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Penta, Pins and Needle


cheetah pentacheetah pentacheetah penta 2 cubs

Since her release into the Okonjima, 20 000 ha Nature Reserve more than a year ago on 4 June 2013, Penta has had it tough. She struggled to find water and food and to avoid predators, which were responsible for the loss of two of her five cubs in the first three weeks after their release. One was taken by a leopard and the other one unknown. This made us realize just how difficult it is for a cheetah to be relocated into a new area.

2013: Penta and Cubs - The Quandary of Rescue and Release 

penta 5 cubs 2013
Penta and 5 cubs.
penta 4 cubs 2013
Penta and 4 cubs

It took her a good six months to settle in to her new environment with her remaining three cubs, two females and one male. In December 2013 she started making regular kills to feed all four of them and became very popular with our Okonjima guests going out on cheetah tracking.

On 10 February 2014 she was seen with one of our dominant male cheetahs, Bones, and shortly after that she started leaving her cubs, then 18 months old, for a few days and then returning to them. Was she perhaps pregnant and preparing her cubs to go it alone? On 17 March she left her cubs for good and moved into the northern part of the reserve.

At the beginning of May, Penta was getting bigger and fatter and showing signs that she was indeed pregnant. On 18 May 2014 we were rewarded with four new cheetah cubs.

cheetah penta 2014 cubs borncheetah penta 2014 cubs borncheetah penta 2014 cubs born
(cubs 10 days old)


While Penta was doing fine by herself and nursing four new babies, her three older cubs were struggling without their mother. They made small kills and at least stuck together, but found it difficult to take a territory and make it their own, and got pushed into the furthest most southern corner of the reserve by our dominant cheetah coalition 'The Siblings' (two males and a female).

penta older cheetah cubs on their ownpenta older cheetah cubs on their own

Needle was the only cub collared and we felt the time had come to collar the other two as well, as they obviously would have to be monitored closely. On 19 May Dr Ulf Tubessing and a film crew came all the way from Windhoek to do the darting.

darting and collarsdarting and collarsdarting and collars

Sadly a freak accident happened shortly after they were collared. The collar on the male cub became wedged over his bottom two canines and he broke his neck in the struggle to get rid of the collar and died. It was a shock to all. A collar causing the death of a cat had never happened before, and is seldom reported by other researchers.

The collar was placed around his neck the same way it is done with all other cats – but the new collar designs have very 'slippery/rounded' battery packs, and a young cheetah’s jaw is shorter than an adult cheetah’s jaw, or a leopard’s jaw. We suspect that this combination, plus the fact that this cat had never been collared before, were the reasons he struggled more than others and the battery pack was forced over his two canines with his paws and then got hooked.


When collaring carnivores:

  • Make sure that once fastened, you judge the 'tightness' by making sure it does not go over the ears – which is obviously the issue with leopard more so than with cheetah, who have larger heads in comparison to the neck diameter, and furrier neck hairs.
  • With young cheetahs one also needs to take into consideration their short, bottom jaw – at least a cm shorter than a fully grown cheetah.
  • After tightening the strap of the collar, try your best to pull it off in all directions to make sure that it won't be displaced, yet leaving enough room for a chunk of meat to be swallowed with ease to prevent choking.
  • Unfortunately some cats just don't like the feel of the collar and they attack it with their paws more aggressively than others do. They push the collar forward with their paws until the top slips over the ears or the bottom slips over the teeth, getting stuck in the mouth. (It also depends on the angle of the lower canines when lowering the mandible against the neck) We have heard about a leopard in the western Cape that did the same thing – getting her teeth caught in the collar. She died about a week after she was released.
  • Always be more wary of a collar that is too loose than one that is too tight – but when collaring young animals make sure you regularly loosen the strap as the cats grows. This is one of the negative sides of researching young carnivores, because one has to dart them more regularly and make sure they stay within the area you are monitoring.

After this unfortunate accident, Needle and her sister Pins had to go it alone. After they were collared, we released them into a different area of the park that had more prey and they defiantly spent more time hunting and roaming the new plains, instead of staying in one area and hoping AfriCat would turn up with their next meal. They had had good training from their mother Penta, so had no reason not to make it out there. Needle and Pins were also given a long-acting, reversible contraceptive, seeing that they were not fully self-sustaining yet.

