The First Seven Days of Freedom – A Journal From Bellebenno

  • by Ryan Sucaet November 25, 2011
The First Seven Days of Freedom – A Journal From Bellebenno

Day 1 – 13 November 2011
After their release into the 4000-ha Bellebenno game camp, Anakin, followed by Obi-Wan and Chester made their way towards the half-eaten oryx carcass that was placed in the shade of a tree inside of Bellebenno. Omdillo finally made his way out several minutes later. They ate together with very little aggression and before falling asleep in the smouldering hot afternoon.

Around 18:00 they ventured off into their new, much larger, home. We followed their signals, using an antennae and receiver to find out their whereabouts. Each cat is equipped with a VHF radio collar that has a specific frequency, which our receiver picks up. As the beeps get louder on the receiver you know you are getting closer. They led us in one large circle, and every time we caught the quickest glimpse of them, they would run away from us!

Once the sun went down, our team (Rachel [cheetah keeper], Kat [ecologist] and I [cheetah re-introducer]) was still attempting to get accurate visuals of the cats. When we decided to call it quits, I went to go get our vehicle in the dark. This is when I saw two sets of eye shine right on the road. It ended up being Obi-Wan and Chester! They quickly ran into the bush and were masked by complete darkness. Hopefully tomorrow they will allow us to observe them more…

Day 2 – 14 November 2011
The morning began at 06:00 when we finally received a strong enough signal to track one of the cats: Chester. Although we got several visuals on him, he kept running away. Instead of pressuring him more, we decided to search for Anakin and Obi-Wan. We found them together but also ran away from us whenever we got within 50 metres. Eventually they went to rest under a tree and let us observe. Lastly, we found Omdillo. He ran from us the first couple sightings, but then let us watch as he laid in the shade. After about 15 minutes of observation, Omdillo began calling for his coalition, who ranged 700-1800m away. He appeared stressed and did not seem to want to be apart from them.

After lunch we found Omdillo and Chester lying together under a tree right next to the road! We then switched and tracked Anakin and Obi-Wan. They were also in the shade, about one kilometre away from the other two. As we observed, we noticed a slight swelling above Anakin’s left eye. He was blinking frequently and it seemed a little wet from constant tears. There was no conspicuous discharge or anything so we will continue to monitor him in case it gets worse.

Around 19:30 we found Chester and Omdillo who had not moved far. We actually found them at the release site where they were investigating the last of the remains from their supplied oryx carcass. They could possibly be getting hungry again. At around 20:00, when all was dark, I watched Omdillo and Chester crouch low as if to see something! Emerging from the grass appeared Anakin and Obi-Wan! It was amazing! All four cats were reunited and began heading down the road together.

Day 3 – 15 November 2011
We followed the cats’ spoor (tracks) down the road. They moved quite a bit since we left them last night. About 5 metres from the road Rachel spotted Anakin and Obi-Wan. They were allogrooming each other’s faces! Today was the first time this behaviour was recorded with this group! After we watched for a while, we decided to find Omdillo and Chester, whose signals told us they were nearby.

We walked about 35m before I heard a crunching sound. At 06:15 we looked closer and found them feeding on a sub-adult female oryx! THEIR FIRST KILL!!! Only three days into the release and the cats have made a kill! Rachel and I were completely ecstatic! Unfortunately we missed the hunt and could not tell who killed the oryx, but we have a very strong suspicion it was either Omdillo or Chester (two most dominant cats). Omdillo came to CCF when he was three years old and would have had the most experience in terms of being wild.

Judging from the freshness of the carcass, but the fact that it was almost completely eaten, Rachel and I determined that the kill was made when it was still dark, around 04:00 – 05:00.

As the morning got hotter, the cats began to search for shade. Omdillo and Chester were the last to leave the carcass. But before they finished, both of them were observed covering the carcass with dead grass, which made it barely visible.

Around 17:00 we returned to the cats and found them in the same spot — still with the carcass. All four seemed exhausted from the heat as well as the daunting task of feeding! At one point Omdillo and Obi-Wan (at separate times) revisited the carcass and even tried to eat some of its little remains. They did not stay long, for the massive amounts of butterflies and other insects may have driven the cheetahs away.

Eventually the cats walked off. They headed straight towards the road and began walking on the cool sandy surface back towards their release site again. We left the cats there and on our way home, Rachel and I had the miraculous privilege to see a brown hyena walking away from the road. Today, in its entirety, was a day to remember!

Day 4 – 16 November 2011
On this chilly morning, we found all four cheetahs still together and fairly close to where we left them last night. They mostly slept and rested through the morning, probably due to their large bellies (especially Omdillo).

At one point, Rachel and I were watching them rest from about 20m away when Chester got up and began to approach us. As we sat, he got closer and closer but not aggressively. I tried to make my body look large by sitting upright, hoping this would make him return to the others. Instead he calmly got closer (only 3-5m from us!). I told Rachel that we should slowly step back and give him space. He ended up investigating our backpacks by sniffing them. I was personally worried that he was going to scent mark our bags with his urine, but luckily this was not the case. He ended up just walking back to his coalition and continued to rest the remainder of his day away.

