January 30, 2023
It's sunset in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, and I’m one of a team of veterinarians, biologists, and journalists standing in the shade of a milkwood tree. Ten IV bags hang from the tree’s branches, their plastic tubes dangling like a bead curtain. On the ground are rows of medical kits. Everyone is silent. We’re here to relocate 10 cheetahs from South Africa to Mozambique’s Coutada 11, and those 10 cheetahs are housed in large pens (called bomas) located just beyond a wall of brush, across a sand road. Cheetahs are much more sensitive to disturbance than larger cats like lions, so we go to great lengths not to stress them any more than necessary. If too many people crowd the bomas, or there’s too much commotion, the cheetahs may begin running until they overheat and die.
Then we hear it. The snick of Dr. Peter Caldwell’s dart gun, the thwap of a dart striking, and a snarl. One cheetah has been sedated, and soon it will be ready for the move to a new home in Mozambique. One by one, the cheetahs are sedated, and one by one, we move into the bomas to collect them, carrying them on stretchers back to the milkwood tree where Dr. Caldwell and his assistants begin working on the cats. Time is not on our side. We waited until the cool evening to move the cheetahs but hope to have the job completed before sundown.
As the first four cheetahs lie sedated and masked under the milkwood tree, 85-year-old Mary Cabela kneels for a photo with the cats. Mary and her late husband, Dick, founded Cabela’s, one of the largest outdoor retailers in the world, and the Cabela Family Foundation helped fund the relocation of these cheetahs to Mozambique’s Coutada 11. This is a critical move for the cheetah as a species. Wild cheetah populations continue to decline as human settlements expand into Africa’s remaining wilderness areas and crucial habitat is lost. This necessary relocation project is made possible by funding generated by hunters.
Moves like the cheetah relocation are complex and costly. First, the cheetahs chosen to be relocated (12 in all) were identified on game reserves that have an overabundance of cats. The cats must have diverse genetics to prevent inbreeding, and the job of identifying the cheetah candidates fell to Vincent van der Merwe, who oversees cheetah metapopulations in South Africa.
“A metapopulation is a collection of different populations of a species,” said van der Merwe. This means monitoring cats on the 65 reserves spread across South Africa where they are currently found. Before the relocation began, the biologist first had to prove that cheetahs were once native to Coutada 11, and after hours of combing through literature, he found what he was looking for in the British Library. “In 1914 a book was published by a hunter who witnessed a martial eagle diving at prey in the grass near the Mungari River in Mozambique,” said van der Merwe. “The ‘prey’ proved to be a pair of cheetah cubs that survived unhurt.”
The location—the Mungari River—was only a few miles from where the cats would be released in Mozambique, proof that the species previously existed in the area.
“We wanted to find cheetahs from hard populations,” said van der Merwe. A “hard” population of cheetahs is one that has been exposed to large, competing predators like lions, hyenas, and leopards that will kill cheetahs. Relocating cheetahs from “soft” populations would likely result in the cats being killed by the other predators because they’ve never competed with them.
Relocating big cats is a delicate process. The veterinary team takes blood samples, monitors vitals, administers IVs, and treats wounds.
The milkwood tree where we stood in silence becomes a hive of activity when the first cheetah is transported from the bomas to this makeshift lab. Dr. Caldwell’s three assistants take blood, monitor vitals, administer IVs, remove darts, and treat the puncture wounds. No one speaks. As the assistants work, Dr. Caldwell directs them with hand movements, not words. When the veterinary assistants finish, we carry the sedated cats to their cages, past three generations of the Cabela family that are taking part in this move. It’s well after sundown when the last of the cats is moved into a crate. One by one the cheetahs awaken as the sedation wears off. They’re confused by the limits of their crates, but they won’t be in them for long. In the morning, we travel to Mozambique.
Conserving Coutada 11
The cheetah relocation project is a critically important move for conservation, but it’s fair to ask what role the hunting community plays in this project. In truth, hunters began paving the way for this relocation back in 1994. At that time, Mozambique was two years removed from a violent civil war that had lasted 16 years and displaced millions of people. Great portions of Mozambique’s wilderness areas also were wiped away by the fighting. Tracts of prime habitat were burned or bombed, and what game remained was shot indiscriminately by soldiers or snared by the few remaining local villagers in remote areas that were left to eke out a living from the scarred land.
In 1994, Professional Hunter Mark Haldane arrived at Mozambique’s Coutada 11, which lies just south of the Zambezi River, near the Indian Ocean, to determine whether it would be possible to conduct safaris in the area. The only means to access the area was with canoes and a team of a dozen porters. The habitat was damaged and game populations were low, but Mark thought that with time and effort Coutada 11 might someday be restored. He immediately started an anti-poaching campaign to reduce the illegal hunting of the remaining game animals in Coutada 11. Prior to Mark’s arrival, meat hunters had built long artificial walls of vegetation across the Coutada, and in these walls they had cut openings and laced them with snares. The result was that any animal crossing through the fences was caught and either killed or wounded and lost, decimating the already vulnerable animal populations. Mark sympathized with the need for local people to eat and provided meat obtained from hunts. This eliminated the need to poach and reduced the number of indiscriminate snares that could just as easily kill a Livingstone’s suni or a lion. Mark also employed 50 local Sena villagers, offering them the opportunity for steady employment in the area.
