July 17, 2018
During the first 18 months of their lives, cheetah cubs learn the essential skills for hunting and being cheetahs from their mums. They rely on them for food and protection against other predators during this vital and precarious time. Then, they reach maturity, gain independence and separate from their mothers.
But siblings often stay together into adolescence. Around the age of 1.5-2 years old, sibling groups will break apart. Brothers usually stay together to form coalitions, and female siblings further separate to live out solitary lives.
The “cheetah girls” of Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa are just over 2 years old and are still enjoying the perks of collaborative hunting and social grooming. The three sisters divided from their brother around three months ago and, at their current age, are expected to part from each other any day now.
I have been privileged with some incredible encounters with these siblings over the past six months.
These particular siblings are very important, as they have unique genetics to the cheetah metapopulation in South Africa. Their mother was relocated to the park for her own safety in April of 2014 after being captured on farmlands in the North West Province outside of protected areas and given the name “Rain.” And their fathers (plural because Rain was potentially impregnated by both brothers of a coalition, making it difficult to determine who is whose technical biological father), colonized the park on their own.
Cheetahs on 53 protected reserves and national parks throughout South Africa are monitored and exchanged between parks as part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project to aid in the dispersal of cheetah genetics. Protected areas in South Africa are generally fenced, inhibiting the movement and spread of genetics in species like cheetahs. The project’s coordinated relocation strategy aims to ensure demographic and genetic viability of cheetahs within these closed reserves.
The Pilanesberg sisters’ genetics are valuable to the project, but their family history sounds as if it should be straight out of Game of Thrones. Their three older brothers from a preceding litter formed a coalition after they gained independence from their mother. These three now-mature males were a force to be reckoned with. In order to have the highest reproductive success and best access to prey, eliminating competition in the area is a common occurrence in the cat world. Seven percent of cheetah mortalities in the metapopulation are attributed to cheetah-on-cheetah fighting, as larger coalitions will kill smaller coalitions or single males in the area.
When the older father coalition had a run-in with the three younger male coalition and was never seen again, it was presumed that the three males killed their fathers in order to secure territory and breeding rights to the females. Unfortunately, the only females they had access to were all related to the succeeding boys. Management of these populations is not always as clear-cut as ecologists would like it to be.
The trio was relocated as part of the metapopulation project to bring fresh genetics to other reserves in South Africa and prevent inbreeding at Pilanesberg. After the sisters and their lone brother split up, the brother was not seen again. His fate is uncertain: He could have met his demise at the hands of his older brothers before they left the park, had a scuffle with one of the park’s many lions, or even be silently living a secluded life hiding away in wilderness areas the public cannot access.
His sisters, however, have no issue being highly visible around vehicles and do not seem to be hindered at all by the presence of humans in the park, often making kills right near roads.
Over the past few weeks, I have personally seen these beautiful ladies feasting on impala kills on back-to-back-days — and enjoyed a serene moment with them as they used a large rock as the perfect lookout point for scanning their domain.
One early morning, we were enjoying the presence of a large breeding herd of elephants as they stopped for some breakfast. The sounds of an elephant herd enjoying a meal are unlike anything else.
Elephants can move so quietly through the bush that, despite their size, you would have no clue you were in their presence. When they are feasting, however, it is a very different story. Leaves crunch audibly as twigs break in their massive jaws. The occasional creak accompanied by a loud crack as a branch, or even a whole tree, is ripped up permeates through the morning chorus of birds waking up to a new day. This herd was happily munching away and in no apparent hurry, so we left them to head off in search of leopards.
Moments past the herd, just off the road, was a spotted cat heading our way. However, this cat did not have the rosette spotted pattern of a leopard. Instead, she was dotted with small, solid spots over her lean build—it was one of the cheetah sisters.
She appeared to be on a mission as she made her way across the road in front of us. Not far behind her came her sister following the same pathway. The pair, unfazed by our vehicle, continued on their way into a drainage line. We could hear the alarm calls of nearby impalas announcing the predators as they disappeared into the bush.
Someday very soon, these sisters will go their own ways. Hopefully, each will raise their own litters of cubs and add their contributions to the threatened cheetah population.