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Celebrating the return of the cheetah

By Samara on April 24, 2016

On this day 12 years ago a female cheetah cautiously stepped into her new wild home. The first cheetah released back into South Africa’s Great Karoo region in over a century, she was no ordinary cat.

Listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, there are fewer than 10,000 cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) remaining worldwide, with approximately 40% in Southern Africa. The population trend is decreasing, predominantly due to habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict with farmers and ranchers, and competition with other large predators, such as lions.

Compounding these sobering facts, in certain parts of Africa, cheetah are seen as vermin, accused (rightly or wrongly) of preying on livestock. Sibella was one such individual. Born wild in the North West province, her life almost ended at the hands of hunters. Set upon by dogs who tore the flesh from her back legs, she was bound, gagged with old rope and left for dead. Miraculously, she was rescued by the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust (now the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre) and underwent a five-hour surgery that saved her life.

Once rehabilitated, the time soon came for her to be relocated to a safe, wild environment. Samara Private Game Reserve was chosen for its size, its existing habitat and prey species, the absence of other large predators, and the historical incidence of cheetah in the area. Sibella arrived in December 2003, still bearing the scars of her past injuries, and was kept in a holding boma for several months to acclimatise to her new surroundings. On 24th April 2004, the gate was opened, and she was released back into the wild.

Since then, Sibella has been the heroine of Samara’s cheetah conservation success story, joined soon after her release by a coalition of male cheetah. Proving herself to be a capable hunter despite the occasional twinge from her previous injuries, she successfully raised 19 cubs across 4 litters before her death in September 2015. Many of these cubs have gone on to populate reserves and national parks across South Africa. An exemplary mother, she gave birth on steep mountain slopes to avoid potential predators and ate from a kill only after her young had had their fill. As well as being an international celebrity, featured in the likes of The Huffington Post  and the SABC news, her reintroduction has provided the impetus for a flurry of research studies into cheetah ecology in the semi-arid Karoo.

More astonishing than the very fact of her survival from the torment of her early days was the unspoken bond she shared with the humans in her new home. As countless Samara guests and staff experienced over the years, she was the ideal ambassador for cheetah conservation – trusting, extraordinarily beautiful and a powerful symbol of the relationship between man and nature. Few will easily forget the deeply moving experience of walking within a few metres of this wild big cat – a true privilege.

Watch Sibella’s Story.

Read about Sibella’s legacy.

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