The story of Bubbles, the wild cheetah.......continued


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Trying to keep track of five lively cubs is a tiring business for Bubbles.


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Mid June, and at six and a half months old, the cubs are full of energy, tumbling, ambushing and play-fighting with each other.


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Spot the flying cheetah! (Hint - look at the top right of the photo.)


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At the end of June and the cubs are seven months old. Here they are waiting patiently while Bubbles is out hunting. They are still too young to help with the hunt. They remain where Bubbles has left them and wait for her to call them once she has made a kill.


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This is a nice portrait of the cheetah family, also taken at the end of June. Is there a family resemblance?


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Early in July. Bubbles looks in perfect condition as she sniffs something interesting at the base of a tree.


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She is an affectionate mother.


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Mid-July 2007. This cub is looking forward to the day when it will be able to help its mother hunt.


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Count the spots.


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This cub has its arm around its mother.


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At the end of July. This male cub is now 8 months old. It looks as if he is learning to scent-mark.


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Taken on 6 August, 2007, this was an impala kill close to one of our fences.


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After its meal, the cub’s face is covered with blood.


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Ever the diligent mother, Bubbles washes the cub’s face carefully.


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Like mother, like cub.


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Still early in August, there’s a welcoming committee to greet Luke as he arrives home from a day at work.


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Taken on 7 August 2007, this photo raises more questions than it answers. Bubbles appeared to be taking just two of the cubs with her while she went off hunting, leaving the other three in the bush. Is she teaching the cubs to hunt already? Has she selected these two randomly? We know that the cub with the black stripe down the base of its tail is a male, but is the second cub male or female? Does this mean she will take the other three cubs together in a group on another occasion?


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On 9 August 2007, Bubbles and the five cubs turned up at Jane and Peter’s house. At first they were interested in the dogs, which were inside their pen. Then the cheetahs discovered they could see Jane standing in the bedroom, through the window. Narinda took this photo from outside the house.


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Simultaneously, from inside the bedroom, Peter took this photo of the cub spitting at Jane.


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Bubbles stalked towards the window, growling. She seemed to be interested in a pile of laundry on the bed, which must have looked to her like a sinister animal waiting to pounce. She would not be aware of glass, so to stop her jumping through the window and cutting herself, we drew the curtains. The cheetahs then lost interest and wandered off.


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This series of photos was taken in late July by Jim Rogers, from the USA. Jim was standing about 5 metres from the kill as he took these shots.


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In this close-up you can see Bubbles’ radio collar.


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The cheetahs demolish the impala ewe carcass quickly.


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Also taken in late July these two pictures show the cubs playing and ambushing each other.


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A cub yawning.


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Our pin-up girl, Bubbles.


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Bubbles enjoying a roll in the sand.


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Taken in late August, this shows the cheetahs having a drink at the lodge waterhole.


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More rough and tumble from the cubs.


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We think that these two male cubs have formed a coalition, which means they will hunt together in adult life.


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Bubbles in her favourite bushbuck-hunting habitat. This is a far cry from the long-held view that cheetahs need wide open spaces and grasslands to chase down their prey. The thick bush along the river is a favourite haunt of bushbucks, which Bubbles ambushes with expertise.


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It was almost dark when this photo was taken, not long after this bushbuck kill took place. As the cubs get bigger, Bubbles has to kill every day or two to keep them fed, using every opportunity she can.


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An early break to the dry season brings our first proper rain for the season late in September 2007. The cheetahs don’t mind the wet as long as there is food to eat. One cub appears to be sitting on the electrified trip wire of the fence, waiting for a shock.


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Four days later, and back at the fence, where they had killed a bushbuck. The bushbuck was lying against the fence but every time the cheetahs tried to touch it, they got a shock. They had to wait to be rescued - Narinda and Peter pulled the antelope off the fence and the cheetahs immediately dragged it away.

The number of kills made near the fences, and the way the cheetahs walk the fencelines, leads us to believe that they are using the fence to help make their kills.


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The camera trap was set up at number 4 waterhole. The cheetahs posed for a shot. A week since the rain and the bush has not yet turned green, but it won’t be long.


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Flat cats in the new grass, 12 days after the rain.


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Snuggling up in the cooler weather.


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Late October, four weeks after the rain, and the bush is transformed. The cubs are now 11 months old.


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Along the southern fenceline, near Lulu’s Camp, this cub is watching intently as a motorbike approaches from the far right. Should the cub pounce?


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Oh, it’s only Frans, our fence maintenance man, on his daily rounds. No cause for alarm.


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Bubbles, ever alert for a handy snack.


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The cheetahs appeared at the waterhole below the lodge on 2 November, to have a drink and play in the old lucerne hay. This photo, taken about two months after the previous photo of the cheetahs drinking at the lodge waterhole, shows how the grass has grown since the rain.


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Early November 2007. These warthogs kept coming back for another look at the cheetahs, but the cheetahs know better than to go for a warthog. Adult warthogs have big tusks and, with their bulk and weight, are capable of killing a cheetah.


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A cheetah’s paw has hard foot pads and non-retractable claws.


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With the remnants of its last meal showing bloodily on its neck, this cub has passed out, fully satisfied, with a rock as a pillow.


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When tracking cheetahs, we listen for the loud screeching of guineafowl, which are a good warning device that cheetahs are close by. This cub can’t stand the noise any more and is moving off. If you’ve heard a guineafowl at full volume, you will sympathise with the cub!


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It always pays to check your rear-vision mirror.


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"Flat cats" - just two days before their first birthday, the cubs are now comfortable lying at a distance from their mother.


