Thabo is a tame cheetah that lives on Hopewell. His mother was killed when he was a cub and so humans brought him up. Although never domesticated, cheetahs have been tamed throughout the ages, and it is thought it was the Sumerians who were the first to keep them as pets. I don’t like the idea of cheetahs being tamed intentionally, they are a wild animal after all, but unlike lions, cheetah have never been known to turn on their ‘owners’ and unusually for a tame cheetah, Thabo still has the ability to hunt for himself, and does this to great effect, especially during lambing season.
But he is also a massive softy around humans, he loves licking (not me though, only Ettienne who clearly must be a lot sweatier) and being scratched. I was quite distraught though to find out he is absolutely covered in ticks – you can feel them as you’re stroking him and Ettienne picks off some of the big ones. One species – the Blue Tick – can swell up with blood to a diameter of a pound coin after feeding. We took great, distasteful pleasure in removing these from Thabo and placing them on a hard surface before squishing them underfoot. They pop, exploding blood, giving the same satisfaction as popping bubble wrap, but with a slightly gooier outcome!
When you get to know Thabo, you see that his often-docile mannerism can get him into trouble. One day we were in the bakkie watching a herd of elephants grazing around us when Thabo shows up. He heads straight for the bakkie, not taking heed of the elephants close-by, thinking that proximity to us would give him some protection. Cheetahs are not a threat to elephants, but elephants don’t like any predators around, especially when there are calves, so Thabo was being particularly dumb. But he learnt his lesson when one of the mother elephants suddenly let off a deafening trumpet and charged at him. Unfortunately that meant she was also charging directly at us! Luckily it was more of a mock charge meant only to intimidate Thabo, but she got pretty close it certainly gave me some (more) grey hairs.
Hopewell has 3 cheetahs – Thabo, an adult female (Bokeka) and a sub adult male, whom was fathered by Thabo and to avoid inbreeding, the owner is looking to move this youngster off the reserve. Easier said than done. He has not inherited a hint of the chilled and tame nature of his father and is incredibly skittish which is making the hunt to find and remove him, extremely challenging. Ettienne has put out 2 cages in one of the only areas where he has been seen on a reasonably regular basis, and went to a lot of effort to put in some lovely female urine and poo from a cheetah sanctuary to attract him in. Collecting those precious items was hilarious. Ettienne was on high alert watching the female, waiting for her to carry out any kind of bodily function and then would race in and retrieve it with his bare hands. One day we heard from one of the workers that they had seen a cat in the cage, but that they hadn’t got close enough to able to identify which one. Ett was super excited as catching this young male has been 7 months work in the making, but there was also doubt in his mind…could it actually be Thabo, fancying himself a go with this apparently new female on the reserve? As we were driving to the cage, we dreamt up all kinds of scenarios. If it were Thabo, maybe he would be stressed and wild from being trapped. Would we even be able to tell it was him and not the young male if his mannerism changed considerably. As we turned the corner toward the cage, we realised immediately we needn’t have worried. There was the cheetah in the cage, and beyond any doubt it was Thabo. Although relatively chilled, he was bleating like a forlorn, lost puppy whose owners had forgotten about him. It was actually pretty heartbreaking, so we left him out a juicy Kudu leg. Within seconds of being released he was demolishing it as though he hadn’t eaten for weeks, whereas in reality he was probably only in the cage for a few hours. The hunt for the young male continues…
We had learnt a few days before that Bokeka, the female cheetah, had had cubs. The workers had seen her across a valley, thinking initially she was the collared leopard that has been lurking around (I have my fingers crossed as I want to see a leopard so badly!), but then saw that she was accompanied by at least 2 young cubs. We weren’t specifically looking for her when I caught a glimpse of a cheetah walking across a clearing one late afternoon, and with it being out in the open I just assumed it was Thabo. But as we got closer, we could tell immediately it wasn’t him. Being a female, Bokeka is visibly smaller, and she is also younger and sleeker. But the biggest difference I see between them is her eyes. Although slightly habituated to vehicles, she is a truly wild cat and that shows in her wild and focused stare, which is seriously intimidating. We had a small bit of meat in the back of the bakkie and wanted to give it to her, as with at least 2 mouths to feed now, life was harder for her and her hunt that day have clearly not been successful so far. She also had a big sore gash in her mouth, which we believe was probably caused by her being kicked in the face by an antelope during a chase, which is common danger for any predator species. Ett placed the meat down and retreated. Within seconds she had approached and taken it off to a shaded area where she ate at speed, keeping an anxious look out for dangers or anything that might steal her find. Ett has got very close to her before on foot, and so we got my camera and tripod and slowly got closer to her before starting to set up about 10 metres away. That was when we got chased by a cheetah! With no warning at all, and with the speed for which cheetahs are reknown, Bokeka was up from the meat and in full aggressive stance mode, now less than a metre from Ettienne, who had been stood slightly ahead of me. Ett has experienced this before and knew that the best thing to do in this situation is to stand your ground, so he shouted at her and made gestures. In the meantime, I was in full flight mode, inching my way away slowly behind him. Bokeka must be able to smell fear and vulnerability as she was making pouncing movements to get past Ettienne to me. It was probably only seconds, but it felt like forever, and I have a clear picture of the scene engraved now in my mind. Ett said eventually there was a stale mate, and he was able to back away slowly while Bokeka returned to her meal. During my escape I had managed to jump directly into a thorn bush and realized that my legs were completely cut up and bleeding. But it was worth it, for the most incredible and terrifying experience of my life. I learnt my lesson that wild animals never react predictably, and I have even more respect for the species on which predators prey. Even a tiny Duiker is faster and could put up more of a fight than an unarmed human, and still they get chomped. Thankfully we have our intelligence to save us from becoming permanent prey ourselves, although clearly some i.e. Ettienne had this more than others i.e. me, in this scenario!