The story of Bubbles, the wild cheetah

Early in 2003, a farmer in the Brae area of the North West Province of South Africa caught two young cheetahs in a trap he had set to catch the predator that had been killing his sheep and goats. The farmer contacted the Department of Nature Conservation, who collected the cheetahs from him and took them to the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Centre near Pretoria. The brother and sister cheetahs arrived at De Wildt on 24 April 2003, where it was estimated they were between 12 and 14 months old. At De Wildt the male cheetah was named Squeaky, which was soon shortened to “Squeak”. His sister then became known as “Bubbles” (after the traditional way of cooking left over vegetables - bubble and squeak).

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After three months at DeWildt, Squeak was sent to Phinda Nature Reserve and released back into the wild as part of the De Wildt Wild Cheetah Project. He adapted well to his new environment and has since fathered cubs of his own. Bubbles was sent to another private reserve in Limpopo Province, which was an approved relocation area for wild cheetahs, to be released with two male cheetahs.

Eighteen months later, instead of living the life of a wild cheetah, Bubbles was found in the reserve’s breeding centre for captive cheetahs. The owner of the reserve was well aware that wild cheetahs are not permitted to be used in captive breeding programmes, and had deliberately registered Bubbles as a male cheetah to disguise her true identity. Bubbles did not produce cubs during this period.

In February 2006, Bubbles was handed over from her small enclosure and sent to another approved relocation centre, called Monate, which accommodates only female cheetahs. At Monate she had a chance to get back into her wild state after being held as a captive and being hand-fed for so long.

In June 2006, wearing a radio collar, Bubbles was sent to Makulu Makete Wildlife Reserve, near Alldays in Limpopo Province, to be released once again into the wild and to resume her life as a wild cheetah.

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When she arrived at Makulu Makete, she was kept in a one-hectare enclosure called a “boma” to habituate her to her new surroundings, to get her used to the electric cheetah-proof fence and to overcome her homing instincts.

She was fed two or three times a week on impala meat. She sometimes demanded to be fed more often, but in the wild cheetahs usually only kill about twice a week and eat as much as they can of the carcass, in some cases up to half their body weight.

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One day Bubbles almost sprang into the open Land Rover, full of guests, inside the boma when she thought she should have been fed more. Having spent so long in captivity, she had no fear of humans.

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On 22 August 2006, Bubbles was released from the boma to fend for herself as a wild cheetah. An impala leg was tied to a tree outside the boma gate and Bubbles walked out to grab it. The gates of the boma were closed behind her to prevent her running back inside.

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After eating the impala leg, Bubbles went off to explore her new 4,500 hectare (11,000 acre) home.

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Less than an hour after her release, she arrived unexpectedly at the lodge. Perhaps she had heard we were serving afternoon tea?

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Every day after her release, Bubbles was tracked using telemetry and her movements and behaviour were monitored. We were able to walk into the bush to find her and get very close to her.

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Six days after her release, Bubbles met Danny, the male wild cheetah which was already free-roaming at Makulu Makete. They stayed together for a couple of days. (That’s Bubbles standing up.) Female cheetahs are solitary animals. They only get together with male cheetahs for mating. We counted the days from their meeting and estimated that, if they had mated, cubs would be born between 27 November and 4 December.

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In the meantime, Bubbles had to learn to hunt properly if she was going to support herself and a family. Compared to Danny, a competent hunter, her hunting skills were poor. Having got used to being hand-fed, Bubbles expected a meal every time she heard a vehicle go past. She would run after the vehicles, looking pathetically thin. The De Wildt Wild Cheetah Project agreed with us that we should “hang tough” and not feed Bubbles in order to force her to get hungry enough to hunt for herself. It was not easy to resist Bubbles’ hungry advances.

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Another worrying aspect of Bubbles’ release was that she seemed to prefer to stay close to the perimeter fences and could quite easily be seen from the road by passing motorists who would slow down to get a look at her. The area around Alldays, close to Makulu Makete, is regarded as a “cheetah hotspot”, where land owners actively persecute cheetah which they regard as a threat to their livestock. In the photo, the power lines are inside the property and the public road is on the left of the fence.

Gradually, Bubbles seemed to be hunting better and killing larger prey. When sighted, the size of her stomach was measured on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being very hungry, and 5 when she had just gorged herself on a big kill.) She seemed to be getting the hang of hunting after all. She roamed far and wide across the reserve, covering big distances in a short time. She didn’t stay long in one place.

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Then, from 28 November 2006, her behaviour changed. Her radio signal was found in the same place in a dry river bed for several days in a row. We suspected that the cubs had been born on 28 November, but we did not want to jeopardise their chances of survival by walking into the bush to find out where her nest was. We left her alone. Whenever we did see her, we took special note of her “fullness” level - had she killed recently, and we tried to see if her teats were visible, a sure sign that she was suckling cubs. After about a week, we got a good look at her and sure enough, she definitely had teats. The question was, how many cubs and how was she handling them, being a first-time mother?

