Spots in the Sands

Sabi Sand | August 2020

With an estimated global population sitting at just over 7 000 individuals, cheetahs are listed globally as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. Within the Kruger National Park and the Greater Kruger area (a combined area of over 2.2 million hectares) there exists an estimated population of only 450 individuals. Combined with their low numbers and solitary habits, it’s no wonder then that cheetahs are one of the hardest animals to find and a noteworthy experience for those lucky few who do.

To obtain a successful cheetah population, there are a few key requirements. Two main factors include large open spaces for successful hunting as well as low densities of large carnivores.

The Sabi Sand game reserve is characterized predominantly by undulating broad-leaved woodland, interspersed by multiple drainage lines and dense riverine habitats. It is an area world famous for large carnivores with lion, leopard and spotted hyena numbers all well over the 100’s each. It is no surprise then that the local cheetah population is extremely low and why they have always been a species that has struggled to establish itself in the reserve. That being said, there still exists a niche for these slender speeders of the bush.

One of the very few areas that cheetahs are regularly seen is in the southern portion of the Singita Sabi Sand property. Travelling southwards on the property, multiple small drainage lines are crossed and thickets of bushwillow (Combretum spp.) and silver cluster-leaf (Terminalia sericea) are traversed before breaking out into a large, vast, wide and utterly stunning grassland area. It is here where cheetah have managed to eke out an existence and where we are privileged to enjoy consistent viewing of these beautiful cats.

There was a time where cheetah had all but disappeared from our area and some major concerns were raised regarding their population within the reserve. However, like most natural ecosystems, a balance is always formed and we started seeing an influx of these animals over the last year. A large adult male has set up permanently in the south and is our most regularly viewed individual. A young male is also seen from time to time but sightings of him have been irregular as he seems to be seeking out an area to establish himself. Towards the beginning of last year, a coalition of two young males also appeared on Singita and were seen on and off for a while before they moved off, but have since returned to the central parts of the reserve over the last few months.

A female cheetah was also being seen irregularly last year and it was always hoped that the larger adult male and this female would locate each other and copulate, and unbeknown to us, they did. It was the beginning of this year when the incredible news broke that one of our tracker teams discovered a small thicket deep in the southern reaches of our property which contained three tiny cheetah cubs. These were the first cubs born in the reserve after many years and the mother kept them well hidden for the first few months of their life. She unfortunately lost one but regular sightings of mom and the remaining two cubs are had and they are all doing exceptionally well, traversing the entire southern sections of the property.

An exciting future is in sight, as we are looking forward to watching the development of these youngsters as they find their place in the reserve and establish the next generation. The balance of the bush is a wonderful thing. Viewing this first hand with the unexpected success of these cheetah cubs punches a positive injection into the already very vulnerable population of this species. With tiny paws and wide curious eyes, the future is one big adventure for these two. A story yet to unfold, set in the rustling, busy thickets and hot dry riverbeds of Singita Sabi Sand.