'Contraception is a reversible process– and therefore all rehabilitated cheetah females will be able to have cubs in the park in the future, but will need to be managed. An island-bound conservation environment such as this needs to be managed differently to a wilderness area. The ideal contraceptive for wildlife should have no side effects. It should also be safe in pregnant females, have minimal effects on behaviour, should not pass through the food chain, be affordable and delivery should be easy – ideally allowing remote delivery. In many cases a reversible method is preferable to permanent methods so that animals can breed again at a later stage.'Dr Henk Bertschinger

Read more about safe contraception:
Contraception in wildlife
AfriCat Research


On the other side of the park disaster struck. Only three weeks after Penta had given birth to four beautiful cubs, they were found bitten to death in the den, with Penta nowhere to be seen. We suspected it was the wild dogs who were in that rocky area on that particular day, and the bite marks were smaller than a leopard bite. Again it just shows how difficult it is for cheetah to survive in the wild.

cheetah cubs 2014 junecheetah cubs 2014 junecheetah cubs 2014 june

After she lost her cubs, Penta wandered through the reserve again making regular kills. She even met up with Needle and Pins for a couple of days, maybe just for some company who knows, but sadly they separated again. We were not too concerned, because she is an independent, wild cheetah and hunting well. Born in the wild she has lived most of her life on farmland.

joined with needle and pins 2014


Then on 14 July a call came through from the AfriCat Team that Penta’s signal seemed to be coming from outside the park. The signal was weak and kept disappearing. At first we thought the collar was faulty, as we’d experienced so many technical errors on the collars lately, but we decided to extend the search outside the reserve. Fortunately for AfriCat, Okonjima now owns a Gyro-copter and it was sent up to investigate. (The Gyro is used for game-counts, fence and veld-fire checks, emergency tracking and as an anti-poaching 'tool'.) Flying above the target gives you a more direct signal without the interference of hills and river-banks, warthog holes and thick bush.

The call came back from the pilot, Janek Hoth, that she was about 10 km west of the Okonjima Nature Reserve’s western boundary – on one of our neighbouring cattle farms.

It was late afternoon, so team AfriCat had to wait for the next day to go out and find her. All the neighbours were alerted and all promised not to shoot her. As the sun rose the next morning, the Gyro-copter was up in the air to locate her position and to find a road to the area she was in. She was now about 20 km west, near the Mount Etjo Hunting and Game Reserve. Again farmers were called to let them know about Penta’s location and to get permission to drive through their farms to get to her. It was wonderful how accommodating everyone was and every farmer was very helpful.

So the ground team set out to go and find her, dart her and bring her back. After more than an hour’s drive through the thick bush and bumpy roads of farms, we finally found her. Luckily close to a road. She was thin, but not in bad shape. She immediately came closer, perhaps recognizing our AfriCat field vehicle. We darted her and brought her back. She weighed only 34 kg, 8 kg less than five months previously.

rescue penta cheetah
Penta found on a neighbouring farm.
rescue penta cheetah
Penta found on a neighbouring farm.
rescue penta cheetah
Gyro at sunrise.
rescue penta cheetah
Gyro at sunrise.
rescue penta cheetah
Bringing Penta home.
rescue penta cheetah
Bringing Penta home.


This is the problem with habituated carnivores – they trust man and so she had to come back to the safety of the Okonjima Nature Reserve, otherwise she may just not have run from the 'wrong person/vehicle' and could have been shot. However, if a cat is collared, farmers can recognise that the cheetah either belongs to us or the CCF in this area, and always call to inform us that they have found a collared cat.


cheetah penta 2014She was released back into the 20 000ha reserve the next day. We scanned our perimeter fence and found she had slipped through one of our 'river-swimmers' (the section of the fence crossing the rivers) after strong winds blew it open and it got stuck. She was just in the wrong place at the right time.

Penta moved into the southern part of the park after her rescue and did not go back to the northern part where her cubs had been killed for a some time.




Some background on Needle:

Needle, our miracle cheetah was separated from her siblings and mother four days after they had been released into the 20 000ha Okonjima Nature Reserve (June 2013), and only found 14 days later. The miracle that the young cub, now named 'Needle', survived all this time on her own was a mixture of luck and the fact that felids can go for longer periods of time without food than many other species. They just utilize their own fat stores and then their muscle tissue to survive. But it was still a little miracle that this young cub was able to stay away from the larger predators and find water in such a wild area.

Needle was quickly darted and collared, to make sure we could track her if she got lost again or wasn’t accepted by her mother and siblings once reunited. Unfortunately the dart-needle seemed to have hit her shoulder blade (scapula) and broken off inside the cub. Dr. Adrian Tordiffe explained that we should not immediately try and remove it as she was underweight and stressed. He felt there was a chance that the stainless steel needle might not cause any problems and that she should be monitored for signs of lameness or an abscess developing, before surgery was considered. A month later, the needle started moving and the cub was suddenly unable to walk. We rushed her to Windhoek, where Dr. Ian Baines surgically removed the needle. She now had to stay in the enclosure for yet another two weeks to recover, before we could release her with her mother and two siblings.

needle being darted when foundneedles operationneedle xrayneedle xray

Back to Pins & Needle:
Cheetahs Needle and Pins became an inseparable duo after the loss of their three siblings and the abandonment by their mother Penta at the end of March 2014. From the beginning, the sisters seemed to struggle to make their own kills, and from time to time we had to help them out to keep their energy levels up.

In the afternoon of 15 August, Team AfriCat was informed that Needle and Pins had joined their mother Penta, who had spent the last few days close to the eastern fence-line.

