Darting my last cheetah

It’s fitting that Mike the  vet darted cats on my first and last days at Phinda. 

A while ago this female cheetah was seen with what we thought were burn marks on her legs. 


Meg sent a photo to the vet and it turns out the cheetah has mange. So we’ve been trying to find her again in order to treat her. A ranger finally got a good view of her, so we joined him and called Mike the vet. An hour later Mike was on the scene with his trusty dart gun. 


Whenever an animal is darted, they run a bit. You’d be startled too if someone shot you in the derrière. You can see the dart in the left side of the cheetah’s rump. 


The darts used for cheetah have a dissolving needle so they fall out on their own. 

Next we tracked the cheetah to where it went down, thankfully in the shade. Because the meds slow their breathing, you always have to worry about darted animals overheating. Given how bad this cat’s mange was, I was happy we didn’t have to move her to a shadier spot. If you look at her legs you can see why the Zulu name for this is “the burning sickness”:


Mike injected her with medicine and then gave her the reversing agent for the tranquilliser. We settled in to wait for her to get up. She was pretty woozy but eventually got back on her feet. She should only need that single dose of meds, but the monitoring team will be keeping an eye on her for a while. 

And with that, my time at Phinda was over! I was sad to leave, but looking forward to vacation with Grimbil at another reserve. 

New arrivals

Break out the cigars, there has been a birth at Phinda! 

We’ve been closely monitoring the lions of Mountain pride in order to gather data for a lion researcher who is coming to visit. So we knew one of the 2 adult females was pregnant. We also learned that the yearling cubs like to climb trees. 


Then one day nobody could find the pride. The rangers and our team spent 2 days trying to find them. Finally one morning tracks were found leading up a hillside. We drove to the other side of the hill to see if tracks came back down, leaving a ranger and tracker on foot to follow the tracks up. 

We couldn’t find tracks leading down, so we went back to see how the other group got on. We met them back at their vehicle and noticed they looked rather flushed and sweaty. Turns out they found a lioness in the rocks at the top of the hill. She “revved” them, i.e. rumbled at them in a very clear “get the heck out of here” way, so they beat a quick retreat. This is her sister but still, imagine getting “revved” by this:


She has split off from the rest of the pride, which is typical when a lioness gives birth. So between that and her aggressive reaction, the theory is she is denning in the rocks at the top of the hill, and gave birth sometime in the last 2 days. She’ll keep the cubs in the den for a month. The area will be off limits to all humans until she brings the cubs out. Exciting news!

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.

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!

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.