Bitter-Sweet Cheetah Day

A rewilding success story or a man induced failure?

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As the sun came up in the cool winter’s air over the Addo Elephant National Park (Eastern Cape, South Africa) this morning (Wednesday 17 May) a sense of sorrow mingled with hopeful joy when the southern section of the park bid farewell to the male cheetah trio.  An emotion that can only be described as bitter-sweet!  Two of the males were captured for translocation while the third male perished of a cause yet unknown to the public.  Their story may herald a small failure on behalf of South African rewilding.

Born to a litter of four in the Hopewell Private Game Reserve south-east of Addo Elephant National Park, the male trio flourished with their mother and sister until the onset of adolescence when fighting with their father initiated a sequence of events to the delight of nature lovers from far and wide, both national and international.  On one fateful day the trio fled from their father and escaped the private game reserve through the electrified wildlife fencing and crossed over the busy N2 highway through private property straight towards the southern section of the Addo Elephant National Park.  Hopewell staff tried frantically to capture the trio before they moved northwards into the national park, but only managed to dart one male. In an effort to lure the other two males closer for capture the darted male was placed within a predator-proof boma (or temporary enclosure) in Addo’s main section that was erected for pre-release acclimatisation of lions and spotted hyaenas that were reintroduced to the park since 2004.

Nature had its own course to follow and things did not go to plan for the wildlife capture team when the captive male literally leaped over the electrified predator-proof fence that had previously successfully contained the pride of lions before their release.  A few days later the nimble escapee fled the park north-west into the citrus producing farms of the Sunday’s River valley, as his two brothers made their way through the electrified perimeter fence of Addo into the southern Colchester section of the park.  After the lone male’s escape into private farms he disappeared among the agricultural landscape and was presumed dead as he seemingly vanished without a trace.

Arriving in the Colchester section of Addo the surviving two males were met with a landscape teeming with possible prey species including bushbuck, greater kudu, red hartebeest and an almost endless supply of warthog.  But along with ample prey, the two male also quickly came face to face for the first time in their lives with spotted hyaenas and the feline lords of this land – the African lions – that were restored to Addo from the Kalahari in 2003.  But regardless of predator competition the two males flourished amid a landscape of plenty, to the excitement and delight of all visitors to Addo

After four months had passed and the two brothers had settled well into their new home where they had established themselves, the seemingly unthinkable happened as the lone male presumed dead amid the agricultural landscape had managed to survive unnoticed until he finally rejoined his brothers in the national park.  So the Addo cheetah trio was born when their wild nature proved resiliently intent on facilitating their own rewilding into the southern section of the Addo Elephant National Park.

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This self reintroduction of cheetah into their own chosen domain was however regarded as highly controversial and caused much contention among the public and members of South African National Parks (SANParks), the governing body of Addo.  Although the trio established themselves in a habitat and environmental conditions that proved suitable, among prey species that were sufficiently abundant, with predator competition stable and sustainable, all while serving as a major drawing card for many local and international tourists to Addo, one factor was to determine the future of a thriving semi-self established cheetah population in the Addo Elephant National Park (and I say “semi-self established” as the return of female cheetah would depend on the SANParks governing body).  Almost counter-intuitively this factor was the conservation authorities governing over the park, namely SANParks and its representatives.  After deliberating on the issue of the self-established trio it was controversially decided that cheetah are not native to the southern regions of the Addo Elephant National Park and therefore should be removed from the park (according to SANParks’ regulations of only establishing native species into the national parks under their authority).  “The three males from a neighbouring property were not destined to remain in Addo as they never occurred in the area naturally” rang the official statement from the Addo Elephant National Park management team.  Recommendations were made for the capture of the trio and relocation to the northern section of Addo into the open Karoo country around Darlington Dam.

And so capture attempts ensued by SANParks staff, albeit unsuccessfully to the great amusement and pleasure of the large fan-base of visiting tourists that eagerly sought to capture moments with the famous Addo cheetah trio on camera. After endless games of perpetual cat and mouse, the capture efforts of the park’s staff finally culminated in the successful capture of two of the Addo trio and the death of the third (due to a yet unknown cause possibly related to the capture operation, although no official SANParks statement has been released on the matter).  And so after rewilding themselves in and roaming the thickets, Bushveld and grasslands of the Addo Elephant National Park for 2 years and 8 months the almost legendary tale of the Addo trio came to an end on this fateful cool winters Wednesday morning (17 May 2017).

What is to be the fate of the remaining two brothers?  They will not be moved to the northern parts of the park, but rather will be removed from the Addo Elephant National Park and translocated to the Phinda Private Game Reserve (Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa).  At their new home the two brothers will form part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Cheetah Metapopulation Project which currently includes the management of 300 cheetah individuals on over 50 “small” fenced game reserves across the Republic of South Africa.  And so as the story of the Addo trio concludes a new story is birthed – that of the Phinda duo.

The question remains was this almost legendary tale of the Addo trio a massive rewilding success story facilitated by wild nature or a gross rewilding failure on behalf of the local conservation governing body of the Addo Elephant National Park?

See: Addo Elephant National Park & Cheetah Distribution in Perspective.

With the departure of the notorious and almost legendary Addo cheetah trio it is a sad and gloomy day for many a visitor to the park, and certainly a loss of biodiversity for this part of Addo Elephant National Park, but for the surviving two brothers – their story as only begun!  To the continued success and survival of the Phinda duo!  Bon voyage.

Marcel van der Merwe II  |  Rewilding Forum

Special thanks to Stan Blumberg for allowing us to use his marvelous photos of the Addo trio.

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