22 August 2012 by Julienne du Toit

Sibella – Samara’s famous cheetah

More than 150 years ago, the semi-arid Karoo was a land of cheetahs. They followed the great herds of springbok and wildebeest. Then they were shot out by hunters. But here is the start of something new.

Radio-collared Sibella, with cubs. Photo Chris Marais

Here’s a story that starts sad and ends happy. It’s the story of a rare predator in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 2003, a female cheetah was found hunting on a livestock farm in Limpopo province, hours north of Pretoria.

Sibella, living a happily-ever-after life in the Karoo. Photo Chris Marais

Sarah Tompkins, co-owner of Samara Private Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape, tells what happened with a white-hot anger behind her clipped words: 'She was torn by dogs, beaten by men, bound up and gagged with rope, thrown in a cage and left for dead.'

But, she recounts further, the wife of 1 of the hunters (who were involved in catching and abusing the animal) remembered seeing that a reward was offered for live cheetah by the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre, formerly the De Wildt Cheetah Centre, near Pretoria. Were it not this wife’s ambition to redecorate her kitchen, the great spotted cat might have been shot and buried.

There were grave doubts this cheetah would survive in the wild again. One of her hind legs had been ripped open, and the tendon badly torn.

The centre took a chance anyway. Veterinarian Dr Peter Caldwell spent 4 hours in theatre stitching Sibella, as she was named, back together.

A year later, she was healed and ready to be released. But she would always favour her hind leg with its shortened tendon.

The Bateleurs, a group of environmentally committed pilots, flew her down to her new home, Samara Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape's semi-desert Karoo, where cheetahs had last been seen 125 years ago.

A few months later, in August 2004, 2 male ‘problem’ cheetahs called Beethoven and Mozart were released there too.

Everyone hoped against hope that Sibella would mate with 1 of them. She did, and completely exceeded expectations.

From then until now, she has raised no fewer than 20 cubs – contributing a staggering 2% to South Africa’s small cheetah population.

More than a cheetah that had a lucky break, she’s become a kind of ambassador for her kind.

Another astounding thing is that Sibella remembers people kindly. She has a radio collar around her neck, and the rangers at Samara often find her. She kindly allows humans to respectfully approach her and her cubs.

More than a cheetah that had a lucky break, she’s become a kind of ambassador for her kind. National Geographic recently ran a story about her.

It was as if Samara was destined to become a place where cheetahs thrived: up in the mountains on the reserve, overlooking a beautiful valley, is a very rare rock art depiction of a cheetah.

With its rounded belly, it was initially assumed it was a painting of a cheetah that had just eaten (they often gorge themselves on a kill, so much so that their tummies seem fit to burst).

But maybe it was a pregnant cheetah – one like Sibella...

Category: Wildlife

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