On June 28th 2012, four male cheetahs that had previously been held at the Cheetah Conservation Fund near Otjiwarongo, Namibia, were loaded onto a truck that was headed south to Erindi Private Game Reserve for a re-wildling project. Omdillo, Anakin, Chester, and Obi Wan (aka the “Leopard pen boys”) had lived at CCF for a number of years after they had all been brought in during various times in 2008 from farmers due to supposed livestock depredation. Now was their time for their long-awaited return to freedom!
To prepare them for their re-wilding, they were released into a 4,000 ha fenced game camp at CCF at the end of 2011. This camp, called Bellebenno, has a wide diversity of different prey animals that inhabit the area, but is a relative “safe zone” in terms of competitive predators such as spotted hyenas and lions that would normally steal carcasses from cheetahs and sometimes even kill them. After a month of being intensively monitored by CCF staff and volunteers on their behavior and movements across the camp, they were deemed suitable for re-wildling, particularly due to their successful hunting trips. They had made an astonishing eleven kills during this time, including oryx, eland, kudu, warthog and steenbok. This is was impressive list as it shows that the males had learnt necessary skills to bring down a variety of different prey.
After a month of being monitored by the CCF, they were deemed suitable for re-wildling
During this soft release, Omdillo continually proved himself as being the leader of the coalition, with Chester close behind in this hierarchy. Both males were also the most successful hunters of the group, almost always initiating hunts and being the ones to take the stranglehold on their prey. Omdillo showed himself as being an extremely independent and intelligent creature, as he was able to work out how to escape from the game camp using a variety of tactics during his time in Bellebenno! He was, however, always lured back with the cunning use of meat.
On the day of their transfer to Erindi, they were all anaesthetized for their radio collars to be fitted around their necks for use in further monitoring of their movements in Erindi. Each cheetah also had a thorough veterinary examination to ensure the health of each cat was suitable for re-wildling. Chester’s x-ray revealed the pin placed in his leg from when he arrived at CCF in 2008 due to a broken leg sustained from when he was trapped. Despite the bone showing signs of arthritis forming, he is still able to run and hunt effectively.
Once the exams were over, each cheetah was placed into an individual holding box for transport to Erindi. These boxes were loaded onto trucks and, after a long drive on a dusty dirt road from CCF, they arrived at their final destination: an open area deep in Erindi’s private game reserve with large trees, a giant termite mound and a watering hole nearby – perfect habitat for cheetahs! This site was also chosen for its convenient access to multiple watering holes, which is important for the four cheetahs, as they were used to being provided with water during their captivity back at CCF.
At around 4 pm on the day of release, the crates were offloaded. An oryx carcass had been placed in the shade of a large tree for the final supplementary feeding of the coalition.
Finally, the crates were opened; out ran the four cheetahs! After the initial sprint, they began to walk around slowly, exploring their new surroundings.
Three of the four cheetahs soon made their way to the carcass and began their last easy meal. However, Omdillo took off into the bush, perhaps being a bit dazed and confused from the long journey. Little did he know that this 172,000-acre protected reserve would be his permanent new home. Some of the team drove off to check on Omdillo, who was found a short distance away calling for the rest of his coalition. The next morning Omdillo had reunited with the group and all were at peace near the carcass with fat bellies!
Since the release, the cats have fitted back into life in the wild wonderfully and have been observed successfully hunting eland calves and oryx. Omdillo appeared to have sustained a leg injury from a warthog, but despite this apparent disability, has been contributing to hunting and is able to keep up with the rest of the group well. We have no doubt that this coalition will continue to thrive in Erindi.
Niki Rust – Ecologist
Cheetah Conservation Fund
Photos copyright © Jed Winer & Rob Thompson (Cheetah Conservation Fund 2012)