Episode 28 – Getting lost and going wild with a cheetah in Namibia

I believe the saying goes – “My way or the highway”…well last week in Namibia, we definitely should have picked the highway! I’m very quick to tell people to do things the conservative, old-fashioned way, you know, use a map instead of a GPS, and well, to cut a long story short, the film crew did

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listen to me. We traveled for double the time, drove in completely the opposite direction and arrived in the middle of the night, when it was pitch black! The only thing that kept me sane was the thought of spending time, for our 50/50 story, with a special cheetah called Pride. Not only does she have a remarkable personal story, she is also helping to break boundaries in the study of her elusive species.

Just to give you a bit of background, Pride was rescued and brought up at the Harnas Wildlife Foundation in the South of Namibia. Pride was just a few weeks old when Marieta van der Merwe  took her in and hand-raised her. Normally, Marieta lives by the rule of Nature – “leave well alone”, but this time she just couldn’t resist the tiny, vulnerable Cheetah cub. She knew that without any experience of the bush the chances of the cub ever being set free one day to become self-sufficient in the wild were very slim. But Marieta felt sure she would find a way to teach the cub how to be a “wild” cheetah so she took her home and secretly brought the little animal up.

But it’s not easy to keep a growing cheetah hidden for very long!  Eventually she had to tell her staff she had broken her own golden rule. Now the team had to figure out how they were going to take a big, clumsy and tame cheetah and convince her to go and live in the bush…on her own. The only option they had was to try and use the techniques they had developed and used successfully on other wild animals.

Marieta explained it very simply to me. First, the animals go to a small camp with other animals, almost like a creche, and then they move on to high school which is a bigger camp until they are ready to be released into an 8 000 hectare piece of land called “Lifeline”.  It took a little longer with Pride– but it worked! For the past 2 years Pride has been living on this piece of land completely free and rehabilitated as a wild animal.

Then last year, Marieta had even more incredible news! Pride mated with a wild cheetah and gave birth to two cubs –  Merci and Beaucoup. Of course they will grow up as completely wild animals, with no human contact. This is by the way, the first documented case of a tame or hand-reared cheetah mating with a wild cheetah and producing healthy cubs. But sadly Beaucoup wasn’t as strong as her little sister, and after a bout of pneumonia, she died. Like all mothers, Pride was distraught and Marieta saw her pace up and down, wondering what had happened to her cub.

But miraculously, a week later Marieta saved another little cub, “Dinga” whose mother had been killed by farmers. He was the same age as Beaucoup and after many discussions and some disagreement, the team decided to try the impossible: introduce Dinga to Pride and Merci. The bond was immediate! Pride took Dinga under her care and accepted him as her own.

Well after that story I just had to meet Pride in person!  I told the game ranger that he was going to make my day if he found this special cheetah. At first I did get a bit of a shock when he said – “but of course I will”… but then again, the cameras were on him so I guessed he had to say that. First we drove around in a Land Rover for about 2 hours until he was able to pick up a signal from her telemetry collar… and then we covered 2km on foot with the signal getting more and more clear. At this stage I was out of breath and feeling a bit tired,  when suddenly spots appeared from behind a bush. I stopped in my tracks and this beautiful cheetah came closer and closer….. all I could hear was her loud purring and then all of a sudden she was right up against me, rubbing my legs, stroking me. I touched her side – and it was soft fur – just like a house cat. She gave me a special gift. I heard her contentment and could feel the affinity she has for humans….what a special moment, really an incredible experience.

Pride and her family are also now the focus point of dramatic new research previously only done on aquatic animals where they not only measure the animals speed but also acceleration, temperature they can now look at hunting habits and a lot more. But more on that next time!

And remember, take care of the earth and she will take care of you!