When Team AfriCat arrived there, we found the reunited cheetah trio lying close together, seeming to enjoy each other’s company.

Early the next morning, Richard, one of our Okonjima guides who was taking his guests out on a cheetah drive, found Needle and Pins, still at the same place they had been found the previous day – but something was clearly wrong with Needle. She was lying on the ground not moving, only moaning. Her sister Pins was lying close to her but there was no sign of Penta.

Team AfriCat rushed out immediately. Needle was lying on her left side, not moving at all and only able to let out a soft growl when we approached her. At first glance we weren’t able to detect any exterior wounds, but found hyena tracks close to where she lay. The decision was quickly made that we needed to take her to the vet as soon as possible. Because she was lying so motionless on the ground we decided not to dart her. While carefully transferring her into the crate, we realised for the first time that she wasn’t able to move her legs. Because we couldn’t locate any bite marks or trails of blood that indicated a fight, our first thought was that Needle might have been bitten by a snake.

We rushed to Elvira Kleber’s vet practice in Otjiwarongo (74km north of Okonjima), which had helped AfriCat several times already in the past. After she was sedated and we were able to have a closer look, the real extent of her injuries became visible: Around her neck we found three deep bite marks – two smaller ones on her left side and a major one on the right. Because the injuries were so close to the neck, X-rays had to be taken to see if her spinal cord was injured. No major fracture was visible. The only incongruity visible was the gap between the 3rd and 4th cervical vertebra which appeared to be narrower than normal, possibly indicating a swelling of the vertebra which might have caused the paralysis. Elvira advised us to monitor her closely for the next three days and inject her with cortisone and Vitamin B on a daily basis in order to help reduce the swelling. So there was hope.

cheetah needle paralyzedneedles spine injury xrayneedles spine injury xray

Back at Okonjima, we brought her into a small catch camp – far away from any hustle and bustle, and we prayed her condition would improve within the next 72 hours. Not able to move any of her limbs, we had to feed and give her water by hand. At least she allowed us to! We exercised her legs regularly and changed her position in order to minimize the risk of oedemas (a build-up of excess serous fluid between tissue cells).

Unfortunately, Needle didn’t show any signs of recovery during the next two days – in fact her pain seemed to become more severe. After seeking advice from several vets, we decided Monday late afternoon to release her from her pain and to end her suffering. After three days during which we tried everything to help her, we finally decided to put her down. Her pain and suffering was too great and the likelihood of recovery too poor. It broke all our hearts to see this special cheetah in such a condition. Rest in peace, brave girl.

After the tragic death of her sister, Pins was forced to lead a solitary life after all. We were worried that she would be unable to hold her ground in the wild alone. Needle had always been the confident and feisty one, while the more nervous Pins remained in the background. To our delighted surprise, Pins is making regular kills and is roaming vast areas of the 200 km2 reserve. She still keeps her distance from humans and is not often seen by our Okonjima guides. As the only survivor of Penta’s litter of five cubs, Pins has clearly made her way, and we hope that she will bring us joy for many years.

cheetah pins  sept 2014cheetah pins sept 2014


PINS – Penta’s only surviving cub

GENDER: Female
AGE: (2014): 2
WEIGHT: 33kg
ORIGIN: Grootfontein
RESCUED: December 2012

Pins was caught with her mother Penta and her four siblings on a cattle farm about 25 km north-east of Grootfontein. At that time, she and her siblings were approximately three to four months of age. The farmer who caught them was impressed that Penta and her offspring had managed to stay alive in very thick bush and decided that instead of killing them, he would find them a more suitable home.

The cats arrived at AfriCat in December 2012. The initial plan to relocate them into a wilderness area in the north-west of Namibia failed, as a result of the second consecutive year of dryness and the resulting emigration of prey species. When the second option to release them into an area close to the Etosha National Park also didn’t work out and Penta and her cubs were running out of alternatives, AfriCat and Okonjima decided the best option was to release them in the Okonjima 20 000 ha Nature Reserve, because it was available without further delay. The reason this was not considered in the first place was that they would occupy the space allocated for AfriCat’s captive cheetah that were waiting to be released and rehabilitated. After spending six months in a controlled and fenced environment, the cheetah family was released in June 2013.

Today Pins is the only survivor of Penta’s litter of five cubs. She and her sister Needle became an inseparable duo after the loss of their three siblings and the abandonment of their mother at the end of March 2014. At the beginning they seemed to struggle to make their own kills, and from time to time we had to help them out to keep their energy levels up. For some reason they preferred staying close to the perimeter fence on the eastern boundary of the Okonjima Nature Reserve where little prey is available. After the tragic death of her sister Needle, Pins was forced to lead a solitary life after all. Suddenly being all on her own and without her sister’s support we were worried that she would not be able to hold her ground out there in the wild. However, our fears were unfounded and to date, she is well and hunting successfully on her own. 

cheetah pinscheetah pinscheetah pins


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