With uncertain steps into freedom
With great hope the cheetah female "Iketle" was released in Madikwe Game Reserve last Friday. Rhulani Safari Lodge, a main sponsor of the project, was there.
On the landcruiser, Rhulani's guests look skeptically at the sky. Thick clouds are hanging there, first raindrops begin to fall. It is Friday the 13th May. For the tricky project, we will assist today, these are matching conditions, we say ironically.
At the cheetah boma we meet Declan Hofmeyr, Operations Manager of Madikwe. At short distance, from inside the boma, with her charming little face, "Iketle", the young cheetah female, is curiously watching towards us.
Declan slits the belly open of a dead impala with his knife. The entrails fall to the ground, blood flows out. Disgusting, I think, but Iketle peeps through the wire mesh even more attentively. She has not eaten for four days. The trick to lure her with a carcass from the boma could work.
"This time we are very optimistic," says Declan. He puts the knife back and heaves the half impala on the loading area of the bakkie. Declan had already suffered some serious setbacks with this project. Two years ago a first female was too wild and had to be given away. Last year, two cheetah sisters died, one during the preparation phase in the boma, the other got killed shortly after release.
"Iketle is different," says Declan. Her Setswana name means "patience". An appropriate name for this project, and it matches "Rhulani" which has the same meaning in Schangaan language. Shortly before arriving here, Iketle had to witness the kill of her mother and sister by lions. “This experience will have a positive effect on her chances of survival", guesses Declan. A few sun rays penetrate through the clouds. A beautiful rainbow is formed over Madikwe.
The boma gate opens. Declan drives in with the delicious delivery on the back. Iketle observes it from a distance, a bit puzzled. Declan secures the carcass on a rope. Then, slowly slowly, he moves out of the boma again, pulling the impala behind the bakkie. The result is a trail of blood on the ground.
Iketle smells the track. Hesitantly she comes out of her hiding place. The hunger is greater than the fear. With uncertain steps she approaches the open boma gate, looking anxiously around. The feast is ready, just twenty meters in front of her. However, in an unknown area, outside the boma fence.
From the landcruiser, we witness this heartbreaking moment in absolut silence. The beautiful big cat is standing on unsteady legs just in front of us. Practically at the finish line. How beautiful she is! A skinny body, a cute face, a magnificent drawing on the skin. Iketle is 24 months old but seems to be younger. "Please, please, go a few steps forward," says our inner voice.
Iketle takes courage and gets closer to the carcass. The nose ahead. Finally, she is outside the boma. She grabs the prey. Instinctively she tries to pull the impala back in the boma. Unsuccessfully. The rope prevents it. Declan pulls the carcass a little further from the boma away. Iketle follows, well done! Slowly, she begins to nibble on the prey.
Iketle is now relaxed. She is really hungry and only sporadically looks around. So, she does not realize, as behind her the big boma gate gets closed. Operation succeeded, Iketle is free!
We take a deep breath. We see a satisfied smile on Declan's face. "Since 2008 we are trying to build a stable cheetah population", he explains to Rhulani’s guests. "Today is a great day!"
Iketle stands up and begins to explore the area around her. Declan will follow her first movements closely to ensure that she is doing well. “A milestone will be when she makes her first kill.”
We say goodbye to Declan and start the engine. Night falls over Madikwe. In distance we see first thunder-flashes in the dark. On our Landcruiser, we remain silent when slowly driving back to Rhulani. The wonders of nature have touched us.
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