Cheetahs sometimes prosper – by Kathleen Retourne

The darkness is total as my alarm rips me unceremoniously from my sleep. I lie for a moment, gathering half-formed thoughts. My eyes adjust, and my bedroom starts to take shape, familiar shadows revealing themselves.

For the first time since I arrived in South Africa, I have the dorm to myself. I miss my roommates’ presence – the creek of old bed frames and the incoherent murmurs of malarone dreamers. With considerable effort, I remove myself from the warmth of the bed. Out of habit, I dress silently in the dark, grunting as I force my feet into still-stiff walking boots.

I walk outside and quietly breathe in the night air, inhaling the sharp tang of the bush. The sound of a hyena sends an ancient thrill of adrenaline through my blood. Their whooping a stark reminder that, in the bush, you are never truly alone.

A light slices through the night, causing the trees to come alive with the glow of bush baby eyes. I make out three of my friends, spookily bodiless in the shadows, their mischievous faces causing me to grin, as a shiver of happiness winds its way down my spine.

We clamber ungracefully into the game vehicle. Creaking crested franklings are shocked into silence as our engine roars into life. The gravel crunches under heavy tyres; our adventure begins.

We hurtle down dusty dirt tracks, the wind whipping us, unforgiving and impartial with its sharp sting. The sun begins its battle for dominance over the sky. Magnificent reds and oranges burst onto the canvas. A gentle giraffe ambles quietly towards us, silhouetted beautifully against this backdrop, as the bush shakes itself awake from the night’s secrets.

The four of us chat and joke with familiar ease. These people, strangers just a few months ago, now firm friends. Bound together by our love of wildlife.

We turn a corner to find the road is blocked by giant beasts. A mother rhino and her calf sleep, oblivious to our presence. We sit for a while, watching as their breath sends great billows of sand from their prehistoric nostrils. Their horns, freshly shaven, have kept them safe from poachers – for now. I marvel at their existence and silently apologise for the cruelty of man.

But, we can’t stay long, for today we have a different agenda. Today is all about the cheetah.

A few weeks previous we had been part of the release of three male cheetah on the reserve, brought in to breed with the resident female. Having seen the boys tentatively leaving the safety of the BOMA, we have heard that they are now in the same area as the female.

With cheetah numbers in South Africa sitting around just 7,100, the significance and importance of potential cubs is huge.

Fast-forward several hours and the sun now burns bright in the sky. Poorly thought-out egg sandwiches start to make their presence all too apparent. There is not a single cheetah in sight. Our eyes scan the sandy floor, desperately seeking tell-tale tracks.

We try not to lose faith, but the early start and lack of success mean our banter is now a little flat, our laughter not as quick to slip from tired mouths.

And then, the bush rewards us.

We turn a corner. Making no effort to blend in are three adult cheetahs sitting by the side of the road. At first, we assume it is the cheetah boys, until we notice that one is wearing a collar. It’s the female and two of the males. The third, and smallest, is nowhere to be seen, chased away, surplus to requirements.

The cape turtle doves’ distinctive “work harder” call is the sound track to their romance, a song the boys would do well to adhere to. Dark rumbles reverberate from deep primal lungs, contrasting against their softer bird-like chirps. Tails swish like pendulums in the sand. The tension is palpable.

We sit and watch in awe as the female cheetah plays the males off against each other. Each one trying his hardest to win her affection. They are getting ever-closer to mating but, she will not be taken easily. One male inches closer then, at the last minute, she lets rip a loud hiss and swipes him away. Seconds later the brother tries the same tactic. Always with the same result. This female is making the boys work for her attention.

After several hours, the deed has yet to be completed and we decide to give them some privacy. Weeks pass before we get the news… She is pregnant.

We will never know which male ended up being the successful father, but the four resulting cheetah cubs prove that sometimes, just sometimes, cheetahs really do prosper.

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