Wild at Heart

A special connection between a cheetah and a Toyota Land Cruiser made a trip to Thanda Safari in KZN unforgettable.

It’s not often that you get to see what happens behind the scenes in game reserves. Behind the calm, welcoming faces offering up wildlife encounters extraordinaire followed by warm scented hand towels to wipe off the dust after a thrilling game drive, is a hive of activity. In addition to the maintenance of the 14,000-hectare property and five-star service at Thanda Safari in KwaZulu-Natal, there are never-ending critical interventions on the greater reserve.  

We were about to head back to our luxurious suite after an early morning game drive at Thanda Safari, followed by a scrumptious breakfast, when we were advised that we had to be escorted as a pair of male lions had made themselves comfortable inside the camp, catching some shade between the rooms. We didn’t see them, but the maintenance and cleaning staff kept an eye and updated the team regularly until we were given the all-clear and business in the bush resumed as normal. 

An aerial view of Thanda safari game reserve | Top 5 Game Reserve in KZN

Later that day over a light lunch, I chatted to Mariana Venter, Wildlife Operations Co-ordinator at Thanda Safari and Lorraine Doyle, Thanda’s Wildlife Manager and Resident Ecologist, who ensures that the private game reserve follows the best conservation practices and procedures. Halfway through hearing about what actually takes place on a daily basis and the logistics around game management, Venter was called to attend to a sickly female elephant that had collapsed at the watering hole. That extraction called for a co-ordinated effort of various parties, and hours later while on our evening game drive, we saw the team still at work under the setting sun. It was an exhausting end to a long day as earlier that morning the wildlife operations team had darted a couple of resident rhinos and fitted horn pods containing transmitters for monitoring purposes.

Mariana Venter, Wildlife Operations Co-ordinator at Thanda Safari

Our ranger Sabelo and tracker Madide ensured that our game drives delivered. The privilege of watching two lionesses with four playful cubs for 45 minutes, three enormous elephants cross the road metres away from our vehicle, dehorned rhino calmly feeding, unaware of the constant efforts to protect them, and a cheetah with her four fluffy cubs, are reminders of a trip to an exceptionally special reserve. But the stories behind them are what will remain with me long after the pictures are filed.  

The cheetah and her cubs are a conservation success story that Venter is exceptionally proud of. When this female cheetah arrived at Thanda a few years ago she was badly injured. She underwent treatment and was placed in a large boma so that she could recover before being released back into the wild. A few months later, while out on the reserve in her 20-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, Venter noticed that that cheetah appeared to be following the vehicle. “I guessed that she recognised the sound of the Cruiser from her recovery time in the boma,” says Venter. The cheetah was thin and in poor condition. “The vet darted her and after examination, discovered she was around six weeks pregnant. She was fed and nurtured in the boma, and released back into the reserve with her cubs, all of which reached adulthood.”

That was a happy ending in itself. But then this year, the same thing happened. Once again, she was allowed to gain strength in the safety of the boma and give birth to her four cubs before being released back into the reserve when they were four months old to give them a better chance of survival. “The vet believes that due to a torn uterine muscle, she can’t hunt when pregnant due to the discomfort, hence the poor condition on both occasions,” says Venter.  

Cheetahs at Thanda Safari Game Reserve

After tracking down the female and her brood of four to check that they were all thriving, Venter drove us to the boma in her Land Cruiser to drop off a ‘meal’ for the two male cheetahs that are currently under their watch. The one is recovering after undergoing surgery to fuse the joints in his leg. Unable to hunt due to injury, the pair need to be fed during the rehabilitation process. Being a vulnerable species, cheetahs are afforded a certain level of protection and Thanda Safari partners works with the Endangered Wildlife Trust to protect and increase their numbers, explains Venter.  

The costs of these initiatives and protecting the rhinos in particular is astronomical. For guests wishing to contribute financially, Thanda offers activities that give guests a behind-the-scenes glimpse into conservation work: rhino tracking with the resident rhino monitors, who protect and record data on the black and white rhino, and cheetah tracking with the Wildlife Conservation Team. These paid-for activities are in addition to the twice-daily game drives. 

Cheetahs at Thanda Safari Game Reserve

About Thanda Safari 

The multiple-award-winning Thanda Safari is a Big Five game reserve in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal. It offers three accommodation options:  

  • Thanda Safari Lodge has nine enormous bush suites with views of the surrounding game reserve.
  • Villa iZulu is an exclusive-use home that sleeps 10 guests in five suites. It’s ideal for families or groups. 
  • Thanda Tented Camp features 15 colonial safari-style tents, each with its own viewing deck and en-suite bathrooms

 For information, rates and specials, email reservations@thanda.co.za or call (032) 586 0149.