Ibala & Ukuthaba, together with 3 other cheetah, originally came to us about 3 years ago from Shangani, about 100km from Bulawayo. All 5 males were “problem animals” & we were asked to trap them & take them away, otherwise they would probably have been destroyed. We took them in & all 5 males have formed the major part of our Cheetah Breeding & Research Programme.
I arrived as a volunteer from the UK in late 2002 & it has been my job (& fulfillment of a dream of a lifetime) to spend many hours studying our cheetah. Nqobani, one of our Ndebele ground staff, was working with these cheetah long before my arrival & has assisted me throughout my time here & also in my absence. What a pleasure this has been, caring for these wonderful creatures & we shall both miss these 2 boys terribly.
After much study, this particular pair of cheetah have shown only little interest in our female, Ollie. Consequently, Viv Wilson, Executive Director of Chipangali Wildlife Trust & Head of the Research Unit, decided it would be appropriate to return them to the wild. Footage of the whole release process was to be filmed. Oregon Zoo in the United States has supported our Research Unit tremendously over the years. The zoo’s Curator of Carnivores, Chris Peppercorn, informed us they had 4 more radio collars to donate to Chipangali. Arrangements were put in place & Chris flew over to assist in the release, bringing the collars with him & arriving in Zimbabwe on Friday 30 January.
Fitting radio collars
Ukuthaba & Ibala were fed their last meal at Chipangali on Friday afternoon; their last until Monday, as the drugs which were to be used to tranquilize them, had to be administered on an empty stomach.
On Saturday 31 January Kevin Wilson, Director of Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage, prepared the darts with which to tranquilize both cheetah. Ukuthaba is our youngest cheetah & is much smaller than Ibala, so needed less of the sedating drug. The cost of drugs has soared & continues to rise dramatically, often on a daily basis, along with everything else in Zimbabwe, so we had to get it right first time. The pressure, as always in this game, was on. Kevin took aim through the fence, choosing Ukuthaba first, since being far more active than Ibala, he might prove difficult to knock down. Kevin’s aim was on target & the darted Ukuthaba ran for the cover of a tree, laid down & watched us. Within one minute, Ibala had also been brought down & chose safety in numbers by joining Ukuthaba under the tree.
Everything must be done to precision when using drugs on animals, so timing was foremost in our minds. We knew that we must wait for at least 15 minutes to ensure the drugs had taken full effect, prior to approaching either animal. When we were certain both cheetah were out for the count, we worked fast. We kept a constant check on their breathing, heart rate & temperature, to ensure the drugs were not harming either animal in any way. Ukuthaba reacted badly to one of the drugs, but soon came out of it. Nonetheless, my heart went out to him. We move them along Lovers Lane where they used to court Ollie, gently laying them down on the grass in the area prepared for the next stage.
Viv Wilson took recordings of their vital statistics for future reference & monitoring purposes. Each cheetah was given a full medical examination & both were fitted with highly visible, fluorescent radio collars. In this way we will be able to monitor their movements through tracking devices & also through reports of sightings from visitors to the Park. Many measurements were taken & we also weighed both cheetah, Ibala weighing in at 55kg, Ukuthaba at 45kg – quite a difference between the 2 of them. Upon checking their teeth, we found each to have a perfect set. Having given each a de-worming injection & ensured we had recorded every detail needed from these animals, we transferred them into 2 transporting cages filled with lots of soft grass, & carefully loaded them onto the back of our pickup. Our transporting cages allow sufficient room for each cheetah to stand & turn around comfortably.
Off to the National Park
Early the next morning, Sunday 1 February, our small convoy of 3 vehicles, slowly made its way to Hwange National Park. It was a very hot day with clear blue skies & the cages were covered to allow the cheetah maximum comfort under the circumstances. Upon arrival at Giraffe Springs, the area in the Park where we intended to make the release, we gently offloaded Ibala & Ukuthaba into a peaceful area under the shade of some trees, allowing little sun to reach them. We gave each a large bowl of fresh water & left them to settle down in these new, unfamiliar surroundings, not wanting to put further undue stress on them after their ordeal. Although we were all very excited about the release, these guys would have no idea what was happening to them, nor what our intentions were. We can only imagine what goes on inside the mind of a cheetah at a time such as this.
Later that afternoon our release team took a drive around to see what other game were in the area & to choose the perfect release site. We sighted 2 other cheetah in the area, whom we hoped our boys might locate & join up with. We were on the lookout for other predators who could seriously threaten the lives of our cheetah, both by harming them & by robbing them of their hard-earned kills. We needed a flat, open area, rich in small antelope such as impala, one of their favourite meals, to afford them the best chance of securing their first prey.