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These two male cubs have formed what is known as a "male coalition" and stick together always, even when sleeping.


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Playtime on a termite mound.


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The rainy season started early this year and the bush has sprung to life. By mid-December we’ve already had more rain than the average annual rainfall. Finding the cheetahs in the long grass is not easy - can you see signs of a cheetah here?


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You could easily walk into the cheetahs without seeing them in the long grass.


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The cubs are waiting patiently for Bubbles to return from a hunt.


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Meanwhile, Bubbles has spotted an impala.


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It’s 2 January 2008. The impala lambing season started nearly a month ago and the cheetahs are taking full advantage of the easy prey. We estimate that on some days Bubbles kills up to five baby impalas.


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The six cheetahs took only eight minutes to devour the baby impala.


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Mid January 2008. Bubbles has an injury to her leg, but she has survived previous leg injuries, and an injury to her eye. None of these injuries prevented her from hunting, even when she was obviously lame.


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After a couple of days, the wound is healing nicely - evidence of a healthy cat. She gets over her injuries quickly, without any help from us.


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By 18 January 2008, the cubs have their adult teeth, and are happy to show them off.

“January 2008 and, for more than a year, we have been privileged to share in the life of our wild female cheetah, Bubbles, and her five cubs. Narinda has tracked the cheetah family every day, recording their location, behaviour, condition and kills. The cubs are now 14 months old and within three or four months they will naturally split from their mother to live on their own. Some time ago, a decision was made that when the cubs were big enough, Bubbles and her family would be moved to new homes to make way for a unique project to "rewild" captive-born cheetahs on Makulu Makete. This will be a very, very sad day for us all, and especially for Narinda, who refers to the cheetahs as "her cats". But in her usual, professional manner, Narinda is preparing for the removal of the cheetahs so that the experience will cause "her cats" as little stress as possible. It is envisaged that some, if not all, of the cheetahs will be tranquillised with a dart gun. Narinda has been getting the cheetahs used to the sound of a gun by taking a .22 rifle with her when she tracks them, and shooting several rounds into the air close to the cheetahs, in the hope that they will be so used to the sound of the gun that they will not scatter when the first dart is fired. ”


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9 February 2008. The appointed day for the capture of the cheetahs arrives. While Dr. Peter Caldwell, the specialist cheetah vet from Pretoria, assisted by Luke and Kelly from the De Wildt Wild Cheetah Project, is preparing darts and drugs, Narinda and Jane go tracking Bubbles and the cubs for the last time. The cheetahs are found looking so relaxed you might assume they have already been tranquillised. Narinda walks in to within a couple of metres and makes a sketch of the position of each cheetah, so that she can advise Dr. Caldwell in which order to dart the cubs - choosing the most skittish cub first.


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Bubbles keeps watch over her brood.


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There are no photos of the actual darting process in order to keep the number of people involved and the stress factor for the cheetahs to a minimum. Narinda’s careful preparation paid off. The cheetahs did not scatter when the darts were fired. Bubbles was the last to be darted, after the first cubs were already being collected where they fell in the bush. Bubbles and Narinda have been through a lot together, but this is the very first time that Narinda has ever touched the cheetah.


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Luke and Narinda arrive with Bubbles in her stretcher, and lay her next to her cubs. The cheetahs had returned to one of Bubbles’ old stomping grounds, across the river and close to the fence and the dirt road. The track inside the fence was used as a de facto surgery.


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When tranquillised, the cheetahs’ eyes remain open, so to prevent damage to them, they are covered. The darts, which are barbed to ensure that they remain in the animal while all the drug is injected, are removed by Dr. Caldwell.


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Luke replaces Bubbles’ radio collar. The batteries in the collars last up to two years, so this one was close to its use by date. Dr. Caldwell inserts identification microchips into the cubs and injects them with antibiotics to prevent any infection in the wound from the dart. They are given a shot of vitamins, internal parasite control and samples of their blood are taken. They are treated with Frontline against ticks and fleas, just like a domestic dog or cat. Jane keeps them cool by pouring water on their paws.


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Kelly and Narinda take measurements and record the cheetahs’ vital statistics. It is important to work quickly because the drug will wear off one hour after darting. With six cheetahs to deal with, there was no time to weigh them. One of the cubs woke up earlier than it should and was caught by the tail by Dr. Caldwell, just in time. He and Narinda wrestled the female cub into a travelling box before it could escape.


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The blue patch on Bubbles’ rump is antiseptic spray where the dart was removed. She is sporting Luke’s cap to shade her eyes. We were all very close to the electric trip wire on the fence. No one inadvertently sat on the wire or dropped a cheetah’s tail on it during the whole process.


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As the rest of the cheetahs were coming to, they were each placed in a transport box on the trailer. This cub looks accusingly at Narinda. "After all the pleasure we have given you, is this fair?" We felt like traitors, but were relieved that the operation went so smoothly. We had imagined all sorts of complications and problems, but it was all over in less than two hours.


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Early next morning, before the heat of the day, the cheetahs left Makulu Makete. Bubbles would be taken straight to her new home, Hlambanyati reserve in Kwazulu Natal, and the cubs would stay together temporarily at De Wildt’s holding facilities at their Shingwedzi property until being delivered to their new homes.


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Goodbye, Bubbles and your cubs. Kelly, please drive carefully - your cargo is very precious to us.
Now that the cheetahs have left Makulu Makete, we hope to keep in touch with their new homes and update the website with news of them as often as possible.

Click here to follow the rest of Bubbles’ story


  


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