At the start of this project the outcome we dreamt of was to be able to release the four girls back into the wild and to live out the rest of their lives as free cats. In late December 2010 we heard the fantastic news that Erindi Game Reserve were interested in taking Chanel and the Chocs. Erindi is one of the largest reserves in the country with 70,000 ha of land and is home to Elephants, Lions, Rhino, Hippos and Crocodiles. Make no mistake, for the girls this would be a BIG step up in division, but one we all knew they were ready to make!
The first week of January was pencilled in for the big move but there was one small matter we had to attend to first….putting the cats back into a holding pen. This was not going to be an easy task as our only option would be to dart the girls and transport them back to the pens whilst they were unconscious and preferably all at the same time.
So early on the morning of the 27th of December 2010 an entourage of keepers, rangers and veterinary staff made their way to the Bellebenno game camp with the aim of having all four cats back in the holding pens by lunchtime. After we had tracked the girls down the plan was for vet Anais and Ranger James to sneak up to the girls (both armed with dart guns) and dart Chanel and Toblerone, two teams would then stay with the cats, wait for them to go down and stretcher them out of the bush to be placed into boxes. Meanwhile the remaining two cats would be darted and the process repeated. But lets just say things did not go according to plan and by the end of the morning only Toblerone was placed back into the holding pen. We returned after lunch with a few tweaks to our approach and within an hour, thanks to some expert shooting from James, Chanel, Nestle and Hershey were all lying unconscious ready to be placed in boxes and reunited with Toblerone.
The 6th of January was the day of the big move and early that morning myself; Kate, James and Carolyn made our way back to the Bellebenno holding pens and boxed all four cats. When we returned to the CCF centre Erindi staff were waiting for us with two vehicles each loaded with a large lion crate. Getting the girls from our boxes into the crates proved a little bit tricky but by 2pm the girls were ready for the journey to their new home. Thankfully Kate and I were invited to accompany James and the Erindi team. Erindi is located in central Namibia and was a good 2 and half hour drive away and the closer we got the more exited we became!
As we entered Erindi we could see that the rainy season was well and truly underway and we had to drive through quite a few rivers to get to an 8ha bomer where the girls would spend the night. Once released into the bomer the girls got an instant taste of the new wildlife that awaited them as in a neighbouring pen was a group of very curious Wild Dogs. We left the girls to settle in and headed to Erindi’s guest lodge to have dinner where we were greeted by one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. The dining room overlooked a dam complete with hippos and crocodiles and behind was a mountain range with rainclouds rolling over them and causing a spectacular rainbow. At this point a picture would be nice but sods law the only pic taken came out blurry, but trust me it was a phenomenal sight. The food was also out of this world and it was great being able to relax knowing the girls would be free cats the very next morning.
We were up early and headed back to the bomer and our initial attempts to tempt the girls out with meat was again thwarted by Nestle who was predictably wary of exiting the gates. Thankfully, this was not going to be a repeat of the ordeal we had releasing her into the Bellebenno game camp all those months ago and Nestle decided it was best to follow her sisters out to freedom. The girls were fed some game meat to give them some energy to explore their new home and get back into the swing of hunting!
Needless to say watching the girls take their first steps as wild cheetahs since they were orphaned as cubs was a fantastic feeling and Kate, James and myself all had a feeling of pride in the job we had done but were especially proud of our four girls! James was the lucky one and got to stay with the Erindi team but we sadly had to go.
As we made our way back to CCF Kate and I probably felt what parents feel when they leave their children at school for the first time, but despite the risks the girls now faced we knew that even if the worst did happen to one of them then at least they would have left this world the same way they came in…wild!
It is now February and the Chanel and Chocolate story just gets better and better! Despite getting of to a slow start resulting in James having to supplemental feed them the girls are now fully supporting themselves and have taken down young Oryx, Steenbok, warthog piglets and a zebra foal. Numerous TV crews have also filmed them, one even capturing an entire Oryx kill. It seems the girls are set for superstardom!!! So there we have it, the Bellebenno release project has been a total success and something I will always be proud to have been a part of.
Good luck girls!