In the Wild
I have said this before, but it’s worth saying again; being in the presence of wild animals is a deeply humbling experience! I have had the privilege of meeting giraffes, meerkats, sea turtles, a whale shark and even a great white shark all while roaming their natural habitat. Once you’ve had such encounters with wild animals you’ll instantly see sadness in the eyes of animals in zoos and sanctuaries. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to add a wild cheetah to this list of wild encounters! On a recent visit to Mountain Zebra National Park, I was once again captivated and in awe of nature.
We arrived at the reception just after 8am. After signing a few forms and arranging the payment, we hopped on the game viewer and were briefed by Richard, our guide. We were reminded that we are dealing with WILD animals and that there was no guarantee that we would spot the cheetah, even with a tracking device. Note: this is not an animal interaction! There’s no touching involved. It’s also important to know that you may be required to track the animal on foot if the terrain gets too tricky for a vehicle – so be prepared with suitable walking shoes or hiking boots.
We were off. To say it was freezing is an understatement… It was about 6°C only so we were all hiding under layers of clothing. We underestimated the wind chill factor on the back of the open vehicle and although we were very warmly dressed, blankets would have been a good idea! Our first sighting was aptly a small herd of Mountain Zebra! Their markings really are beautiful if you take the time to have a closer look. In between telemetry tracking stops, we also spotted herds of springbok, eland and gracious oryx in the distance. Among the birds we saw secretary birds, beautiful blue cranes and a Ludwig’s bustard. We were even lucky enough to see some curious bat-eared foxes and a meerkat clan on the hunt!
And so we meet…
After a couple of hours of tracking, Richard stopped the vehicle and told us that Mike (a collared male cheetah) was in the near vicinity but that we’d have to continue our search on foot. Exchanging some nervous glances, we all hopped off and prepared ourselves for the quest…single file, no sudden movements, no talking. There are lions and buffalo in the Park too so for your own safety it’s important to listen to the guide. After dodging rocks and shrubs for maybe 300m, Richard pointed to a tree where he could see Mike. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He could just as well have been a bush; he was beautifully camouflaged lying there in the tall grass. Richard decided that we needed a closer look so off we went, through a dried up river bed to within 30m of Mike. What a gentleman he was, posing for us, rolling on his back and licking his paws! Richard told us how he’s built a very special relationship with this amazing animal over the years. Mike recognises his voice and knows that he’s not a threat which is why we were able to get so close to him. I was amazed at how relaxed the big cat was. His markings were incredibly beautiful. We spent a good 30 minutes with Mike, just savouring his presence, but didn’t want to overstay our welcome so started heading back to the open vehicle, our hearts full.
Cheetahs are listed on the IUCN Red List as Endangered and sadly their numbers are decreasing mainly due to habitat loss. Cheetahs belong in the wild, not in enclosures and certainly not in selfies! Education and awareness is so important to aid in their conservation. Apart from Mountain Zebra National Park, Samara Private Game Reserve is also making huge strides in cheetah conservation in the Karoo. You can read more here.
It was such a privilege to meet you Mike. I’m looking forward to seeing you again in the near future. Join me on this trip next time and come meet Mike for yourself!
FYI – persons over the age of 65 require a doctor’s certificate to state that they are medically fit to take part in the activity. Contact SANParks for bookings.
Photos: Aperture Art
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.“