There really is nothing quite like tracking a wild cheetah. A week or so ago, myself, another one of our cheetah staff and a couple of volunteers, went out in the afternoon to locate one of our collared cheetahs, Zinzi. We were additionally excited because we knew Zinzi had become a first time mother only a month or so before. We had been keeping track of her den sites and when she moved her cubs to new dens, however we had not really seen her often. We only knew what we could see from our daily satellite downloads from her satellite collar which gives us five fixes per day. Although Zinzi had been spotted during this time, the alleged cubs had never been seen, as they do stay in their den sites, not following their mother, for the first month to 6 weeks. It wasn’t being said out loud, however it was obvious that everyone was thinking ‘this could be the day we see the cubs’.
It started out as it always does, driving dirt roads along fence-lines, standing in the pickup of the white Toyota, holding an antenna in the air and a receiver to my ear. And then we heard it… ‘Blip…. blip…. blip’. “She’s close, stop the car!”. Judging by the telemetry equipment, we guessed she was about 300 meters straight into the bush. We gathered up the essentials and then we were off.
If you have ever attempted to pick through acacia branches while wielding bowls, sticks, telemetry equipment, while scanning the area for a potentially protective mother cheetah and also attempting to avoid falling into warthog holes then you know it is a challenge, to say the least. But as the ‘blip…blip’ from the receiver got stronger and stronger, everything we were carrying seemed to get lighter and lighter. We stopped in a small clearing with an overwhelming feeling that she was watching us. We then heard the ‘snap’ of a twig breaking and there she was, walking slowly towards us, head and tail low, taking long deliberate strides. With a low growl she charged at us before she stopped and stood silently, staring at us. Then she calmly turned around and walked slowly back in the direction that she had come from.
That’s when the calling started. Zinzi was emitting a low chortling, followed quickly by a sharp yelp, over and over again; her focus aimed at the tall grassy area barely visible through the low hanging acacia branches. We were so absorbed by Zinzi’s calling, that it took a second to register what we were also hearing, swirled in the songs of the birds in the bush. ‘Chirp… chirp!’. A tiny, high-pitched chirp, only slightly distinguishable from the bird calls, but there was no doubt about it; the chirps were being made to answer Zinzis’ call. It was her cubs.
Zinzi casually walked back to the place she had approached us from and flopped down as if we were not even present. The calling continued as we stared, fixed on that area, and then we saw it. At first, just the grass waving in a way that it shouldn’t and then a tiny, silvery streak of fur bounding through the grass; the mantle of a one and a half month old cheetah cub. As quickly as it had appeared, it vanished behind Zinzi. It didn’t feel real, but it was. The cubs did exist!
We continued to hear chirps from several directions, and mixed with this sound was also the sounds of a cheetah eating. When we were slowly able to switch vantage points, it was obvious that Zinzi had made a fresh kill and was calling the cubs to her. Seeing this was our cue to retreat. We left with a feeling of satisfaction that she was doing her job. Being able to observe Zinzi being a successful mother in the wild, as well as her feeling comfortable enough to share that moment with us was unforgettable.