From the exploits of one daughter to those of another. In her latest dispatch from Africa, Christelle Randall brings the first part of her wildlife escapade to an end with a moving tale of parting: participants in the project, naturally, but also a cheetah and one or more of her cubs. And for those poor American colleagues at my newspaper in Abu Dhabi, for whom my formal ban of trivial use of the word "awesome" is so hard to bear, this ought to be a most heartwarming posting....
The second part of my South African wildlife expedition is over.
Last Friday we departed the Karongwe game reserve and said goodbye to all the animals we had been studying for the past five weeks.
Our last week was not without drama, however. One of the big cats we had been focusing on at Karongwe was a female cheetah called Savannah who was accustomed to humans. So much so that on drives once located we would be allowed to jump off the trucks and “walk in” to see her with one of the GVI staffers (armed) and watch from 10 metres away.
The best thing about this was that Savannah had three adorable cubs all only a few months old. We could have spent hours and hours watching their frolics and by the end of the five weeks we were familiar with each one and their different characteristics.
They were so friendly and inquisitive that the staffer with us often had to speak firmly to them in a bid to stop them coming too close. Not because they were dangerous but with their mother being so relaxed, it was important they still learnt that humans were not to be fully trusted for fear of them coming into trouble in the future.
The drama took place on our penultimate game drive, the same day as our final party night which had a film star/Disney animal fancy dress theme.
As we were heading back to camp we received a call on the radio from the Reserve manager telling us that a very distressed Savannah was by the fence line in the northern part of the reserve with only two of her cubs.
On arrival it transpired that one of the cubs had gone through the fence only to be zapped by the huge electric volts (and possibly a passing car) and was lying there injured on the road.
The Reserve manager went to collect the cub in a box and we drove in just as he was about to release it back to its mum.
Savannah meanwhile was pacing the exact spot where she thought her cub had last been making increasing agitated calls. As the truck pulled in with the cub Savannah, who had clearly either smelled or heard her cub in the box, turned in utter bewilderment at the truck, not understanding why the people she had previously regarded as friends had her baby.
She paced the truck nervously while the Reserve manager opened the box and attempted to coax it out. We waited for 10 minutes or so and finally, lulled by its mother's calls, the cub hobbled out with what appeared to be a very sore broken leg. It was heartbreaking to watch. We knew that in the wild the cub had very little chance of survival. Although the initial reunion was lovely to see we knew that it would not be able to keep up with its mother and siblings. Cheetahs are vulnerable cats and especially prone to being killed by other more powerful predators like lions, hyenas and leopards, with cheetah cubs prone to being eaten by potentially any predator out there.
It is unusual for a young litter of any kind to survive with more than one baby anyway so Savannah had done well to keep all three alive so far.
A cheetah cub with a broken leg had, to quote the Reserve manager "a one per cent chance of survival over next few days”. We watched as Savannah, still agitated, headed off calling to her brood to follow and watched as the little one hobbled behind clearly in pain.
I hate to admit this but there wasn’t a dry eye on our truck. One of the girls asked the Reserve manager if they couldn’t just take the cub, mend its leg and bring back to the mother but he told us, probably rightly, that it was wrong to interfere with nature and unfortunately this was the down side to spending so much time with specific animals.
We headed back to the reserve in silence in the sad knowledge that one of the cubs we’d spent the last five weeks fawning over was due to come to a sticky end, possibly overnight.
It took some seriously strong cocktails to get people in the mood to celebrate party night but we somehow managed. I mentioned that we had a fancy dress theme. We rifled through the camp fancy dress box and found a variety of rather bizarre outfits that worked.
One of the funniest things was my good American friend Steve whom I wrote about in my first posting.
Steve is 23 and from Florida; he had started the expedition proudly pre-empting any sentence with “In the USA…”. Any nature sighting that involved killing was “awesome” or “crazy” and trees, birds (of feathered kind) and anything without sharp teeth and a dangerous temperament declared “dumb-ass”. We decided to dress him up as Lawrence of Arabia but once dressed up in his Arabian inspired outfit, he took one look in the mirror and decided it would be much more fun to be bin Laden instead…The next day we received the best news when the Reserve manager called to tell us he had had second thoughts and had consulted a vet about the cub. They had decided to come and dart it, mend its leg and re-home it at a local Cheetah Rehabilitation Centre.
First off we had to track them all down and make sure the injured cub was still alive. An impala was shot by the Reserve manager which was used to distract the mother, which we knew would be hungry.
As Savannah was feeding with her cubs, the vet darted the injured one and it was brought on to the back of the vet’s car for injections and inspection. The vet is an old stalwart and used to excitable GVI expedition members. He asked us to step back but at the end made sure we came up close and saw the procedure. We established she was a female cub and he gave us the opportunity to stroke her (cue lots of slightly embarrassing photos with expedition members and the cub…me included).
Although it meant Savannah had once again lost her cub it meant the other two had a far greater chance of survival and that this little one too had been given a fantastic opportunity with life on a reserve elsewhere. I am told it will only take Savannah a few days to forget the cub existed altogether which I guess is how nature works..
I am now off to Cape Town for a week with my friends Sophie and Steve “bin Laden”. The fact the expedition has come to an end hasn’t quite hit me yet as I still haven’t finished my adventure and I have much to look forward too. Most of all becoming an auntie to my sister Nathalie’s baby Maya which is one of the sad parts of being this far away but a great reason to buy lots of cute and colourful African baby clothes.