One of the biggest misconceptions I come across when leading people in the Kruger National Park concerns the other big cat, the Cheetah. I think the idea that Cheetah only inhabit open grassland savannah comes from the fact that most wildlife documentaries concerning big cats are filmed in the Masai Mara / Serengeti complex in East Africa, where the open habitat makes for good filming conditions. The habitat in the Kruger National Park is vastly different, and although there are large open grassland areas on the fine Basalt soils of the central regions, most of Kruger comprises Woodland Savannah which has a well developed shrub and tree component. In some regions, such as the Sabie River region, the habitat is pretty dense, suitable to antelope such as Bushbuck and Kudu, while the permanent water in the river attracts large numbers of Impala, many of which cluster a long the roads where there is some visibility. So when beholding the Woodland Savannah environment of the Kruger visitors often ask me if it’s possible to see a Cheetah, thinking back to Big Cat Diaries or some other program where there’s nary a tree to be seen and where the Cheetah often use the safari vehicles to gain some elevation. The answer to this often-asked question is that Cheetah do indeed occur in the Kruger and can sometimes be seen in quite densely vegetation places – in fact, while working in the Sabi Sand Game reserve, which is part of the Greater Kruger National Park, we once saw a Cheetah with a Bushbuck kill along the banks of the Sand River, more the realm of Leopards than Cheetahs!
Seen from the air the Kruger is made up of a mosaic-like interspersing of open areas and more densely vegetated areas, with the tree component decreasing on finer clay soils and increasing on coarser granitic soils. Impala the primary prey animal of the Cheetah, are found in all of Kruger’s micro-habitats, but are confined to areas where there is permanent surface water, and are usually not found more than about two kilometres away from water. The clay soils often hold pans and puddles, to which Impala are attracted. In winter these are dry, so Impala are then concentrated around permanent rivers, pools in seasonal rivers and man-made dams and drinking troughs. These are the places where Cheetah will be looking for prey. The edge of the clearing makes a great place to stage a hunt, from where the predators can observe the prey from cover and slowly work into position. It makes sense then that in their daily movements – Cheetah cover a lot of ground in huge home ranges – that they will move from clearing to clearing in search of Impala herds. These movements take them through areas of thicker bush, where they can make opportunistic kills, so one can say that even though they prefer open areas, they can be seen pretty much anywhere. They are however uncommon – the numbers in Kruger are estimated to be less than 200 individuals. Compare this to Lion and Leopard, of which there are estimated to be around 1500 – 2000 of each, and you’ll realise that seeing a Cheetah involves a lot of luck! I estimate that we have about a 70% hit rate with Cheetah on our dedicated big cat tours, which combine the Kruger National Park with the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. In the Sabi Sand Game Reserve Cheetah are either there in your operating area, or they are not. The reserve is not big enough (only 65 000 hectares) to accommodate Cheetah on a permanent basis, and so they come through now and then, moving from clearing to clearing in search of prey and eventually moving back into the vastness of the Kruger National Park. If any Cheetah happen to be in the area while you are staying in the reserve, then there’s a good chance of seeing them. If there aren’t any in the area at the time of your visit, then there’s zero chance of seeing them, simple as that (and the same goes for Wild Dogs). So while both Lion and Leopard are resident in the reserve, even if they can’t be found on occasion, Cheetah are either there or they are not.
The Kruger Park on the other hand is obviously big enough to provide the bulk of the territory for the 200-odd Cheetah of the Greater Kruger National Park. With not many tactics available to aid one in finding game in the Kruger, besides covering as much distance as possible; speaking to other visitors to glean information, using the sightings boards at the camps, using game sighting apps such as Kruger Park Sightings on your smartphone, and some good, old-fashioned spotting, it all boils down to lady luck. Good areas for Cheetah are the grassy plains running in a north-south orientated strip north of Lower Sabie Rest Camp, the Basalt Plains around Satara, the open clearings along the H7 in the Orpen Gate / Rabelais region, and the Mopani Rest Camp region in the central region.
It was on the Rabelais Loop that I’ve had my most recent and perhaps most spectacular Cheetah sighting in the Kruger National Park. I was having a lunch break with six clients at Orpen Gate when other travellers who were exiting the park told us about a Cheetah sighting not far away. This was a birding safari, but birds were forgotten for a little while as we speedily boarded the vehicle and headed off to see if we could find them. I say ‘them’ as the reports were of a female Cheetah with cubs and a fresh Impala kill. Great news indeed and we just hoped that we would be there in time, as Cheetah don’t really hang around at kills, eating as much as they can as quickly as they can before leaving the area in case Hyenas or Lions pitch up. A kilometre or so off the H7 tar road we came across the scene, which wasn’t exactly hard to find as there were a few cars there. About 70 meters off on our left we spotted the female Cheetah, and after some careful observation noted five cubs of about four months old. Cheetahs generally have larger litters than other cat species, so five is by no means unheard of and were spectacular to see. They were feeding on an Impala carcass which was mostly hidden from view in the grass. Hidden from our view that is but not that of the vultures, which soon began gathering. Here’s the interesting thing about the ‘vullies’: while they do of course have brilliant eyesight, apparently able to read a newspaper at several kilometres (which is handy for scanning the obituaries), they observe other scavenging birds and other vultures closely to find their food. In this case there was a Tawny Eagle sitting in a tree close by, watching the scene. A vulture probably saw the Tawny and, knowing that it also scavenges from kills, came down to have a look to see what was happening. Seeing the kill it would have settled down at the scene, either in a tree or on the ground close by. Other vultures would have seen him coming in to land and would then in turn come closer to investigate, which would then attract others from all around, which would have used their keen eyesight to observe the others flying down to ground at a fixed point, and pretty soon there were vultures of four species (White-backed, White-headed, Cape and Hooded Vultures) appearing from all point of the compass. Soon they started gathering on three sides, pressurizing the Cheetahs which were communicating loudly with their bird-like chirping sounds. Soon two Black-backed Jackals appeared and after chasing the scavengers away several times the Cheetah decided that they had eaten enough and that it was time to get out of the area, before the activity attracted something a bit bigger, such as a Spotted Hyena or a Lion.
The Vultures and Jackals piled in with gusto in a dusty melee that saw the remains finished off in a few minutes – an efficient disposal system that spreads the nutrients around for the benefit of many organisms. All in all it was a fantastic introduction to the Kruger and the first time that I’d seen so many cubs there, though I’ve had some incredible cub encounters in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, and we left the sighting to enjoy the rest of our time in the park, happy with having the other cat species on our list so soon.