It has been nearly six months since Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) released Tillie, a captive-bred cheetah, onto the Pidwa Wilderness Reserve on 29 January 2019.
Katie Rooke and the excellent team of the Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme have been overseeing her integration into the wild.
The first six weeks Tillie was restricted to a predator-free boma to help her become habituated to her new surroundings. During this time she was only fed meat on the bone, specifically impalas.
She showed encouraging behaviour from the onset, including instinctively covering her ‘kills’ with grass, so that other predators would not find or smell it easily.
On 11 March, when Katie felt she was ready for the next stage of her integration, she was released into the wild into an area that contained leopards, but no cheetah, lions or hyena.
Tillie’s progress was monitored closely by fitting her with a radio telemetry tracking collar, which enabled the reserve team, Katie, Andrew, Robbie and Ryan, to keep track of her location and movement. Their Askari Wilderness Conservation programme volunteers assisted them too.
Each morning they would gather the data from the previous day, which included her location, a health check, her hunting activity and how full her tummy was. They also scoured the area to ascertain whether there was potential prey for her to hunt.
Camera traps were set in various locations such as around dams and other areas, to track her behaviour. It was also vital that she was able to source water independently.
To everyone’s delight, Tillie made her first independent kill after just three nights in her new environment. She killed an adult female impala, much sooner than had been anticipated.
However, it took another five weeks before she made her next kill. The team supplemented her diet with impala meals to ensure that she received sufficient sustenance. They also observed that she spent extended time sitting close to two fence boundaries and not exploring much.
Fortunately, in the sixth week since her release, Tillie made her second kill, this time it was an impala ram.
Four months have now passed since her release into the wild and she has recently made her sixth kill, also the first time she has eaten two of her kills in a row, without any assistance.
All her prey thus far has been impala. She has also started to explore greater areas of the 2000-hectare reserve she is habituating.
Katie says that Tillie’s missed attempts at hunting, in between her successes, may be due to bad luck rather than lack of skill. With each kill, she shows signs of improvement.
Over the past few weeks, her confidence has grown substantially and she reacts differently to her monitors, with less interest or anticipation of food, which are all positive signs.
What’s next for Tillie?
The Askari team will continue to monitor and support Tillie if needed and hopefully see her establish a territory rather than just exploring the reserve. They are confident that she will continue to settle well.
When they feel the time is right, they will find a suitable male cheetah to introduce to the reserve, so that Tillie will have the opportunity to interact with another cheetah and hopefully mate too.
Lente Roode and our team are so grateful for the commitment and passion that Katie and her team have given to Tillie’s successful integration into the wild and for keeping us well informed.
It has been a successful six months since her initial release.
We will keep you updated on her progress.
The HESC Team