Mystery cheetah

Several mornings in a row we saw a female cheetah hanging out in the road on our way south and we’ve been trying to identify her.


Initially we thought she was one of the 3 sisters. They are nearly 2 years old so they’ll be splitting up soon. Adult female cheetahs are solitary whereas males usually hang out in coalitions. 

But Cilla finally recognised her as a cheetah that hasn’t been seen in over a year. It’s possible she left Phinda for a while. Her sister and brother have reputations for being escape artists. Still, it’s good to know she’s alive and well!

And now for something completely different…

… spotted hyena!

Hyena are crepuscular, meaning they are active at dawn and dusk. They are also highly intelligent (right after whales and dolphins), matriarchal, and more successful predators than lions. I had a chance to visit a hyena den that was reported to have young cubs. I was surprised at how big they were; females can be up to 70 kg. Here’s the matriarch who is also the mom of the cubs:


We did see 2 cubs, and they were super cute. At 4 weeks old, they are fluffy and dark grey, which means they didn’t show up well on my camera. Here’s mom checking to see if they are coming out of the den:


Interesting fact: UC Berkeley sued Disney because of its negative depiction of hyenas in The Lion King. UCB had allowed Disney animators to model the movement of their animated hyena on UCB’s captive research hyena clan with the stipulation that hyenas be portrayed positively. If you’ve seen The Lion King you know how that went. Evidently Disney settled. 

Bush eyes

It’s amazing how much Meg, Cilla, and the other pros can see at a glance. When one of us volunteers points at a vague shape in the distance and wonders aloud whether it’s an animal or a rock, Meg can glance at it (while driving) and recognize not only that it’s a rhino but also whether it’s black or white rhino. They all assure that it’s just a matter of time before we develop “bush eyes.”

Case in point: one of the rangers spotted the lion sunning itself at the top of this rock:


Yeah, I couldn’t see it either without lots of pointing and some good binoculars.

Staying at the deep end of the gene pool

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Phinda sometimes sends animals to other reserves, but never really said why. 

It’s mostly to help with genetic diversity. Since Phinda is fenced in, new animals can only arrive with human intervention (except leopard, hyenas and wild dogs, they just ignore the fences). So in order to prevent inbreeding, it’s common for managed reserves to swap out their breeding males. They prefer to keep the females since that means they get to keep the offspring, like these super cute lion cubs hiding in the grass:


So for example, Phinda is sending those 2 male cheetahs that we darted and collared to another reserve. After they have left, a third reserve is sending 2 male cheetahs to Phinda to take their place. 

Population control is another reason to send animals elsewhere. For example, Phinda can support no more than 3 prides of lions. So those 2 males that we darted on my first day won’t be back filled. 

Another reason is to increase the range of a species. This is especially true for rhino. Phinda is part of a couple of programs that reintroduce rhino to other areas of Africa where they were previously hunted out. It’s pretty exciting to help (hopefully) bring a species back to where it used to be! Check out this baby rhino, just 4 months old. 

Pride dynamics 

Remember those two lions we darted back in the beginning? We’ve been keeping an eye out for their brother who was left behind. We finally found him. 

He’s trying to move back in with his parents. 

It’s a bit hard to see in the pic below, but he’s sitting at the top of the hill, a bit right of center. The lionesses and cubs below are watching him. 

(We couldn’t get any closer because there was a bull elephant in the way). 

He’s two years old and big for his age, so the pride probably sees him as more of a hindrance than a help. He’s another mouth to feed and a big one at that. He’s old enough to fend for himself. 

Since this pic was taken, there have been 2 instances of rangers hearing what they think is lions fighting, so it seems that they are still working  things out. We’ll see what happens!

The jerk store called…

…and they’re running out of him:

Meet Cheetah Male 254 and for those of you who aren’t Seinfeld fans, this cheetah is a jerk. When Meg saw him she mentioned that he’s a bit of a bully and is know to run off other cheetah. We followed him for an hour. He was clearly following the scent of something. 

Turns out he was following a mother cheetah and her three cubs (the mother and cubs who were our first cheetah sighting back in week 1).

And not because he wanted to give her flowers. 

He stalked up and then pounced on her. 

