An enormous litter… or is it?
By Ryan Hillier

An incredible discovery was made yesterday on the reserve: Kwandwe has 8 tiny new cheetah cubs! For a few weeks now, we had all suspected there was a new litter somewhere in the area, thanks to several sightings of a female cheetah with suckle marks. The chances were that she had cubs hidden somewhere in a secluded den site – and yesterday, we finally we caught sight of them.

The excitement (and cuteness overload!) of finding new cubs for the first time is an experience that’s hard to describe, and, once we’ve oohed and aahed over the tiny furry babies, the next thing we’re all itching to find out is how many there are in the litter. Usually, a female cheetah has between two and six cubs and watching the little ones interact is magical. You can imagine our shock and surprise when Courtney and Vuyani called in on the radio to say that there were eight cubs. Eight! The team were in utter disbelief, and there were radio calls coming in left, right and centre, with guides asking them to repeat the message as they were sure they must have misheard. In the field team, Doc simply said, “Yoh!” – a term of extreme surprise and a saying not usually part of our standard radio procedure!

A litter size of eight is incredibly rare even in captivity let alone in the wild like this. In fact, after a quick search, there is a Guinness World Record from as recently as 2017 of a cheetah female giving birth to 8 cubs in the St Louis Zoo. But, before we get too excited over seeing our name in dazzling lights in the book of World Records, there is a little confusion as to whether or not this is actually one litter…

After Courtney and Vuyani radioed in the sighting, Matt and Rasi arrived to get their first view of the little cubs. Very close to the litter, they spotted another adult female (who is actually the sister of the first), making a total of 10 cheetah in one sighting – certainly not something you see every day! The immediate question was then: could this perhaps be two mothers and their respective litters of cubs who simply bumped in to one another?

The second female also had what appeared to be suckle marks on her belly, so it is possible that some of the cubs were hers. However, the suckle marks weren’t quite as visible as her sister’s and when she wandered off some time later, she did so alone without any cubs in tow. So at the moment, we don’t have a straightforward answer – and there are still lots of possibilities to consider.

On one hand, it is possible that all the cubs do belong to one litter and the second female only coincidentally strayed into their path. On the other hand, it is also possible that this is in fact two separate litters and that the cubs simply got confused and all stayed together with one female instead of each litter going with their respective mothers.

The cubs are all the same size, but that still doesn’t explain anything definitively. Neither of these females have had cubs before, and, as they are sisters, it is highly likely that they would have gone into oestrus for the first time at the same time. If this is the case, they would have mated and subsequently given birth at the same time too, resulting in the cubs from each litter being the same age and size… The conclusion here is that it’s impossible to tell if they are different litters only from their size.

So, how likely is it for the cubs to have gotten confused, with some going with ‘the wrong mother’? This is actually fairly likely, and something we saw a few years ago with two other female cheetah on the reserve, both of whom had cubs at the same time. After a chance encounter, a cub from one mother ended up going with the other mother by mistake, a switch that ended up being permanent. In this current situation however, it was the entire litter rather than only one or two cubs that accidentally went with the wrong mother, which is a lot less likely. Then, add in the fact that the female who moved off alone did so quite happily without attempting to call any cubs to go with her, and the likelihood drops even more.

But it’s still not a guarantee! Time is the only thing that will give us some answers, but even then, some aspects might still be a mystery. What is certain is that this a very special find, and we’ll keep you posted with our findings.

All images by Matthew Derry