What is the best way to track the fastest mammal on land? On foot, in the company of an armed ranger, and with the added help of technology. You’ll never forget walking up to a cheetah at the peak of its powers. By Hlengiwe Magagula
It’s good manners to stop to admire the zebras in Mountain Zebra National Park. Especially if they are posing nicely on a mountainside in the first rays of the sun. But I was wrapped in a blanket and impatient: I had a rendezvous with a cheetah. And my confidence in finding one was high, thanks to technology. Two of the cheetahs in the park have been collared by researchers, and their location can be tracked with a hand-held scanner. How hard could it be?
Quite tricky in fact. The signals travel by line of sight, and the park – did I mention it has mountains? And valleys, ridges, clefts, gullies, koppies, dongas, thickets. You get the picture. Park guide Richard Okkers was tasked with the tracking, while Desigan Naidoo (known as Desh) showed off his 4×4 driving skills. We turned onto the Rooiplaat Loop road and drove in sweetveld where springbok and eland grazed. Richard got down at a vantage point and lifted his scanner. I heard a steady buzz. “Nothing here,” he said to Desh. “Let’s try Kranskop.”
It’s 11 years since cheetahs were reintroduced to Mountain Zebra by SANParks. At the start they were top cats in the park and thrived. So much so that over 30 cheetahs have been relocated to other parks and reserves under the Cheetah Metapopulation Project managed by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). Then in 2013, lions were also reintroduced, and researchers watched to see how these species would interact.
Despite the cold, part of me was happy that the cheetahs were not easy to find. These are wild animals with a big territory to roam. Richard told me that sometimes it can be quite a challenge to locate them even with a clear signal. He pointed towards the distant peak of Salpeterkop. “A couple of weeks ago we had to climb halfway up that to find Angela.” The cheetah known as Angela is an adult female and has a male cub.
After an hour, Richard picked up a signal and got a bearing. “It’s Mabula,” he said. The senior cat of the park, a male, almost nine years old. We all got down. Richard carried the scanner but did not use it, trusting his experience to find the animal, knowing the sort of place he’d like to sit.
We walked through knee-high wire grass in flat terrain. Shades of browns, greens and yellows. If the animal was lying down in this, his camouflage would make him difficult to spot. But Richard was leading us directly to a solitary sweet thorn tree. “Can you see him yet?” he asked me. I followed his line of sight. Nothing. It took another 50m before I could discern the cheetah, sitting in the shade, his gaze fixed on the black wildebeest in the middle distance. “Reading the menu,” as Desh said.
I thought we would stop, but we kept walking closer and closer. The collared animals have become accustomed to humans and are not alarmed. Mabula finally turned to look at us, his expression saying nothing. We stopped 20m away, and I was able to see what a magnificently beautiful animal he is, looking in perfect health, the peak of his powers. He licked his lips, and turned back to regard his domain.
For 15 wonderful minutes, we simply stood and admired him. I was happy to see that our presence caused the animal no distress. A couple of times he snapped his head forward towards the wildebeest, as if he might go to hunt. Desh warned us not to crouch down, as that would make us look like prey. I asked about the effect of the lion reintroduction and if cheetah behaviour has changed. He told me that they don’t stay so long at a kill, eating the entrails and leaving the rest for lions and others to feed. Also, they are less active at night, which is when they are in most danger from hunting lions. Overall, lions are responsible for just over 33% of cheetah deaths in the project reserves. Angela’s cubs from last year have not been seen for some time.
Later I checked in with EWT Metapopulation Project coordinator Vincent van der Merwe. He told me the project has been a great success, with cheetah numbers growing from 217 to the present 357 animals. “In order to ensure long term demographic and genetic health, we manage the population through relocations when necessary,” he said. Mountain Zebra has played a big role in the battle to save the cheetah, and the metapopulation project now manages the cats in 57 reserves around South Africa. How wonderful it would be to see them reintroduced to my ‘local’ park, Hlane Royal National Park in Swaziland.
Good to know
• Walks are R400 per person. Advance bookings are essential.
• The main rest camp has new rock cottages that are some of the finest SANParks properties.
• Participants must be over 12, and over 65s should bring a fitness certificate from their doctor.
• Walks depart at 8:30 and last 3–4 hours.
• Minimum of two and maximum of eight people.
What to pack
• Wear neutral clothing (not white or black)
• A wide-brimmed hat that keeps the sun off your face
• Comfortable boots
• Hiking socks, with special anti-tick and mozzie treatment to keep bugs away
• A water bottle – an insulated water bottle will keep drinks cool for twice as long
• A daypack for camera, binoculars, sunscreen, snack, etc.
• Trekking poles are handy, especially on steep scree slopes
Hlengiwe Magagula is the author of the Guide to Walking in Kruger National Park (Available on Amazon from R80).