The ebb and flow of nature and the bush is ever-changing. There are times of plenty and there are times when the constant struggle for survival becomes more evident. Here at Thanda Safari Private Game Reserve, located in northern Zululand, we are experiencing an abundance of furry feline babies at the moment. The thrill of bumping into either our five lion or three cheetah cubs gambolling around on the property is one of the most exciting prospects of being out in the bush right now. Just to spend time with these innocent little creatures warms the heart of even the most hardened human. Their playful antics, however, hide the fact that in time they will grow into fully-fledged carnivores, hunting down prey in the need to fill their bellies and the bellies of those that may depend on them.
Being part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Cheetah metapopulation project – a project launched in June 2011 which aims to manage cheetahs in smaller, fenced reserves as one national population – we have the responsibility of growing the cheetah database and creating opportunities to expand the genetic diversity of this endangered cat. Working alongside the EWT, and other reserves around the country, Thanda is aiming to exchange wild bred and raised cheetah with these reserves, thereby ensuring the survival of these majestic speed machines.
Keeping this in mind, you can imagine how excited we are that one of our female cheetahs has given birth to her second litter of cubs. She sadly lost her entire first litter (not an uncommon occurrence for first-time mothers) but is currently raising three of her second litter very successfully, no doubt having learnt from her past experience. She is a much more attentive and responsible mother this time around, teaching and guiding her cubs far more adeptly. These cubs (as with all cubs on the reserve) are being habituated to the Safari vehicles in an extremely methodical and calculated way. For the first few months we zone off the area where we believe the cubs to be, and then very slowly and cautiously start introducing them to the vehicles, under strict guidelines from our wildlife management team. In conducting this habituation process over a prolonged period, whilst gauging the reaction and behaviour of these extremely vulnerable cubs, we are able to ensure that they become relaxed and confident around vehicles. Their becoming accustomed to vehicles in this way means we are able to offer amazing sightings to our guests, providing them with an unforgettable experience, and one that will stay in their hearts and minds forever.
Moving onto lions.
At the moment we have five lion cubs, born to two different lionesses, running amok on Thanda. Three cubs were born to our eldest female, an exceptional mother, who has successfully raised four other litters, is now doing the same with her fifth litter. The other two cubs were born to her daughter, a remarkable lioness in her own right, who has had one previous litter. Like her own mother, she is a brilliant mother and guardian of those that are entrusted to her care.
Some of you may be scratching your heads as to why these usually extremely prolific breeders have had so few cubs, given that the average litter for a lioness is between 4-6 cubs. The answer is a simple mathematical equation. On average a game reserve can accommodate one lion per thousand hectares so Thanda, being 14 900 hectares, has a desired lion population of 15 animals. Since we are a fenced reserve, it is an unavoidable fact that we need to control the population of some of our species in order to maintain an ecological balance. In trying to maintain this equilibrium we are ethically obliged to intervene where we deem necessary. One of the ways that we can retain and continue the natural balance of this ecosystem is by performing unilateral ovarian hysterectomies on our lionesses. This operation, performed by a qualified veterinarian, involves the removal of one ovary and one of the uterine horns. The result of the procedure is that we effectively halve the number of fertile eggs produced and therefore reduce the number of cubs that can be born. This may seem like a drastic measure, but it is a vital step in ensuring the longevity and genetic diversity of our lion population, and the future growth of Thanda as a conservation area and tourist destination for years to come.
Sorry but I digress; the subject of this article is “A time of plenty”. If your idea of plenty involves unbelievable lion and cheetah cub sightings, with incredible photographic opportunities of these cute, rambunctious balls of fluff – whose greatest ambition is undoubtedly to become a revered predator one day – then right now Thanda Safari is indeed a place experiencing a time of plenty.