Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Phinda Game Reserve Big Cats – Savour the Moments

Rather shockingly, a small amount of research about African animals reveals the following:
  • There were once 100 000 Black Rhinos in Africa, now there are approximately 2700.
  • In 1930 there were 5 – 10 million African Elephants and now we have less than 600 000.
  • 100 years ago African Wild Dog packs numbered up to 100 per pack seen on the Serengeti Plains. Now a pack is usually 10 dogs and we have about 1 500 dogs left in Africa.
  • The African Lion numbered 50 000 roaming free only about a decade ago. Now we have around 10 000.
  • In 1900 there were 100 000 wild cheetah in Africa, now the number is closer to 10 000.

Please note that the above statistics are unverified and should be taken as being approximate.
On the other side of the scale the world population figures read as follows:
  • 1800 - 1 billion
  • 2000 - 6 billion
  • 2012 – 7 billion

Have you got out of your seat yet?
The next statistic to look at is the land area of the earth. 150 million square kilometres (give or take a few) and the statistics claim:
  • In 1800 there were 6.7 people per square kilometre on earth
  • In 2012 there are 46.7 people per square kilometre on earth

Does this get your attention?

These statistics put a few things into perspective. Firstly, to see any animal roaming free is a miracle in itself and then we should all be shaking in our boots. At current world population growth our grandchildren may not have this same privilege.

In the light of this, each time I venture into the African bush, I count my blessings and know that every minute spent there is indeed special. The bucket list is long and Africa is a big continent, but before I die I will try to have visited every available corner to see and experience its incredible diversity.

This is my motivation to visit the East Coast of kwaZulu-Natal and Phinda Game Reserve where there are some special inhabitants of Africa.

The Cheetah is the smaller of the Big Cats of Africa, but it stands out head and shoulders above the others in various ways. In fact, the Cheetah could be referred to as the Formula 1 driver of the animal kingdom. Speed is its ultimate weapon. Cheetahs are reputed to be able to accelerate up to speeds of over 100km/h. I have also been witness to a single Cheetah female raising six cubs, singlehanded, to the age of one before they each made their way into the adult world. Therefore, if any opportunity presents itself to see a Cheetah will find me there!

Phinda Game Reserve is one such place. Here Cheetah can be found and observed and photographed with relative ease. It is, therefore, with great anticipation that we head out onto the Marsh area of the Phinda Reserve to find some Cheetahs. Our first find is a male coalition. They are on the move looking lean and hungry. We patiently shadow them. It soon becomes obvious that one of the two is injured. His front right leg has a growth on it and he limps badly. But, he is as fat as the other. Another special aspect of a Cheetah, they will look after each other if they need to.

As the injured Cheetah limps and lags behind, the stronger of the two boys is scouring the landscape for an opportunity. In the distance, ensconsed in the long grass, is a herd of Wildebeest grazing contentedly. Inamongst the herd is a young Wildebeest and the Cheetah locks him in his gaze. He silently moves forward, crouched down so that the Wildebeest will not see him and then he disappears in the long grass. Suddenly the Wildebeest scatter and the Cheetah is inamongst them. However, he has broken cover too soon and the mother Wildebeest locks the Cheetah in her gaze and sets off after him. The hunter is now the hunted. Exhausted, the two boys head off to rest and we head off to look for the Black Rhino.

Later that day the Cheetah are successful at their hunt, but sadly we did not see them. We only came across the two of them enjoying the spoils of their labour.

Our next encounter with Cheetah at Phinda comes after an early morning start heading off to the South of the reserve. Some scouting and tracking brings us to a mother with two cubs. They are also on the move looking decidedly hungry. We take up our position, keeping back a little and allowing them the room to find their prey. This time it takes a little longer and while “Fanie die Veldwagter” and his many assistants speculate on position, time, place etc the mother Cheetah makes her own plans.

The crew on the vehicle notices that the Cheetah is moving towards a herd of Impala that is upwind. In the long grass we can only see the tail and tips of the ears of the Cheetah. After much speculation we move the vehicle to a higher location with a view of the Impala herd. We wait. While we wait we lose sight of the Cheetah group and the impatient amongst us start voicing doubts as to whether anything will happen. And then, as on the previous day with the male coalition, the Impala herd suddenly scatters and we realise that the Cheetah has moved right past our vehicle, unseen, and she gives chase. She has selected a larger Impala and as she chases it, it becomes obvious that no kill is going to happen here today as the Impala leaps beyond her reach. Suddenly, she veers off to the right and locks onto a smaller Impala and in a flash she has taken it down.

She quickly drags the small fawn down the hill again and we are witness to still more of Africa’s unique moments. She is teaching her cubs to kill. The fawn is still alive and she leaves it for her cubs to kill. Although hard to bear from a humane perspective, this is nature at its ultimate. A mother, teaching her young how to survive.

As I write this, the goosebumps still appear and I savour, once more, this African experience that must, at all costs, be preserved for future generations.

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