Funding from hunts provided Mark with the capital necessary to provide for local communities and protect Coutada 11’s wildlife. Over the decades that followed, the transformation has been remarkable. An aerial census in 1994 counted 44 sable, about 1,200 Cape buffalo, and just five Selous zebra. The most recent survey numbers produced population estimates of over 3,000 sable, 2,500 zebra, and thousands of waterbuck, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, reedbuck, and warthog. Coutada 11 has become the premier place to hunt free-range Cape buffalo in Africa, and the population has risen to about 25,000 animals.
When the Zambezi Delta dries every August and September, hunters may encounter herds of a thousand or more buffalo on the floodplain, making a Delta buffalo hunt one of the last great adventures in Africa. This abundance of game and the corresponding increase in funding from hunters has helped those living in the Delta by providing money for projects like a school, a medical clinic, and an agricultural operation that generated more than 200 tons of rice last year alone. Between regular meat drops that provide villagers with 10 pounds of fresh game meat per family per week and the rice harvest, none of the 2,000 villagers in Coutada 11 go hungry, so none of them need to poach. Zambeze Delta Safaris provides employment for nearly 100 villagers annually, children have a local school to attend, and a new clinic provides immediate medical attention to a population that, until recently, had to walk 18 miles to reach a doctor.
In 2018 the Cabela Family Foundation and the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance teamed up with Mark Haldane and his Zambeze Delta Safaris to help reintroduce 24 lions into Coutada 11. That move was largely funded by hunters. Since there are no domestic livestock in Coutada 11 (where sleeping sickness kills sheep, goats, cattle, and dogs) and no fences, these lions were released into an area with ample game, vast wild spaces, a small human population with a respect for the role wildlife plays in providing funding, food, and employment. Those original 24 lions have grown to over 60. With so much habitat and game, lion cub survival rate stands at over 80 percent, far better than the 20 percent cub survival rate found elsewhere in Africa. By 2050, biologists believe that Coutada 11 will represent 10 percent of the entire wild lion population in Africa.
The Cheetahs Arrive
On the morning following the cheetah capture and crating, we fly in Pilatus jets, first to Nelspruit, South Africa, where we present the export permits for the cats (and where one inspector, nosing through the airplane, nearly falls down the stairs when a cheetah hisses and strikes at him from inside a crate). From there we fly to Beira, Mozambique, where we clear customs and once again provide officials with stacks of forms. Then on to Coutada 11.
From the port window, I can see the contrast between the burned-out farmlands surrounding the hunting area and the rich, green landscape of Coutada 11. When we land on the grass airstrip at Zambeze Delta’s Mungari Camp, trucks are waiting and the crates are loaded for the final leg of the journey, through green forests where lianas hang from tall tropical trees and small antelope like suni and red duiker, once nearly extirpated in these forests by poachers, dart away into the thick bush.
There are bomas located near camp, and this is where the cheetahs will acclimate before being released into their new home in Coutada 11. Dan Cabela, Dick and Mary’s son, and one of the principal players in this move, is joined by Ivan Carter of the Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance and Mark Haldane. It’s evening, 24 hours after we’ve crated these cheetahs in South Africa, and when they lift the gate, two big male cheetahs race into the light of the evening sun. For five minutes these cats trot around the perimeter of the enclosure then lie down in the shade of a bush. We move to the next boma to release more cats. A truck is coming from the floodplains with reedbuck that have been killed to feed the cheetahs.
The world’s cheetah population continues to decline as habitat disappears, but by releasing these cats in Mozambique, the wild cheetahs’ range increases by 2.2 million acres, or 30 percent. The cats will find a paradise here when they are released: no fences, no roads to cross, no hordes of tourists or domestic livestock with which to contend. There will be challenges to their survival—lions, hyenas, and leopards all roam freely here—but that has always been the way of Africa. And now, that is the way it is here because of hunter-funded conservation.
Hunters Pay, Wildlife Stays
Hunting is coming under heavy assault, especially African hunting. For the open-minded, that assault should end with the story of Coutada 11. Where else in Africa has so much habitat been restored so successfully? Where do native populations exist in peace with wild game? Cheetahs are not importable to the United States and these cats won’t be hunted, but their reintroduction is part of an ongoing mission to restore the entire ecosystem in Coutada 11.
Coutada 11 is unique, but the truths of hunter-based conservation are not. Sportsmen have been preserving both game and non-game animals for decades by protecting habitat and funding projects like this that make a measurable difference in the health and welfare of vulnerable wildlife species. As the opposition continues to pour millions of dollars into anti-hunting initiatives, they willfully ignore realities of wildlife management in developing countries. But the truth is in the facts, and in a single day the threatened cheetah’s range increased by 30 percent in Africa. Anti-hunters cannot construct a valid argument against that reality.
For more information on Coutada 11 or to become directly involved in upcoming conservation projects, visit these organizations.
Cabela Family Foundation; cabelafamilyfoundation.org
Ivan Carter Wildlife Conservation Alliance; ivancarterwca.org
Zambeze Delta Conservation; zambezedeltaantipoaching.com