Sand Rivers indaba

Catch me if you can

Wombling down a track in the bush early one morning something in the distance caught my eye. I grabbed my binos, and there, about 200 metres away, were two honey badgers or ratels hurtling towards me. Next thing I saw a young cheetah, almost fully grown, chasing after them.

But the ratels suddenly stopped, turned, and ran at the cheetah. The cheetah stopped dead in his tracks, the tables were turned, and the two ratels chased the cheetah back up the track. But after about 40 metres or so, the cheetah stopped, as did the ratels, and then chased them back down the track! This happened at least 5 or 6 times – could this have been a game?

Soon the contestants were really close to me; I could hear the ratels churring and growling and the cheetah was hissing, growling and making absurd birdlike chirrups. At 10 metres the ratels spotted my vehicle and darted off into the bush hotly pursued by the cheetah. I soon lost sight of them but judging by the cacaphony of noises, the cat and mouse game continued.

Suddenly a concerned mature female cheetah appeared, must have been mom, and she too disappeared into the bush trailing her offspring, calling every now and then to junior up ahead.

Ratels are feisty little creatures. I remember a mother with her small baby actually charging at my vehicle to defend her young one. She was in an absolute rage. I’ve also seen a pair of ratels stand their ground against a herd of elephants, and another pair confronting and chasing off a leopard. Not for nothing is the Afrikaans saying, “So taai soos ‘n ratel” – as tough as a ratel. A lot of people say that young cheetah cubs resemble a ratel and that this scares off would be predators. Whether it’s true or not is anyone’s guess.

Sadly, there are very few cheetahs left in the wild in Africa. They now occupy a mere 9% of their historic range. In 1975 the population was estimated at about 15 000 individuals; in 2016 that number had shrunk to around 7 100. There is also a very small population of wild Asian cheetahs in Iran, said to number a few dozen. The last wild Asian cheetah recorded in India was in 1947. I read recently that there are plans afoot to put African cheetahs into the wilds of India, which doesn’t make any kind of sense to me.