South Africa is probably best known for its wildlife. People travel for thousands of miles just to catch a glimpse of the elusive Big Five: Elephants, Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Lions, and Leopards. But in the nearly 4 weeks I’ve been here, the most wildlife I’ve seen is a few zebras and bush bucks. This past week, I had the chance to get much more intimate with African animals.
Just up the road from where we stayed during our Wild Coast romp is Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve. One sunny morning, a cheerful ranger picked us up in a Land Rover and drove us up to the reserve. He led us into a large pen, and there we came face-to-face with 3 adult cheetahs.
It is hard to describe the feeling of coming in contact with a predator like that. I expected to be somewhat fearful, but as soon as I began petting their rough fur I stopped thinking of them as predators. They were perfectly docile, laying about like big house cats.
These kitties loved getting their necks and backs rubbed. When we scratched their backs, they purred contentedly and rolled over. The only difference from a pet cat was that their purrs sounded like the revving of a Harley Davidson. That, and their 3-inch long claws.
It was only when they stood up that their real nature was revealed. Skulking along in the shadows, their lithe haunches rose and fell in a rhythmic manner, displaying the rippling muscles underneath. These animals are built for nothing but speed. Unlike the bulky lion, they are tall and reedy, ready to launch into speeds of 60-plus mph is less than 3 seconds.
These three are siblings, two male and one female. They were rescued at 3 days old, after a lion killed their mother. As human encroachment shrinks the big cats’ hunting grounds, lions have become the cheetahs biggest threat.
These cubs were hand-raised for 7 1/2 years now. Because a human can never teach a cheetah how to hunt the way a mother cheetah could, the reserve resigned to the fact that these 3 would never be released into the wild. However, to give them a chance to stretch their powerful legs, the rangers let them out to run in the open spaces of the reserve every once in a while. On one of these outings, the female cheetah spotted an emu. Instinct kicked in, and she went after with all of her speed and might. The rangers watched on, amazed, as she took the giant bird by its neck and brought it to the ground. Clearly, she was ready for the wild.
As a result of her spectacular demonstration, the reserve will be releasing all three cheetahs into the park in the near future. Hopefully they will also be introducing mating partners for them as well, to increase the dwindling cheetah population.
Inkwenkwezi is a beautiful reserve, and is clearly invested in the animals which it protects. Along with the cheetahs, it also has a breeding program for the extremely rare white lion. We didn’t get the chance to interact with any of the other wildlife on this visit, but driving past the reserve on our way home we saw two magnificent African Elephants. They were at a small watering pond, where one had managed to fit his whole body underwater and was doing somersaults. These clever guys had figured out the best way to cool off on a very hot day, and I was jealous.
Visiting the reserve and meeting the cheetahs reminded me that the heart and soul of South Africa is her wildlife and nature. I can’t wait to get up close and personal with the wildlife again soon.