The area we chose is fantastic & is known as “Sharpe’s Pan”. There is a viewing platform overlooking the whole of the area, giving a panoramic view of what the area might have in store for our boys. Zimbabwe is out of its dry season & currently well into the rainy season, & the heavy rains over the preceding couple of weeks have been very kind to Hwange indeed. There is a large waterhole at Sharpe’s Pan where all species of animal come to drink in the dry season, when the surrounding areas are very dry. Now, however, these surrounding areas are absolutely full of large areas of water, enabling the game to drink wherever they wish, under the cover & safety of bushes & trees, & in the case of our cheetah, grasses way above their heads. The need for animals to make the often dangerous journey to the waterhole, in full view of potential predators has, for now at least, passed. Sharpe’s Pan fulfills all these requirements & more besides. We were satisfied we had found our release site.
The night was peaceful, with no predators around to put Ukuthaba & Ibala under more stress. Early the next morning, National Parks very kindly donated a full grown impala to feed to our boys prior to their release. We were extremely grateful for this – Ibala & Ukuthaba much more so! Meat has been very scarce at the Orphanage for many weeks &, although we try very hard on a daily basis to find meat for our animals, this was the most these guys had eaten in a long time!
Fed, watered, rested & largely stress-free (the cheetah, not us), our boys were finally ready to be taken out to Sharpe’s Pan, for the start of the next big adventure life has in store for them. We loaded Ukuthaba & Ibala one final time onto our pickup. It was necessary to drive off-road to reach the chosen release site & getting bogged down in deep mud & water was always a threat, even with 4x4s. We carefully offloaded the cheetah, placing the cages side by side, set up our filming equipment once more, both on the ground & up on the platform, & positioned ourselves for the big moment. And what a moment it was.
Ibala, free once more
Key members of Viv’s Research Unit, Makosi & Collen, stood by at the cages. Viv & Makosiclimbed up onto them & opened up the doors. Ukuthaba, our young cheetah, sporting his newfluorescent yellow collar, left the security of his cage with surprising confidence, consideringthe unfamiliar sounds & scents now surrounding him. Ibala, wearing his fluorescent orangecollar, was only a few steps behind, perhaps more cautious due to his age & experience in thebush, giving him more reason to wonder what the “catch” might be. Both cheetah walked straight ahead in the direction of the viewing platform, affording Kevin some wonderful release footage. Rain water had formed a large natural waterhole a short distance from their cages & one by one, both cheetah stopped & leant forward for a drink, right in front of us all. They had both been drinking within the last half hour or so back at the camp, so this is perhaps another indication of just how relaxed & confident these cheetah were, both with us & with the whole situation.
Ibala’s instincts & experience pushed him slowly towards cover of the bush, whilst Ukuthaba’s youth & curiosity was pushing him in the other direction, into the open, towards the waterhole. Once Ibala was about to disappear into the bush, however, Ukuthaba moved swiftly across to join him, perhaps worried for the first time of being alone in this new environment. I joined Kevin up on the platform to monitor their progress, as they pushed deeper into the bush. The last time I saw them, they were lying together under the shade of a tree quite a distance away, rolling over & over & over, legs waving in the air, rubbing their heads in the grass, as if to say “We did it! We’re free!” They then lay together grooming each other, licking each other’s heads & faces again & again, another sign of their being wonderfully relaxed & extremely content with each other & with their freedom.
Tracking using telemetry
With the use of our telemetry equipment, also very kindly donated by Oregon Zoo some time ago, we were able to tune into both of their signals shortly before releasing them, to ensure each of their radio collars was working prior to letting them go. As our boys walked off into the bush, Viv switched the equipment on, pointed the antenna in their direction & picked up both signals loud & clear. We were in business. Every morning & evening for the next couple of days following the release, we successfully tracked them via telemetry, although we didn’t actually see them again during the 2 weeks our team spent in the Park. They were keeping very much to the area in which they were released, perhaps surveying the layout & marking their new territory.
Over the next 10 days or so, our research team had other commitments to fulfill with radio collared animals from previous releases, so were only able to return to Sharpe’s Pan every few days. Each time, their signals grew weaker as they moved deeper into the bush, further from the road & from our vehicles. In normal circumstances, we would have driven off-road in order to try & pick up their signals, but after the heavy rains, this proved impossible even for our 4×4 Landrover & support vehicles. After 2 weeks, both cheetah were now completely out of range, indicating they had moved more than 3km into the bush, away from the road, & therefore out of range of our equipment. Only time will tell how they fare & I can’t wait to go back someday & find them once more.
Goodbye boys & Good luck
We have high hopes for Ibala & Ukuthaba & wish them well,
wherever their journeys may take them.
Written by Zoë Lapthorn – 2004