DINOKENG’S CHEETAHS: A CONSERVATION SUCCESS STORY

Part Two

Vincent van der Merwe, EWT Carnivore Conservation Programme, Cheetah Metapopulation Coordinator, vincentv@ewt.org.za, and Stephan Prins, Dinokeng Game Reserve Conservation Manager

Read Part One here

She turned out to be a super mother and has successfully raised two litters to independence to date. She recently gave birth to her third litter and continues to perpetuate her excellent genetics. Her offspring have been relocated to Majete (Malawi), Lapalala (Waterberg), and Amakhosi (Zululand). She was so successful that we had to remove the two Lalibela males who fathered many of these cubs because they were now related to all the offspring on Dinokeng. It was a sad day removing the two Lalibela boys,  especially after adapting so well to life on the DGR. They were relocated to Pilanesberg, where we hard-released them onto the plains in front of the Mankwe restaurant. Shortly after their release, they treated Pilanesberg visitors to a magnificent sighting. They brought down an adult Wildebeest next to a koptjie close to Bakubung Lodge. A large male leopard came trotting down the koptjie after spotting what he thought was a free meal. Leopards are responsible for 9% of recorded Cheetah mortalities in South Africa. Several Pilanesberg guides watching the encounter thought this was the end of the Cheetah boys. However, it was not to be the case. The two Dinokeng males proceeded to give the Leopard one helluva pounding. The Leopard immediately rolled onto his back upon realising that these boys meant business. At the first opportunity to escape, he bolted and climbed a Boekenhout tree with his tail between his legs. One of these Dinokeng boys still lives on Pilanesberg to this day, where he continues to provide visitors with memorable sightings.

The Dinokeng males on Pilanesberg giving a resident leopard a good beating.

Shortly after the Pilanesberg affair, we hit a second bad Cheetah run on DGR. Two new males were brought in from Pilanesberg and Amakhala (Eastern Cape) to replace the male coalition relocated to Pilanesberg. Shortly after release, the Pilanesberg male was found caught in a kilometre-long snare line erected close to the reserve boundary with Hammanskraal. The Amakhala male was hit by a game drive vehicle in an unfortunate incident whereby he popped out of the bushes just as the vehicle was passing by. The collar of one of the Rietvlei female’s daughters was found tossed into a reedbed in the Pienaar’s River. It is not known how she was killed, but we suspect foul play on the part of humankind. Cheetah skins and body parts are sought-after items in African muthi markets. In one bit of good news, the Amakhala male visited the Rietvlei female shortly before being killed. A new generation of cubs was born, and we recorded population growth on the DGR, despite the recent spate of losses.

Regardless, the DGR Dinokeng found itself without an adult male Cheetah, and the Cheetah Range Expansion Project of the Endangered Wildlife Trust moved quickly to find a replacement. The only candidate was a rather strange fellow from Gondwana Game Reserve in the Western Cape. Shortly after his release, Dinokeng management conducted a Lion call-up on the reserve. Lion call-ups are performed to count Lion numbers on reserves and entail blasting out the Lion’s favourite tunes over loudspeakers: squealing Warthogs, sickly Buffalo groans, and alarming Impalas. A zebra carcass was placed in front of the management vehicles to keep the lions busy whilst pride individuals were identified. To management’s absolute dismay, the new Gondwana male arrived on the scene and proceeded to place himself on top of the zebra carcass to have a good vantage of passing wildlife. Management scrambled to switch the lion tunes off for fear of setting the perfect trap for their newly arrived Cheetah.

After a scary start, the Gondwana male slowly started to establish himself as the dominant male on Dinokeng. By March 2021, he had impregnated every female on Dinokeng, including the Rietvlei female, three of her daughters, and a newly arrived female from Welgevonden Game Reserve. By this time, DGR’s Cheetah population had increased to twenty-five individuals, and we observed behaviour rarely seen in the Cheetah world. GPS data obtained from satellite collars fitted to Dinokeng’s Cheetah showed how the Rietvlei female with her five cubs met up with her eldest daughter and her six cubs. The cubs were born two weeks apart and were roughly the same size. It must have been a delightful sighting: mum and daughter reuniting and their combined eleven cubs playing about in the veld with newfound friends. By the time the two adult females separated, four cubs ran off with the Rietvlei female, and seven ran off with her daughter. Allomothering or non-maternal infant care is parenting performed by any group member other than the mother or genetic father. It is a widespread phenomenon amongst mammals and birds. It has been observed in both Lions and Leopards, but rarely in cheetahs.

The success of the Dinokeng Cheetah reintroduction can be attributed to several factors. The Cheetah is a remarkably adaptable species able to acclimatise to new environments with different climatic variables, prey densities and varieties, and a diverse array of competing predators. This biological reality, combined with a highly dedicated management team at the DGR, and the supporting metapopulation network coordinated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, has allowed the Dinokeng Cheetah population to flourish despite several setbacks. The emotions involved in managing wildlife range from heartbreak to truly rewarding moments that make it all worthwhile. Last month one of the five Dinokeng females was found dead in a stream adjacent to a snaring line. Her paws had been hacked off and her skin removed. This devastating news was followed by prompt management action to locate her five three-week-old cubs.

GPS collar data were evaluated, and a possible denning site identified. One by one, Dinokeng management captured the cubs with nets. The first four cubs, all young males, were easily retrieved whilst the fifth was still missing. DGR Manager, David Boshoff, instructed the monitoring team not to abandon the site but to sit in absolute silence in the capture area for twenty minutes to confirm with certainty that the fifth cub was no longer around. About fifteen minutes into the sitting, a small squeak was heard emanating from a nearby clump of bushes. Rangers responded and captured the fifth cub, this time a little female.

Collar fitted to one of the orphans (Carmen Warmehove)

All five cubs will go through an 18-month wilding process, under the auspices of Kevin Richardson, before release back into the wilds of the Dinokeng Game Reserve and other metapopulation reserves. These actions demonstrate the true grit and determination of a management team tasked with protecting Critically Endangered wildlife in the most developed and densely populated province on the continent. Their actions demonstrate that it is possible to pull Africa’s charismatic large mammal fauna through the next 100 years of exponential human population growth and economic development forecast for the continent.

The Cheetah Range Expansion Project is a collaborative project between 63 Cheetah reserves in southern Africa and is coordinated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust. The project is funded by National Geographic, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Seremed, and the Ford Wildlife Foundation. The EWT would like to thank Etienne Toerien, David Boshoff, Stephan Prins, Jaco Naude, Matt Temperley, and Mike Daymond for their dedicated efforts to monitor and manage the Dinokeng Cheetahs.