It was a lazy, quiet and relaxing day in Bellebenno until about 19:00. Then the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in. Thunder clapped and eventually lightning struck throughout the heavy clouded dark sky. The cheetahs did not seem too alarmed by this, but Rachel and I were. We ended up cooking dinner in the rain and ate the delicious meal inside of our vehicle (called the Condor). Hopefully the cheetahs found a nice place to remain dry. We are hoping that the cats will soon find one of four man-made Bellebenno’s watering holes, but with the new rain, they can just drink from puddles for now!

Day 5 – 17 November 2011
The cats were still asleep when we woke up. Then they walked up and down the fence line for a little bit, but by 08:00 they were sleeping again, and here they remained for a good part of the day. They only moved to follow the shade.

After lunch, Rachel and I returned to the cats. Like usual, we found them on the road. Chester was in some shade just beside the road, Anakin was lying in the road and Obi-Wan was frantically and unusually pacing the fence line. That’s when I saw my greatest fear come to life. Outside the fence was Omdillo! Rachel and I realised we had to act quickly. I tied up a swing gate with some wire. Rachel had extra meat in the car (used to feed another cheetah, Darwin) and we called for Omdillo, as if going to feed him. He approached the fence, but the attention obviously attracted the other three cats. As I guarded Rachel’s back from them, she threw a small piece of meat to Omdillo. After he ate the first piece, Rachel threw the second meat treat on our side of the fence, forcing him to go through the propped opened swing gate to get the meat. Since these cats are so food-motivated, the plan worked perfectly and all four were reunited again.

Rachel and I checked the entire area where he escaped and found no definitive part of the fence where Omdillo escaped. It remains a mystery.

Once unified, the coalition made their way to a nice shaded area and slept the majority of the day away. Only as the dusk set, did they move along the roads. We left them as they all flopped in the middle of the road. It was a crazy, emotional day for us here in Bellebenno!

Day 6 – 18 November 2011
Rachel and I decided to have an early morning in hopes of witnessing a hunt/kill. Instead, we found the cats around 05:00 (still dark) near the cheetah pens. Not five minutes later, we found both Omdillo as well as Obi-Wan stuck in the buffer zone (area between two entrance gates of an enclosure) where they were previously penned! Neither could squeeze back through the gates, so Rachel and I had to carefully open it for them, once again reuniting the coalition.

Later, the cats made their way east, but still staying close to the roads and fence line. As they walked down the dirt road, they would occasionally walk into the bush to scent mark an acacia bush, tree or termite mound. This was not only the furthest away they had been from their release spot; but also the furthest into Bellebenno these protective males have been yet! We observed Obi-Wan eating oryx faeces on three separate occasions! I wanted an explanation for this caprophagic (eating faeces) behaviour, so I went to our head cheetah keeper, Juliette, for answers. She told me that this could result from, “…a mineral deficiency, a learning curve, or even from consuming similar smelling/tasting faeces from their carcasses/kill.” She further went on to explain that, “this behaviour is commonly observed for many animals and there is a highly unlikely chance of pure hunger being the cause of it.” We also saw Obi-Wan climb 2m high in an acacia tree!

Before lunch, Rachel decided that it would be best to supply the cheetahs with some water. Although we want them to find one of Bellebenno’s four water holes, they haven’t yet showed promising behaviours of reaching these water holes any time soon. I carried water out to them in a medium-sized plastic tub. They knew exactly what it was and drank several litres in about 3-minutes’time. They were definitely thirsty but we certainly don’t want them to rely on us to supply them every time.

Later in the afternoon, the males allogroomed one another, mainly in pairs: Anakin and Obi-Wan, then Omdillo and Chester, until they fell asleep.

On a side note, Rachel and I witnessed a male Red Crested Korhan. This is a once in a lifetime sighting — a birding photographer’s most sought-after photo, and I have it on video! Later that night, we also had a beautifully sleek Small Spotted Genet visit during dinner. Both of these sightings were unforgettable and continue to make me realise how fortunate I am to be here.

Day 7 – 19 November 2011
Rachel and I started early again and found the coalition on the same road. It seems they have found a territory worth guarding, and of course it borders a fence line with some of CCF’s captive female cheetahs. Near the entrance of this female enclosure (57ha), we found fresh cheetah scat –evidently from one of the four males! We quickly collected the sample and brought it back to a very chilled cooler so it can be analysed at the CCF’s genetics lab.

The cats walked the road until the sun became too unbearable; found nice shade and slept. After an hour or so, they randomly got up and moved to different shade. Rachel went to mark their old spot with our GPS unit, but quickly came back running to me in a panic. She had seen a snake darting away from her – the obvious reason why the cats left their spot. We cautiously went back to try to identify the snake as it slithered swiftly up an acacia bush. Rachel said it must be a Cape Cobra, one of Namibia’s deadliest and most venomous snakes. This experience reminded us of how careful we must be. Life in the bush is full of surprises, and some require to be constantly guarded.

By lunchtime, Juliette replaced Rachel, and both of us watched as the cats re-traced this morning’s steps. They walked all the way back towards the female cheetah pens, constantly scent marking. At one point there was a large adult oryx obliviously grazing several hundred metres ahead from them. The cats saw the oryx, but did not hunt it! Instead, when only about 100m away, we caught Anakin flopping in the middle of the road and Omdillo scent marking a bush! We wondered why the males didn’t try to hunt the oryx, since we know they are hungry…

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