After their mother did not return to her den, the survival of the cubs became a race against time. Cubs can only survive 24-48 hours without dehydrating and dying. Luckily, the Dinokeng Game Reserve anti-poaching team was quick to detect that the cheetah mother’s GPS satellite collar had stopped moving, and they immediately dispatched a team to search for her. What they found was heart-breaking – a healthy female cheetah, clearly in the early days of motherhood, trapped and killed and skinned by poachers. Without a moment to lose, they went straight for the cheetah’s den, and in it found four small male cubs, approximately 5-6 weeks of age. These cubs had been spotted when newly born a few weeks back and someone recalled that there had been five, but where was the fifth? With determination, the search continued, and when a female cub was found not far from the den, everyone celebrated. Female cheetah are highly prized for their role in ensuring a new generation of cheetah to contribute to the vulnerable populations of this sensitive cat.
After the cubs were discovered, they were transported to the Old Chapel Veterinary Clinic to be put in the care of Dr Peter Caldwell. It was decided that they would be cared for at the Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary, and that the Kevin Richardson Foundation would support their journey over two years to be rewilded and returned to the wild. Permits were quickly obtained and the staff at the sanctuary hurriedly prepared their enclosure. This included hay bedding, a large transport cage as an added “retreat” in the night pen, infra-red lamps for heat and new dog bowls for their food and water. The night pen has a gate out to a small outside enclosure for the cubs to run around. The enclosure is also electrified on the outside for protection from any potential intruders. Peter and his assistant, Nikki, visited the sanctuary on the day of their planned arrival, 22 April, to check the facilities for the arrival of the cubs. Peter gave a 5-star rating and the go ahead for them to be collected in the afternoon, after being vaccinated and dewormed.
Caring for cubs so young is demanding, and the cubs were immediately put on a meaty soup diet fed to them five times a day, 7am to 10pm. The cubs settled down very quickly and even braved the outside enclosure after about an hour. Since their arrival, feeding continues to be handled by Foundation director, Caroline, and the sanctuary’s most senior member of staff, George, under strict instructions. The cubs have since been introduced to a diet of minced chicken fillets and impala, with blood and water added for moisture, as well as a range of supplements. Everything is very carefully weighed and measured out and the food is served at body temperature.
Each cub has been shaved in a different area for them to be told apart. No names have been assigned yet as they still establish their own personalities and quirks.
As expected, there are highs and lows along this journey. The latest ‘low’ was the smallest of the cubs falling ill at the end of April. It was noticed the cub was eating less. This was monitored and the diet was changed, but after the following morning, when nothing was eaten and the cub then threw up, quick action was taken. Caroline caught the ill cub on video, which was sent to Old Chapel before she was advised to bring them in. The cub was immediately taken to Peter along with the rest of the litter. The issue was diagnosed as a major distension inertia caused by an overfill of the stomach. Whilst under Peter’s care another cub suffered from the same issue. This is due to the fact that the cubs were not being bottle fed, and were prematurely introduced to a new diet, putting stress on their immature guts. The reason for the cubs not being bottle fed was for rewilding purposes as the act of bottle feeding would require human contact and nurturing. Steps were thus taken to reduce the bond between the care giver and cubs and put up more of a barrier. That being said, health issues were anticipated and under the quality care of Peter, within two weeks, all was well again.
The ‘ups’ are that the cubs are steadily gaining weight and are interacted with as little as possible, so they have little trust of humans. Nothing is achieved without hisses, bites and scratches. This is a good sign as it is necessary for the process of re-wilding.