It's no news to us that our special, spotted big cats are some of the most popular members of Tshukudu! The story of the cheetahs has been told and retold to friends, family, guests, journalists, and filmmakers over the years, and it never fails to pull on those heartstrings. Working with wildlife, as the Sussens family has done for generations, is full of ups and downs, sadness and joy, but it is never, ever uneventful, and it never fails to teach us a thing or two. Many of our readers might already know how our three cheetahs came to be, but to answer all the questions out there and to celebrate the tale of the Tshukudu cheetahs, we're telling the story once more. Some of the photos used here are with thanks to various contributers who have been along for the ride over the years. We hope you enjoy it!
Many will remember Savannah, who was an orphaned female cheetah cub adopted and hand reared by the Sussens family at Tshukudu. She soon became a recognised name in the community and a member of the family as she graduated to self-sustaining life on the reserve where she roamed and lived among the numerous wild animals. Of course, she never forgot her bond with the people who cared for her, and visited "home" often. Savannah became pregnant in 2008 and was left to do the natural thing when she gave birth, as is the wish for any rehabilitated or rewilded animal. Sadly, Savannah's two newborn cubs died by natural predation, which happens all too often among all African predator infants, which are born vulnerable.
In early 2009, it was discovered Savannah was pregnant again, and this time the Sussens family wanted to protect her cubs from the threats that faced the first litter. She happily moved into a secure boma when it came time for her to give birth, and she successfully gave birth to four cubs! It was this litter, delivered on 24 March 2009, that contained the three siblings that roam Tshukudu today: Ntombi, Floppy (originally known as Whisky), and Hunter (officially named Hunters). The fourth sibling sadly did not survive.
Ntombi was the runt of the litter and unfortunately Savannah rejected her. Because this little family was so closely monitored, Vicky and Chris took it upon themselves to raise the little runt themselves so that she had a chance of survival. Applying the same techniques they had applied to raising Savannah, tiny Ntombi received plenty of attention and regular bottle feeds to try to give her all the nutrients she needed. Vicky and Chris also had the help of their female labrador, who was a caring companion and protector to Ntombi! Meanwhile, Savannah raised Floppy and Hunter very successfully, and they were introduced to the bush as soon as they were big enough to have a chance of outrunning any predators. Soon, the little family was roaming Tshukudu as they pleased, led by their mother Savannah, while Ntombi was introduced to the reserve on her own.
The brothers created a bond they would share for life and enjoyed their early years with Savannah, who showed all the signs of a capable and protective mother. Ultimately, however, the harsh reality of the wild would remind us that we are not in charge, and in January 2010, Savannah died protecting her cubs from lions. This orphaned the boys earlier than they would have left their mother in the wild, but fortunately they had benefitted from sharing their formative years with Savannah.
Today, almost 9 years on since Savannah's death, all three of her cubs are thriving and living freely on Tshukudu Reserve. Floppy and Hunter are very capable predators and they make their own kills 100% of the time. They are habituated to humans because of their circumstances as cubs, and they although they live on their own terms, they often like to visit our guests at the lodge, relaxing at the pool, and joining us on morning bush walks. Ntombi is also healthy and happily roaming the reserve on her own as is typical of female cheetahs. Her upbringing was different to her brothers, but her natural instincts as a cat mean that she can't help but make her own kills. Her diet is supplemented occasionally because her stomach and intestines are compromised after a number of operations she has endured.
Ultimately, the three cheetahs - Savannah's babies - became ambassadors for Tshukudu, and guests arrive from all over the world in hopes of seeing them. The bond they have with their human carers will last forever, and we are fortunate to be able to share our joy with visitors. The Big Five reserve they call home is our back yard, and we treat it with the respect any wildlife area deserves. These three vulnerable cubs have grown up to healthy adults who have to navigate the natural threats of life, and we are lucky to have had the privilege of seeing them grow. We hope they live on to a grand, old age!