We checked her signal twice a day, every day, hoping to be the first to see the cubs. The new year came and went, and there was still no sign of cubs, but Bubbles seemed to have moved her nest a couple of times, further up the dry river bed. The only sightings we had of Bubbles during that time was when she was returning to her nest site after a hunt. We hoped that if not all, then at least one or two cubs would have survived so far.

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Here is Bubbles one afternoon, having just had a drink at a waterhole. She is out hunting and her stomach looks empty.

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Here is Bubbles late the next afternoon, crossing a track in front of a bull giraffe, going back in the direction of her nest. Her stomach measures more than 5 on the fullness scale. She had just had a successful kill.

On 22 January Bubbles did not return to her nest site. What was the reason - had she lost or abandoned her cubs, or were they moving with her now?.

Finally, on 25 January 2007, a day before they were 8 weeks old, Bubbles was spotted with the cubs in tow. We couldn’t believe it. There were FIVE cubs - all healthy, fluffy and playful. Bubbles had defied all our concerns. We had champagne that night to celebrate the cubs and Bubbles’ success.

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As she moved around the reserve with her cubs, Bubbles had to stop every now and then to give them a rest in the shade.

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On 31 January, Bubbles killed an impala ewe very close to our ranger’s house and the workshop. She and the cubs ignored us as we got very close to watch. Over a period of 36 hours, the cheetah family stayed with the carcass and completely stripped it to the bones, including the fur. In a normal wild situation, where there are bigger and stronger predators, cheetahs eat as much as they can from their kill before leaving it to the hyaenas and lions. Lions and spotted hyaenas have been excluded from Makulu Makete, so with no challenge from the competition, the cheetahs could stay with the kill for a much longer period.

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The cubs eagerly tore at the carcass, climbing over each other and making strange, bird-like chirrupping calls. When their stomachs became bloated from their feast, they would stagger away for a rest, leaning up against a nearby marula tree for support. We had champagne at the lodge again that night, celebrating Bubbles’ kill.

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Early February, and we have not yet tried walking into the bush to find Bubbles and her family, but we have stayed in the vehicle. Soon we will start walking in on them. Because Bubbles is so relaxed in our presence, the cubs don’t appear to be nervous of us at all.

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The cubs are growing fast. They are becoming more and more adventurous and playful. Bubbles certainly has her hands (paws) full keeping them under control. She favours dry river beds when she stops in one place for a while, and has no hesitation in walking down the middle of the sandy tracks on Makulu Makete to move from one place to another. She and the cubs move fast and cover long distances.

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One of the cubs is much braver than the others and keeps heading off on its own to explore. Perhaps we should call this one Christopher Columbus - off to discover the new world! We still don’t know how many are males and how many females.

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Bubbles lies down flat and has to put up with them crawling all over her and smooching under her chin. We can’t imagine that she ever gets a chance to sleep.

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Sometimes it’s much safer just to stick close to Mum.

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The father of the cubs, Danny, is probably unaware of his new family. He lives his comfortable bachelor lifestyle, pays no child support and leaves the up-bringing of the kids entirely to their mother.

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By the middle of February we decided it was probably safe to walk into the bush to see the cheetahs and not stay in the vehicle. Bubbles seemed relaxed in our presence and the cubs took their cue from her.

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This is all that remained of a female bushbuck after Bubbles and the cubs had spent several hours eating the carcass. All the intestines and most of the bones were eaten. Even the head was picked clean, leaving only the gnawed skull and jaw. The cheetahs showed no aggression towards us when we stood about 15 metres away, watching them on the kill.

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After their meal of bushbuck, the cheetahs spent the day resting, with their stomachs bulging. In the late afternoon, the cubs followed their mother into the dappled sunlight. She paused at a crossroad before deciding to take this track.

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Late February, and we are now able to get very close to the cheetahs on foot without disturbing them. On this occasion, Bubbles was lying next to a small dry river bed, surrounded by thick bush. We could see only four cubs, so we skirted around the back of the bush to get a better view. Then, right at our feet, we noticed one brave little cub, probably the intrepid Christopher Columbus, stalking towards us. We edged out into the river bed so that Bubbles would see we were not threatening the cub - in fact it was the exact oppposite - he was threatening us! Bubbles came towards us, as if to warn us not to get any closer. Then she turned to her naughty child and seemed to give him a good talking-to. "You musn’t get so far away from me, and how many times do I have to tell you to keep away from the people", she scolded. Columbus took cover behind a branch to escape her admonishment.

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Bubbles then turned and led the cubs off into the bush, but not before one of the other cubs took great delight in smugly saying to naughty Columbus "Nyah, nyah, I told you so! You got into trouble!"

