WHAT IT TAKES TO HABITUATE A CHEETAH
Many guests have had the pleasure of spending time observing some of the magnificent cheetah that find sanctuary on the Tswalu private reserve, but they might not be aware of the work that goes into making these wild cats feel comfortable in the presence of humans. Conservation photographer Marcus Westberg spent a day with conservator Clement Motau to understand what it takes to habituate cheetahs.
Every few minutes, Clement Motau stops the vehicle, shuts down the engine and scans the grass covered area between two sand dunes using his telemetry set, occasionally standing up on his seat for a stronger signal. The beeps are regular and loud.
“I know she is here somewhere,” he mutters, more to himself than to me.
The ‘she’ in question is a three-year-old cheetah. She is identified using the number of her collar, 149.250 – the cheetahs at Tswalu are not given names – but as that’s a bit clunky for my liking, for the purposes of this story I will call her Artemis, after the Greek goddess of wild animals and hunting.
Clement, who works as a conservator as part of Tswalu’s wildlife conservation team, knows Artemis fairly well. For the last few months, especially since she was fitted with a collar, he has been tracking her on a regular basis. The goal is habituation – slowly, slowly getting her used to the presence of vehicles – and it’s an on-going process.
Cheetahs are Africa’s most vulnerable big cats, with just over 6000 left in the wild. Vulnerable both to other predators and conflict with humans, cheetahs are undoubtedly one of the reasons why safari-lovers choose Tswalu.
THE VALUE OF WILDLIFE HABITUATION
Habituating wildlife to the presence of people tends to happen behind the scenes, especially in the early stages when working with young animals. It’s worth remembering that any time you spend around wild animals on a guided safari becomes part of that process. Still, the initial habituation process takes a lot of time and patience. Mountain gorilla families famously require five to seven years of daily visits from trackers before tourists get to spend time with them. At Tswalu, due to the property’s vastness – 118,000 hectares – and the relatively small number of vehicles, animals such as cheetahs and meerkats are treated in much the same way, receiving regular visits from the wildlife conservation team. That way they learn that in this privately protected area, humans pose no threat.
Observing Clement using telemetry to locate Artemis, it appears that it might have worked a little too well. Even though we know she is nearby, the noise of the engine clearly isn’t enough to rouse the cheetah from whichever bush she is resting beneath. Needing to locate her, Clement decides to get out of the car and try his luck on foot. That does the trick. A stone’s throw from us, the slender shape of a cat moves from one shrub to another before sitting down and scanning the horizon to the north, away from us. She might have been napping, but now she appears to be hungry.
Back in the car, we stay just behind her, stopping whenever she stops. I start a whispered conversation with Clement, but he tells me that it would be better to speak normally.
“I want her to get used to hearing people talk,” he explains. “She needs to get used to human voices.”
Clement, now 29 years old, spent his early childhood in Middelburg, where he lived on a farm with his grandmother and uncles. At age five he joined his mother in Soshanguve, a township in Pretoria, but he would go back home to the rural area every chance he got, including most school holidays.
“I enjoyed climbing mountains and being outdoors. And I watched a lot of National Geographic channel. I always knew I wanted to work with wild animals.”
He decided to study nature conservation rather than become a guide because, as he puts it, the latter would mean that he was constantly surrounded by people.
“Dealing with people all the time is not my strongest point. So, I thought, let me rather do something in wildlife management. Talking is nice, but I like being quiet, too.”
STUDYING TO BECOME A CONSERVATOR
After three years of studies, he came to Tswalu to start his practical year in 2016. He was offered a full-time position on the conservation team, while completing his conservation degree through Tswane University of Technology. Though one day rarely looks the same as another, with tasks ranging from collaring wild dogs to mending fences, the chance to spend this much time with one of the cheetahs is an experience he particularly enjoys.
“I wouldn’t want to focus on only one thing. Conservation is broad, and a bit of understanding here and there makes you versatile. I love that I get to work with everything from predators and herbivores to reptiles and insects. But I really like the big cats and rhinos.”
An hour after we first spotted her, as the sun begins to dip towards the horizon, Artemis is still on the move, clearly looking for a meal. She is a beautiful animal, and I am in no hurry to leave. Clement, however, suggests that we do exactly that. Though she seems unbothered by our presence, we don’t want to negatively impact her chances of feeding, and we have had more than our fair share of time with her. Wildlife tourism is an essential conservation tool, both to raise awareness and to pay for all the associated costs. But the wellbeing of the animals always comes first.
“She was very obliging with us today,” he says as we pull back onto the road, the setting sun behind us. “So relaxed. The guides and our guests will love her. She’ll be a future star.”
The Tswalu Foundation exists primarily to support ecological research on the reserve. Long-term studies on fauna, flora and habitats ultimately inform conservation decisions, and support Tswalu’s vision to restore the natural environment, re-establish and protect biodiversity, and maintain the Kalahari’s characteristic ecological processes.
You can help support the work of the Tswalu Foundation by funding a project or making a donation: https://tswalu.com/tswalu-foundation/support-ecological-research/
All images by Marcus Westberg. Keep following @marcuswestbergphotography on instagram
KEEPING TRACK OF OUR SUSTAINABILITY JOURNEY
Tswalu is using Weeva, the app-based sustainability management tool, to put sustainability into practice. Modelled on The Long Run’s 4C sustainability framework, it makes measuring, tracking, and improving operational efficiency and impact easier.