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Monday, 30 January 2012

Xena and Luna: The First 8 Days of Freedom

22 January 2012 - Day 1

As you read on Laurie's report, two of our female cheetahs, Xena and Luna, were released today into the 4,000-ha Bellebenno game camp. Once all the CCF staff, interns and guests left, Rachel and I stayed with the cheetahs. They ate the carcass we fed them without any aggression towards each other. Xena protected it from us several times by charging at us, then slapping and hissing. The remainder of the evening it rained, forcing Rachel and I to leave them. It will be interesting if we find them together tomorrow.

23 January 2012 - Day 2

The cheetahs, with their massive bellies, were surprisingly still together at the carcass. After such a meal, it was expected that they would rest all day. It was not until around 18:00 when Xena began to drift away from Luna, exploring her new freedom. She let Rachel and I follow her for a short while, but in this time we witnessed her clawing at a tree with her front paws, a sign of marking. Eventually she seemed to become “annoyed” of our presence and ran off. Then the rains came and Rachel and I had to retreat back to the car and ultimately leave them.

24 January 2012 - Day 3

Today Xena and Luna were still separated, but not by more than 300-500m. They were independently seen walking along the puddle-filled roads most of the morning (at different times and in different places). We followed them, but both would constantly turn around to check on us then run away. Rachel and I decided it best to leave them alone as to not alter their natural behaviour. The heavy rains came again as the sun went down. Unfortunately the tracking equipment does not function properly in the rain so we left them for the night.

25 January 2012 - Day 4
Luna (CCF archive photo)
We found Luna first this morning. She allowed us to stay watching her as she rested in the grass. A bold Black-Backed jackal approached her and then swiftly ran away. This caught Luna’s attention and she chased after it. As we tried to keep up, we then found her running directly past us, but this time she was hunting a female steenbok! Unfortunately the attempt was unsuccessful. Afterwards, Rachel and I went to find Xena but were having a very difficult time pinpointing her exact location. Then suddenly we found her about two metres up a tree, utilising its height for an improved vantage point. She clumsily circled around in the fork of the tree before jumping down to land. In the afternoon we found Luna in a very open area with few trees or bushes. We later discovered she made her FIRST KILL! It was a warthog piglet and she nearly consumed the entire animal. Xena avoided us the entire evening sprinting away from us whenever we approached. They were still in the same general location of one another, but not together.

26 January 2012 - Day 5

This morning was another day of following an endlessly beeping receiver. The cheetahs would run away from Rachel and me before we had a chance to even see them, therefore we would track them without seeing them. They did leave trace amounts of their spoor on the still muddy roads. We could tell one of them drank from a puddle in the road. In the afternoon we found Xena and she was on her FIRST KILL! It was a warthog piglet and the kill was made in the same general area as Luna’s first kill (open bush). Later we found Luna; she had moved 3km since the morning. She was in completely new territory covered in extremely thick acacia bushes. Only after 5 days and I am more than confident these females would be able to live in the wild.

27 January 2012 - Day 6

While tracking Xena and Luna in the morning, we first found Luna. Being that it was still dark outside, we used our torches (flashlights) and saw her green eye shine peering through the grasses. Earlier in the week we found Xena while it was still dark and she had red-orange eye shine. This is interesting to note because it has been thought and taught that predators only have orange eye shine while prey species have green. Eye shine results from a layer of cells behind the retina, called tapetum lucidum, that reflects light. It is most commonly seen in nocturnal animals that need this reflective layer to enhance night vision.

Xena (CCF archive photo)
In the evening, we found Xena again and this time she was very defensive. She then picked up a carcass in her jaws. It was her second kill in two consecutive days; another warthog piglet! She is proving herself very adaptable to her newly wild environment. Luna on the other hand seems to continue moving eastbound through Bellebenno further away from her release mate.

28 January 2012 - Day 7

Today we found Luna before she began moving. We found her decently close to camp as she began her morning awakening. Starting with repeated yawns, autogrooming, scratching her back on the stiff grass, and then getting up to stretch. She later began walking and stood upon a termite mound gazing all around. Throughout the entirety of the day and night, Xena avoided Rachel and me, running away from us whenever we approached. In the evening Luna made her second kill, another warthog piglet. This year in Bellebenno, there has been a massive warthog piglet outbreak and their population seems to be exponentially growing. Having Xena and Luna in Bellebenno will keep the warthog population in check, proving the cheetahs’ role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

29 January 2012 - Day 8

Surprisingly, Xena let Rachel and me follow her this morning. We watched as she began walking into the bush, then running, and then bouncing. It was behaviour I have never seen before in a cheetah. As she continued bouncing through the bush we then heard a warthog piglet squealing. It appeared she was teasingly playing with the piglet. She could have easily killed the warthog if she wanted to, but she seemed more interested in the playful chase. This was good to note that she was not just killing everything that moved and that she only hunted when hungry. The rest of the evening was dedicated to following their signals on the receiver. They were moving and did not want us to catch up to them. When we left them were in the same general area.

Will send photos as soon as we can.



  1. Anonymous1:25 pm

    Thanks so much for these news!
    You are lucky people !

  2. Eleanor (Earthwatch)4:52 pm

    Hi Ryan and Rachel, Glad to see that the girls are not giving you the headaches the boys were, but then of course they're girls and a such cotten on much quicker than boys! So pleased things are going so well and thank you for the news.