Although she got one good swipe in, she quickly became quite submissive. He sauntered around for a while and then eventually stalked off. 

Similar to lions, male cheetahs sometimes kill cubs in order to get rid of the competition’s offspring and send females back into heat. It’s not clear why this guy just showed dominance and then left. He might be the cubs’ father. I’m just glad the cubs are ok!

Elephants on the move

When it rains, the elephants head to the south end of the reserve in order to feed on the grass that will pop up afterwards. Last week it rained and we’ve stayed in the north, so it’s been a few days since ellies. But they’ve started moving north again, so we set out to intercept them. There’s something pretty cool about sitting in a forest, hearing the telltale snap of branches, but not being able to see the elephants that you know are all around you. Like I said before, they can be quite stealthy.


It’s also cool to see them peeking out of the trees, smelling the air with their trunks. 


We ended up seeing elephants from 3 different herds, including a cute little calf. 


Elephants are constantly moving, even throughout the night. They also tend to not want to deviate from their course. Thankfully our vehicle has a new battery, so we could back up if needed. 


The last ellie we saw was a big bull. Even after seeing a few dozen elephants before him, he was still quite big!

Calling in a favour

Remember that ranger we helped when he had a flat tire? He has returned the favour. 

We were recording 5 lionesses at Imagine Dam (2 adults, 3 sub adults). When the animal are stationary and you’re moving in close, it’s typical to turn off the engine so as not to disturb the animals.

It’s also typical for the engine to turn back on when you decide to move. But ours didn’t. These vehicles can be jumpstarted with a rolling start but it’s not like we could get out and push with such an attentive audience. 


Fortunately our friend was also watching the lions and was able to give us a push. 

His guests also got a great view of the animals in the meantime:


Things that made this even more exciting:

  • We had just fed a hunk of antelope to a cheetah so we probably smelled tasty. In fact, we realised later there was still a tiny scrap of antelope on the vehicle. 
  • One of the adults was clearly cranky, based on how she was grumbling at one of the subadults and how her ears were flattened 


But Meg was calm throughout and explained that as long as we sat still and quiet in our vehicle we should be fine. It was morning, heading towards nap time for the lions, and they were pretty stationary. If our friendly ranger hadn’t been there we could have radioed for a vehicle to come to our aid. Still, makes for a good story!

A rhino by any other name

I noticed a term that I didn’t recognise being used on the radio so I asked Meg about it. Turns out it’s bad etiquette to say “rhino” on the radio, kinda like how you shouldn’t say “MacBeth” in a theatre. While the MacBeth taboo is based on superstition, the rhino taboo is in case poachers are listening. 

With most of the big animals, if you see something you say something: If you see a lion, you call it in in case someone wants to join you at the sighting. We don’t want to give poachers any info on where rhino can typically be found, so typically rhinos are never called in. The exception is if someone is looking specifically for rhino, for example if it’s a guest’s last day and they haven’t seen any yet, or if my team needs assistance locating a particular rhino. That’s when we use the code words. I’d tell what they are, but then I’d have to dehorn you. 

Poaching is a huge concern. 3 rhino a day are lost to poaching in South Africa. Phinda dehorns its rhinos in an effort to deter poachers. Usually if I am taking a picture of a rhino it’s about to be dehorned. 

Some reserves ask that nobody post pics of their rhino at all on social media, but Phinda doesn’t have that restriction since they are well known for their rhinos already. I asked Cilla what some of the other anti-poaching restrictions are. Guests and rangers are not allowed to take cell phones on drives (our team is exempt from that). If a reserve is transporting a rhino elsewhere, it shouldn’t be discussed on social media so that poachers can’t intercept them en route (duly noted). If a reserve has rhino in an enclosure (typical when they are being introduced to new location), that should never be publicized since they are sitting ducks. It all makes sense when you stop to think about it, but it’s not the sort of thing most people think about. 

Eau de lioness

We saw these 2 sub-adult males at ones of the dams. They are just starting to get a bit of peach fuzz for their manes. 

I asked Meg if the one in front was snarling at us. Turns out he’s scenting the air using a scent gland in the roof of his mouth, probably looking for the 2 females we saw here the day before.