Spending time with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, one of two local organizations working to reintroduce endangered big cats to the wild


A goat has gone missing, the fifth in a month's time. A farmer locates its half-eaten carcass several days later and blames the wild cheetah he's seen darting across his property during early sun-drenched mornings. He can't afford to lose another of his livestock, so he gathers his workers and the live-trap from the barn, careful to arrange it in front of a low-leaning acacia tree, one bearing a series of jagged claw marks. He places a slab of goat meat in the trap.

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Little time passes before the cheetah senses the lure of meat, gingerly approaching its scent beneath her favorite play tree, a place where she hides during the heat of blistering afternoons. The trap's crated doors slam behind her, creating unbearable confinement. She meows and chirps to her three young cubs, stashed beneath heavy brush, guarded from the constant threat of large antelope and cattle and other rogue predators.

Their mother's distress ceases with the sound of a lone gunshot, echoing across the savannah like a foreboding battle cry.

Days pass before the farmer discovers the cubs, huddled together in a helpless cluster. He pulls at the heavy fur of their mantle, loading them into his truck before returning home to his wife and children who immediately propose raising the cubs as household pets. This ironic scenario plays out with frequency in Namibia, but the farmer vetoes his family's naive wishes, having envisioned countless problematic consequences, the most dangerous of which results in death. Picking up the phone, he calls the Africat Foundation and the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), two local organizations devoted to big cat conservation.

His call has been answered when the sun sets over the Waterberg Plateau, casting luminous rays of pink and orange across a savannah filled with life. Wildebeest and kudu lie down amid thorny brush, a sleeping leopardess begins to stir, preparing for another evening stalk, all to the melodious call of the laughing dove.

The scene at CCF headquarters is markedly less serene: Dr. Laurie Marker and her cheetah keepers race against time, tossing crates, woolen blankets and an assortment of indiscernible materials into a muddied truck bed.

Story continues after the gallery.

Nearly a decade has passed when four cheetahs are transported by truck bed once more, this time from safe harbor at CCF to the Erindi Private Game Reserve, where they will finally experience life in the wild.

Nestle, Toblerone, Hershey (the "Chocolates"), and Chanel are the lucky few that qualify for reintroduction, having proven their ability to succeed semi-independently. Their potential for success in Erindi is bolstered by the fact that they operate as an efficient, albeit unlikely, team.

Unlike lions, cheetahs are ordinarily solitary: males and females solely convene to mate; females separate from their cubs after approximately 18 months; and adult cheetahs of the same sex seldom live together, although adult males occasionally form coalitions -- unions that enhance their ability to hunt and defend against other would-be predators. Captive cheetahs inevitably abide by different rules, but CCF keepers never intended to create a female coalition when they placed the Chocolates into the 64-hectare Bellebeno camp where twenty female cheetahs, including Chanel, resided. The largest and most aggressive of the group, Chanel historically kept her distance from other cheetahs, but something shifted when the Chocolates appeared.

After watching an alliance develop, CCF staff moved the four onto a larger tract of land -- a 4,000-hectare training ground where wild predators have been observed. Chanel and the Chocolates were tracked daily with VHF collars but otherwise left undisturbed. Chanel, the only non-relative in the group, served as its alpha by instigating hunts. She became its guiding star, a much-needed maternal figure to her fellow orphans.

In the wild, cheetah cubs learn invaluable lessons from their mother, who painstakingly teaches them about survival: when, how, and what to hunt. When to confront a challenge. When to retreat.

Cheetah may be the world's fastest land animal, but magnificent speed and agility only result in successful kills 50 percent of the time. Before trying again, the exhausted cheetah must spend a substantial amount of time resting. Once made, kills are regularly forfeited to other predators and scavengers: Cheetahs learn from an early age that survival depends upon keeping their delicate bodies intact.

Although Chanel and the Chocolates thrived during each of CCF's phases, they have yet to live within a competitive environment where other predators, already attuned to Erindi's landscape, compete for territory and prey. Will their wild instincts, now summoned, prepare them for the challenges ahead? What happens when the truck bed lays flat and the crate doors are opened? Will the cheetahs sense that they have reached the end of a tortured journey? Will new smells and sights bring excitement or crippling anxiety?

CCF's game ranger will remain behind to monitor their behavior for a period of time, reporting back to Dr. Marker and her team at CCF. He will record behavior, hunting, and kill patterns, along with the status of their coalition. Will the four stay together? Will Chanel continue to instruct the Chocolates or will the group's leadership shift?

More time will pass, and he will leave them alone in Erindi, where they have been reborn.

Image: Millie Kerr.

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