The first-ever cheetah cubs have been sighted in Mountain Zebra National Park after cheetah were introduced to the Park in May 2007. Park rangers first spotted four cubs, along with their two-year old mother, in the Kranskop area of the Park. These cubs are estimated to be about six weeks old.
Days later, the rangers noted that another four cubs - of about four weeks old - had been born to the other female cheetah in the Park. Two male and two female cheetah were released into the Park last year, becoming the first large predators to inhabit the Park since its proclamation in 1937 and fulfilling an important function in restoring the predator-prey balance, as well as enriching the biodiversity of the Park.
The female cheetah are sisters of two years old, a fairly young age for cheetahs to give birth. In an area inhabited by a larger population of cheetah, the breeding of young females such as these would have been suppressed by older females. Female cheetahs disperse after leaving their mothers, taking between one and one and a half years to settle in to new territories before breeding.
Although cheetah cubs do not generally have a very good survival rate, it is expected that most, if not all, of the Park's cubs will survive as they do not face a threat from other large predators.
The two new litters of cubs may have been fathered by both of the two male cheetahs in the Park as both males in a coalition usually mate with the female cheetah. According to recent research conducted in other African national parks, individual cubs in a single cheetah litter may even be fathered by unrelated males in a coalition.
The male cheetahs in Mountain Zebra National Park were sourced from the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Trust, who relocated them from the north western Kalahari area. Males are specifically chosen from different geographical locations to ensure that they are unrelated and hence provide a larger gene pool.
Before relocation to the Park, the males were bonded into a coalition by slowly introducing them to each other over many months, first in adjoining camps and then in the same camp. Male coalition members bond for life.
Cheetah in Mountain Zebra National Park are monitored by means of radio tracking to enable rangers and researchers to study their patterns of movement and ensure that they acclimatise well to their new home. Research focuses on the prey selection, habitat selection and feeding patterns of the cheetah, as well as the change in vigilance and behaviour of the antelope species they target.
Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN's Red Data List, cheetah in national parks are managed as part of a metapopulation to ensure that genetic diversity is maximised, leading to a more robust population.