Most guests experience the thrill of seeing a mother cheetah and cubs up in the marsh area in the northern section of the reserve, or a solitary male patrolling his territory on the plains of the south.
Some of my favourite memories from my days at Phinda involve watching these beautiful and regal animals in their natural environment. They have to be forever alert and watchful as although they are blessed with incredible speed, when it comes to strength they are no match for the lion or leopard. As the female is solely responsible for the rearing of her cubs she has a tough job trying to protect them from other predators and hunt for them at the same time.
One of the most beautiful stories to unfold on the reserve started off on a very sad note, involving a cheetah female with four cubs who were seen regularly by our guests while on game drives. One day, to the horror of onlookers, two lions sprang out of the long undergrowth in a full on attack on the cheetah family, which sent them all running in different directions. Once the dust had settled, the mother cheetah called and tracked down her cubs, but only three responded to her calls. It was a very somber group of guests who returned to the lodge that day – everyone sure that the fourth cub had been caught and killed by the lions.
A few days later another female cheetah who had four much younger cubs, was spotted by the guides. There she was with all four of her cubs and a fifth older cub as well. This was the lost cub that we had all assumed had been killed. This mother cheetah had adopted him as her own. Jubilation ensued when the story spread around the Lodge. For a predator to adopt another predator’s young and raise it as her own is so uncommon it is almost unheard of.
Although the first cheetah mother may have grieved the loss of one of her cubs at first, nature is not easy in the wild and she would have accepted it and been glad to have the remaining three. Lions are lazy hunters, and having been confused by the rapid dispersal of the cheetah family we can only assume they must have eventually lost interest.
The fourth cub stayed with his new family and grew up to be a strong and healthy male. He was a regular sight – often on a termite mound surveying his territory or out on the hunt.
How amazing to watch this miracle unfold. To see this scenario develop in front of our eyes, and turn from tragedy into a miracle in the course of a few days will be remembered for many years to come by those of us who witnessed it.