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The Saltpans

In November 2013, two young orphaned cheetahs were found and rescued from the saltpans on the outskirts of Swakopmund.

Locals detected the young cheetahs and instantly informed Swakopmund’s resident veterinarians Dr Rodenwoldt (AfriCat’s resident vet) and Dr Winterbach. The cubs were no older than six to seven months and were severely dehydrated and malnourished. After 24 hours of intensive care and observation, both cats were back on their feet and started eating and drinking on their own again.

The AfriCat Foundation was contacted for assistance. After a further three days, the orphaned siblings were collected and transported to the AfriCat Headquarters where they were released into a small holding enclosure for the first few days to facilitate monitoring. As both cubs had been born in the wild, they were not habituated in any way and thus became enormously stressed in captivity and in the presence of people. After another week, the siblings – one male and one female – were relocated into a more spacious camp with natural vegetation providing a safe and stress-free environment. Swakop and Mundi, who were named after their origins, grew into two beautiful cheetahs that were evidently most happy in one another’s company.

Because the two cubs were too young to be released back into the wild on their own immediately, we thought it might be worth the try to bond them with a wild adult female who had a cub of similar age at that time. Perhaps there was a chance that Dizzy would bond with the youngsters and be able to teach them how to hunt and survive in the wild. However, there were a few setbacks before this trial project could start: one was the high precipitation late in the season, and the second was that the cubs were too wild to allow us to closely monitor the situation. They needed to trust man a little bit more. So the project was only initiated in April 2014.

AfriCat supporter, Sue Olsen generously offered to sponsor the whole project. Because Dizzy and her cub, Spirit, were roaming free in the 200 km2 Okonjima Nature Reserve, mother and daughter needed to be immobilized and placed into a 5 ha holding camp, together with Swakop and Mundi. Remote controlled camera traps were placed in each corner of the camp to monitor activities and behavior. Unfortunately, things did not go as hoped.

Even though Dizzy did not physically attack the siblings, she also didn’t show any interest in bonding with either one of them. She kept them away from her own cub and would not share any water and food with them. After a month of intense monitoring and evaluation of the situation, the undertaking was terminated and Dizzy and Spirit were released back into the Okonjima Nature Reserve while Swakop and Mundi were returned to AfriCat’s Care Centre.

In May 2015, another cheetah cub, who had had a similar experience, was found in the desert near Walvis Bay. Dune was only four or five months old when she came to AfriCat and had lost her brother, who had died of dehydration, shortly after they were rescued. Unlike Swakop and Mundi, Dune was very relaxed around people. In order to avoid long-term captivity and to give her a chance to return to the wild as soon as possible, we introduced Dune to Swakop and Mundi in order to release our ‘desert’ cheetahs into the wild as a coalition of three. Unfortunately, Swakop and Mundi, who were almost two years older than Dune, didn’t accept the young female and attacked and injured her, so we had to separate them.

After another two years in captivity, Swakop and Mundi were released into the Okonjima Nature Reserve in May 2017. After their release, they immediately started to move off in opposite directions. While Swakop headed straight towards the fence line, but his sister moved into the western part of the reserve, where she kept on moving constantly. Despite a single excursion into the central parts of the reserve, he remained close to the fence. Mundi on the other hand, explored unfamiliar cheetah territory and ended up on top of the southern mountain range. Several attempts to lure her down were unsuccessful and so she needed to be immobilized and was released close to her brother – hoping she would encourage him to leave the fence. Unfortunately, not everything goes according to plan, and although Swakop and Mundi were re-united, they both made a home in the eastern corner of the reserve near the fence line.

After they had spent several weeks in the same spot and to avoid unnecessary immobilization, Team AfriCat lured them a couple of kilometers away from the fence into the centre of the reserve, close to a water-filled dam with lots of potential prey around. Even though both cheetahs made the occasional kill, their hunting success had stagnated and both were highly dependent on supplementary food and water. Unfortunately, their move was temporary and the siblings were back in their familiar corner only a few days later.

Although Swakop and Mundi had the best conditions for a successful rehabilitation process (young age, limited time in captivity and never too comfortable around people), our two desert cheetahs seemed to struggle to find their place in the wild.

However, six months after their release, the sibling duo finally seemed to get the hang of living in the wild. During early November, they unexpectedly moved away from the fence line into the open plains in the central parts of the reserve. Once presented with plenty of hunting opportunities, especially as this was the season during which ungulates dropped their calves, it seemed as though their hunting instinct suddenly kicked in. The pair was found on fresh kills, which included springbok, juvenile blue wildebeest and impala, or with full stomachs, on an almost daily basis.

Just as we started to worry less about our two desert cheetahs, fate struck again. After receiving a mortality signal from the VHF collar that was fitted around his neck, Swakop was found dead, very close to Mawenzi, a big resident male leopard. Post mortem results showed that Swakop’s stomach was full when he died suggesting that Swakop and Mundi were likely feeding on a kill when they were disturbed by Mawenzi, potentially even defending their meal. Penetrating puncture wounds to the shoulder and thorax were found, all shoulder-spine muscles were torn and the skin pulled apart, his tail base was broken and lungs were filled with blood.

Swakop and Mundi’s story is not unique. Interestingly, many of AfriCat’s rehabilitated cheetahs have ended up at exactly the same eastern corner fence line. Having spent the majority of their lives in captivity, the fence seems to represent a familiar and safe territory for these cheetahs. The question that arises is why some cheetahs start to roam broad areas of the reserve immediately after release, stay mobile and never remain at the same place for too long, while others – once they hit the fence line – become sedentary. Not only is game sparse, but a fence line restricts the directions into which a cheetah can flee in case of an attack by a higher-order predator such as leopard or hyena.