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Every day we watch the cubs carefully, trying to determine how many are males and how many are females. It’s not easy, as they are constantly tumbling and chasing one another. We get confused by all those little spots and tails. As far as we can tell, there seem to be four males and one female. After another big meal, the softest place to rest a fat belly is on top of ever-patient Mum.

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Even though they are getting plenty of meat to eat, the cubs are still nursing in late February, at 13 weeks old. This is the last time we saw them nursing properly. After that, it seemed to be more of a comfort for the cubs, but we suspect there was no more milk.

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Poor Bubbles never gets a rest from her active babies. This photo was taken on 18 March. The cubs are getting longer and slimmer in the body and much lankier. They are starting to look like real cheetahs now.

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The bigger they get, the more adventurous they become. Away from the shade and bushes where their protective camouflage works so well, they can get a better look at the world around them from a higher vantage point.

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Bubbles and the cubs spend a lot of time in dry river beds. This photo shows how their long, grey mantles have gradually disappeared. All that is left is a tuft of mane. This little cub was actually stretching and yawning, but it looks as if he is practising his snarl.

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Early April and the cubs are getting more active and boisterous. They run, fight and play together. We have been able to get a better look at the cubs and it now appears that there are 2 females and 3 males. This is clearly a male cub.

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Bubbles thinks that if she climbs a tree, she will get a rest from the cubs for a while.

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But there’s no rest. The cubs are now strong enough and inquisitive enough to follow her.

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This photo was also taken in early April and shows the cubs trying to suckle, even if there is no longer any milk. This behaviour seems to be for comfort and security.

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Some welcome rain in late March revived the bush and freshened up the grass. The cheetahs are even more energetic in the cool weather conditions that continued for a couple of weeks.

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We were concerned when we noticed skin irritations on three of the cubs. The red patches on their skin developed into sores as they licked them but the cubs’ behaviour didn’t change. They were just as active, playful and greedy as the other two cubs. Narinda, checked with expert cheetah vet, Peter Caldwell in Pretoria, who advised that the sores were probably caused by ticks, not an uncommon problem with wild cheetahs. Thankfully, the skin irritations gradually subsided and there was no need for us to intervene. Our aim is to let the cheetahs grow up naturally, without interference by us. In this photo, where the cubs seem to be singing a duet, a sore can be seen on the neck of the cub on the left.

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Towards the end of April, Bubbles showed the cubs how to stalk a scrub hare. The cubs appear to be attentive students.

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This photo was taken on 30 April. The cubs were one day short of being 22 weeks old. What progress they have made since we took the first photo of them when they were only 8 weeks old! What a good mother Bubbles has proved to be.

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On 4 May Narinda was watching the cheetahs when the cubs, playing at a little distance from their mother, surprised a baby waterbuck lying hidden in the grass. The cubs spat and pounced at the calf, which got to its feet, and it was only then that Bubbles even noticed it. She immediately went in for the kill, with Narinda standing close by. The noise attracted the calf’s mother and three more female waterbucks, which came charging out of the bush, scattering the cubs and almost flattening Narinda, but they were too late to rescue the little calf.

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The baby waterbuck made a quick meal for the cheetah family. The cubs would be hungry again the next day. In both photos the distinctive white circle on the waterbuck’s rump can be seen. Adult waterbucks grow to around 250kg, and would be considered too big for a cheetah to kill. Bubbles seems to be concentrating her kills on kudu calves (she has killed 9 kudu calves in the past two months) but this baby waterbuck kill was completely opportunistic.

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It’s mid-May and the cubs are getting taller. They look and act more like their mother now. Winter, our dry season, is approaching and we don’t expect any rain until October. The grass is drying and the leaves on the raisin bushes are dying. Soon most of the trees and bushes will be bare of leaves.

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The cubs might be getting taller, but they are still young enough to play hide and seek at the top of a pile of gravel.

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Near the end of May, Bubbles killed a young impala ram. Equipped with sharp horns, which can be seen in the photo, male impalas are a dangerous target for a cheetah. At this time of the year, the males are staking out their territory and trying to amass herds of ewes. With sex on his mind, this impala did not see Bubbles coming.

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A playful charge by a cub looks cute at this age, but when an adult cheetah charges towards you, spitting and slamming down its front paws like this, it’s guaranteed to frighten the life out of you!

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This cub is stalking the camera-man. Have a look at the size of the cub’s feet - enormous!

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Early June, and while Narinda was out looking for the cheetahs, they found her "bakkie" (pick-up). Toyota is a popular brand with everyone in the African bush!

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We have always thought this big burrow, dug in the side of a dry river under the roots of a tree, is the lair of an aardvark, or perhaps a warthog.

Click here to follow the rest of Bubbles’ story


The De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust, our partner in cheetahs.