up truck for those of you still learning your SA lingo) and slowly approached him. Suddenly he sprang up and lurched towards us. My heart leapt and chased thrills down my spine, but I remained rooted to the spot. Running would have been monumentally useless and I had Leah by my side, whom I trust completely with the cheetahs. She turned to me and said, "He probably thinks we have food for him, but maybe you should get back in the car." We carried on and found the female perched on a koppie, also enjoying the shade, while at the same time keeping careful watch on her fresh springbok kill.
The release procedure was undertaken with a lot of care, but luckily it was a straightforward process. "We chose the cats from their character, the ones that are going to do the best. Alex [Lewis, Inverdoorn's veterinarian] came, he darted them, we chose a good spot close to water and shade; they wake up and now we monitor them. The release went perfectly, better than we imagined." Now comes the more challenging part: tracking them every day, making sure they stay healthy, adapt well and continue to thrive. The tracking has major bonuses too: like the day Leah saw the female come across the elephants. Needless to say the cheetah was fascinated, but incredibly cautious, about these giants crossing her path.
Although the elephants and buffaloes are not animals for the cheetah to contend with, the big cat is now at the top of the food chain in the main part of the reserve. In the future, the WCCC hopes to release more cheetahs; but for now they will be focusing on the breeding camp and preparing the other wild cheetahs for release so that they can adapt as well as the other two have. Another conservation milestone has been reached at Inverdoorn and the WCCC. It has been a long road and the end is not near. But this has proved, yet again, that no matter how difficult the battle, it is not impossible to protect wildlife and give them the best possible life we can.