I had no idea of the experience that was about to unfold in front of us. We had been following the cheetah tracks for over an hour on that crisp Lowveld morning, and I was very excited when our guide got us off the vehicle to approach her last position on foot. It’s such a liberating feeling leaving the noise of the radio, the growls of the diesel engine and the separation from nature they bring. Suddenly you are in a world where you must be mindful of every step and sound, a place where the wild things are.
The cheetah we were following had eventually been located with telemetry: she had a chip implanted in her. Some of the purists may say this is no way to find an animal, but the fact of the matter is that this enables the collection of data essential to the survival of her species. When you consider that there are probably well under a thousand cheetah left in South Africa the research opportunities this can provide seem invaluable.
Just as I was savouring the bird song and the scent of crushed wild sage under our boots we came through a thicket and there she was. My first emotion was awe, my second confusion. We were eight metres away from a wild cheetah, and she wasn’t even looking at us. Something stirred under her belly: she was suckling! Four fluffy cubs hungrily drank from her teats. And to top it all off, she was purring contently. I could not believe what I was seeing. I whispered to our guide Michael “Surely this cheetah was at some stage hand-reared?” He explained that she had been followed by the researchers from a young age, and was now completely relaxed in the presence of humans.
We sat in wonder with that regal queen for a couple of delicious minutes, soaking up the atmosphere she commanded and reveling in an opportunity afforded to very few humans. And then we had to tear our eyes away from that precious family and leave them to their cheetah business. We hardly spoke on the way back to the vehicle, I imagine everyone was listening to their hearts beating a little louder and trying to process the magic of the encounter we had just had. I certainly was. I was once told by an animal communicator that certain individual wild animals may cross the boundaries of tolerance to humans for the greater good of their species. Perhaps that is a bit far-fetched for some, but regardless, we left Karongwe with a greater sense of connection to one of the world’s most elegant creatures.