Good morning everyone and greetings from a very nippy Kruger National Park! I know you have not heard from us in a long time, but boy do I have some stories to tell you now! I will start with how we ended up helping a cheetah with a snare this week, but I thought I would give you a bit of an update about the last couple of months first…
Thankfully, we are all healthy and well in the midst of this third wave of COVID-19 and the recent unrest in our country. The only glitch this year has been Steven’s shoulder.
His right shoulder has been giving him some problems for quite some time. He reckons it is from all the heavy calibre shooting he does for his proficiencies several times a year. Over the course of twenty years, this has caused quite a bit of damage to his shoulder and it got very painful. Steven jokingly called it “recoil tendonitis”. Recoil Tendonitis is not a thing, but it certainly became a thing earlier this year. So much so in fact that he had surgery on his rotator cuff and has been recovering for the last three months.
Luckily he is much better now and before he goes back on Wolhuter Trail next week he did two Lebombo Overland Eco Trails in the last two weeks. I was extremely fortunate to join him on the last one! Of course, I will tell you all about that in a few future blogs! I can tell you one thing, though… The LOET is an experience of a lifetime!
After the LOET
The EcoTrail ended on Thursday. And after saying goodbye to Steven’s amazing group of guests at Crooks Corner, we were on our way south again. The plan was to sleep somewhere on the Olifants River before driving the last long stretch home on Friday. Sometimes I don’t know why we even bother making plans, living where we do. Because it only takes one sighting of an endangered animal to throw all previous plans out the window!
We were close to the Magamba Waterhole north of Babalala when I spotted something next to a signpost. Cheetah!!! I have not seen a cheetah in years and I was absolutely ecstatic to see two of these beautiful big cats. But then I noticed one of the two cats was walking funny. I grabbed the binoculars to have a closer look and instantly my excitement turned into utter heartache. One of the two brothers had a long piece of cable trailing behind him. Steven saw that the cable was around his neck!
Tears were welling up in my eyes when I looked at Steven and said softly: “we need to get this animal some help, my love…” Steven already had his radio out and radioed the Operations Control Centre. They relayed our GPS coordinates of the snared cheetah to the Vlakteplaas Section Ranger and within minutes, they let us know that a vet from Shingwedzi was on his way. Steven and I were both so relieved and impressed with the quick response and effort of the people involved! We were asked to keep the cheetahs in sight, which we were more than happy to do. “Don’t worry my boy,” I said to the cheetah as it settled in the shade of some Mopani shrubs. “Help is on the way…”
Steven and I also parked off to the side of the road, and kept an eye on the two cats on our left as well as the road up ahead, waiting for the State Vet to arrive.
With each passing car, the brother without a snare looked up and started flicking its tail in alarm. “Just stay put boys, just stay put.” I kept whispering. Needless to say, the sight of the SANParks State Vet’s white bakkie in the distance was a sight for sore eyes! Steven quickly briefed the Vet and researcher that were in the vehicle.
As the vet slowly crept up to the two cheetahs, more cars started arriving. And unfortunately, before the vet was able to fire the dart gun both cats got up and disappeared into the Mopani thickets.
The state vet had been in the north of the park for almost a week looking for this cheetah while they were also doing research on the wild dogs in the area. And they were not going to give up on finding the big cat easily.
For more than an hour and a half, we both drove up and down a big stretch of the road trying to find the two spotted felines. Cheetah calls were coming from the State Vet’s vehicle in an attempt to lure them back to the road but to no avail. It seemed like the big cats gave us the slip.
I almost started crying again. The day was slipping away and we still needed to drive a lot further south in order to make it home the next day. “Maybe we should call it a day, my love…” But before Steven could answer a lovely older couple stopped next to us and casually said that there were two cheetahs a few kilometres away. My face must have lit up like the Christmas tree on Rockefeller Centre in New York! “It is not the best sighting,” said the tannie apologetically. “They are a bit far from the road, but you can still see them nicely.”
We could not thank the couple enough for letting us know! Now we had another chance at helping the poor cat!
There they were; in an open grassland area in the shade of a small bush!! They were, as the lady had said, a bit far from the road. And in the tall grass, it was difficult to see which of the two cheetahs was the one with the snare. Steven was in radio contact with the vet and they decided that we could drive into the grass to get a closer look.
Ever so slowly we snuck closer to the two cats. They were feeling a lot more at ease in the long grass than they were under the angel-wing leafed Mopani trees. So luckily, we could get right up to them. Steven could see the snare clearly and so the state vet also made his way through the tall grass on our tracks.
The dart-gun made a pop and both cheetahs jumped up and ran. The cheetah with the snare around its neck with a bright pink fluffy dart in its shoulder. “Yes!!” Steven and I gave each other a high-five, beaming!
The brothers didn’t run too far luckily. Through our binoculars, we saw the darted cheetah disappear behind a bush and not come out on the other side. His brother was right behind him but stayed in the open. Almost like he was keeping watch over his sibling that, by now, must be getting quite sleepy.
The State Vet waited for a good 10 minutes before driving to where the big cat had most likely fallen asleep. After he removed the dart and made sure that the cat was properly anaesthetised and blindfolded, he called us over. The cheetah’s brother had run away when we got out of our vehicles, but we could hear him call out for his boetie (Afrikaans for brother) in the distance, while the vet was working to remove the snare.
The snare was an ugly, long, looped thin cable that fortunately had not cut into the cheetah’s neck. It had left some small chafe marks on the hind legs, where the cable was trailing behind it, but the cat looked perfectly fine otherwise. Steven was able to remove the snare by making the noose wider and slipping it over the cheetah’s head. They then carried the cheetah to an open patch in the grass so the people that had watched everything unfold from the tar road could also see.
The SANParks State Vet took skin- and blood samples while we marvelled at this stunning spotted cat that was sleeping right in front of us. As I was watching the cheetah’s stomach go up and down as it breathed, I got an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. For being able to save this stunning, endangered cat from a horrible death. For the State Vet having cell phone signal when the call came in and for being as close as he was! For the Operations Control Room for getting in touch with the right people so quickly. For the couple with their caravan for letting us know where to find the cheetah with the snare. And for the opportunity to see such a magnificent animal up close.
Everything and everyone just came together for this cheetah, which got a second lease on life. I am sure that he is feeling much better now that that stupid thing is off his neck! Hats off to the State Vet and his technician, to the field rangers and everyone else involved! You are superheroes!!