We stood in silence for a minute, then two. Balanced precariously on a steep mountain slope, we looked out over the plateau grasslands beyond, dotted here and there with bushes, hearts in our mouths, and waited. The vehicle stood a ten-minute walk away, out of sight over the crest of the hill.
We had walked to this spot twenty minutes earlier in search of Chilli, Samara’s female cheetah, and the famous Sibella’s last daughter. Tracking her using her radio collar (essential in this sort of terrain), we had found her resting in the long grass. After a few minutes of viewing, during which she had mostly ignored us, she had stood up and made her way back up the steep slope. At a respectful distance, we had followed her.
Covering ground fast with her long legs, she had walked fluidly through the tricky terrain. We were not so graceful – eleven bipedal figures struggling over rocks and undone shoelaces. Finally, she had come to a halt to relieve herself, and we had paused, expecting her to settle down once more. But, to our surprise, she turned tail and headed back from whence she had come.
This seemed unusual behaviour. Why bother to walk a couple of hundred metres to go to the loo, and then return to the exact same spot to relax? Cheetahs will usually simply move from place to place, not favouring specific locations. Granted, it was a site with a breathtaking view and shelter from the wind, but was it any more special than the hundreds of other potential sites along the mountain slope? There was no reason for her to distance herself from the smell of her droppings, as there isn’t much at Samara that would take on a fully-grown cheetah, and she would surely not be resting there all week. Unless…
We stood slightly out of breath, having made our way down the mountain slope for the second time, our eyes tracking Chilli as she dipped in and out of our line of sight. Once vision failed us, we made use of the radio telemetry once more, pinpointing her location to just downhill of a big rock. Not wanting to startle her from our dominant uphill position, Jan motioned at us to stop whilst he made a wide circle around the rock to attempt to see her from below.
It was then that a cautious but excited smile crept onto his face. He had heard something. As we waited in silence, ears straining to pick up any sound, we heard it too. A chirruping noise, barely audible over our heavy breaths and thudding hearts, emanated from below the rock. As we watched, Chilli got to her feet and left the safety of the overhang. She moved slowly and deliberately into the open, and as she sat down facing us, our wildest hopes – unbelievable only minutes earlier – were confirmed. She had brought with her one small cub, eyes still closed, smaller than her paw, and deposited it on the ground in plain sight.
To describe the feeling that followed as euphoria is an understatement. None of us could believe our eyes as we strained to get a vantage point from which to double- and triple-confirm this amazing discovery. Chilli started grooming herself, and the cub almost rolled down the hill, but she gently caught it and placed it under her paw. It was clearly days old, maybe even hours. Not wishing to disturb her too much longer, we took some hurried photographs and began the walk back up the hill, eyes shining, in disbelief at our stroke of good luck, our once-in-a-lifetime discovery of these cheetah cubs. Suddenly, everything was right in the world.
A week later, we returned to Chilli’s den site to see how the cubs were getting on. She had moved them to a site further along the mountain. There are four cheetah cubs, and it seems that they were born on 3rd January 2017, which makes them 2 days old on the day of their discovery. We believe that the father of the cubs is Shadow, introduced to Samara in September 2016. Read more about his first meeting with Chilli here. Here are some photos taken of the cheetah cubs when they were 10 days old.
Words by Isabelle Tompkins
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