What happened to the mother cheetah and her 8 cubs?
By Ryan Hillier

In mid-October, we had a truly incredible discovery of a mother cheetah with 8 tiny cubs. Finding new cubs at that age, around 6 weeks old, is special enough as they are such cute little fluff balls and just to see cubs that small is a fantastic experience. But these cubs were an extra special sight to behold as 8 cubs are an exceptional litter size, and there was an added layer of complexity as to whether they were one litter or two different litters whose mothers were sisters. More on that here.

Looking back now, it is very likely that they were two litters who all went with the one mother on the day they were discovered. The suckle marks visible on the teats of the second female that day were not seen on her during subsequent sightings and within the next week or two thereafter she was no longer lactating. There is still a very small chance that she had a litter of her own hidden somewhere else who did not survive, but the coincidences of her being in the same area and her sister having such a huge litter suggest some of the 8 cubs were hers.

Over the next couple of months, we were treated to some unforgettable sightings of these cheetah, and anyone following our social media accounts would have seen an abundance of pictures and videos of them as we saw them regularly. Sadly, some of the cubs did not survive those first few months, heart-breaking and yet also inevitable in the harsh environment in which they live. Enemies are everywhere for cheetah, even more so for a mother with cubs. For a first-time mother like this and with an exceptionally large litter to care for, it was always going to be an impossible task to raise all 8 to maturity. Anything more than half the litter surviving would have been miraculous.

Female cheetah


Although she lost some, she was doing a fantastic job raising the remaining cubs. By mid-December, she had 4 very healthy cubs still in tow and with the birthing season of many antelope species in full swing, things were looking up as hunting would be a lot easier. She moved into the northeastern parts of the reserve, crossing back and forth over the Great Fish River whenever necessary to hunt on either side. The area suited her well enough but can be a difficult area for us to search for her in. The northern side in particular is very dense making things a bit harder for us and although we did find them there, our sightings of them were not as frequent as over the preceding weeks.

Cheetah and cub

Three weeks passed without them being found, despite our best efforts. While we were naturally concerned, it certainly wasn’t panic stations. If there was an area on the reserve for her to disappear in, then this was it. With an abundance of new impala lambs in the northern parts of the reserve, her spending time up there and taking advantage of the easy hunting opportunities made a lot of sense, and the rugged terrain was always a factor for us when searching for her there.

There are other cheetah cubs on Kwandwe, with one female, in particular, having 3 cubs of a very similar age. So while the viewing has remained fantastic, there were one or two occasions of initial confusion as to the identity of mother cheetahs and cubs that were found. But it wasn’t the missing female and her litter and they remained unseen. 

Cheetah cub

Then Ivan and Jason found two cheetah cubs near Boschgift Bridge. The sighting was brief, the cubs were moving quickly and calling as they trotted in and out of the thickets, clearly searching for their mother and siblings. Given that the cubs were a little stressed, Ivan left them to it. The animals come first and we are always trying to make sure we are observing them without impacting them in any way. It was likely that the cubs had become separated during a hunt and were now trying to find the others in the aftermath of a chase. Leaving them to it would be best, allowing them to reunite in due course without any inadvertent disturbances.

Having seen these two cubs, we were optimistic that we would see them all again, hopefully with full bellies after a successful hunt. And yet, despite our searching this area, no one found them. Under the circumstances, a concerted effort was made by both the guiding and the ecology teams to find them. Had it been during a hunt or had something more sinister taken place? Had the cubs been split from the others by being the hunted rather than the hunters? Where were their mother and siblings? Was she still alive? Until we found out more, there was absolutely nothing we could do. A multitude of questions and yet after trying every avenue we could, we had no answers. Days of searching turned up nothing.

Cheetah and cubs

Days became a week, a week became two, and now it stands at just over a month and there has still been no sign of them. All the questions remain and there are simply no answers. While we remain optimistic, as time goes on we must concede that there is a possibility of no happy ending to this chapter. 

But there is still hope and for good reason! In a vast area such as this, there are many goings-on that we are not privy to and at times certain animals have gone for long periods without being seen but were found again in due course.

Cheetah and cubs

Years ago, a very similar scenario unfolded. A mother cheetah and her 4 cubs, who were almost the same age as these cubs, disappeared, and for months we feared the worst, only for her to reappear 4 and a half months later with cubs still in tow. It was a story that became a legend to the guiding team back then. 

This female and her cubs are already the stuff of legend here, but perhaps their whole story is not yet written. Hopefully, they’re still out there and will reappear soon, it could be in a month, in a couple of weeks, or even a few days…or it could be tomorrow!

Images by Ryan Hillier