South Africa is holding its breath, waiting to find out if Sibella, one of the endangered cheetah species, is giving birth. She has good reason not to want any human close enough to discover if she is indeed pregnant or has merely eaten a very large kurdu.
Sibella (S for Sarah Tompkins and bella for Isabelle -two sisters) has an exotic name, a four-star home and doting guardians, but that was not always the case for this famous feline whose species is diminishing year by year. It was a South African crime when farmers set their wild dogs loose, tearing apart her legs to the bone and leaving her for dead. One farmer's wife with an appetite for a finder's fee turned her over to conservation authorities. A team of surgeons worked for five hours to piece Sibella back together. For days, her life hung in the balance. That was seven years ago. Not only did she survive, but Sibella became a national heroine and the newest inhabitant of Samara.
She also became my new best friend when I arrived at Samara, the 18th century farmhouse lodge in the midst of a 130 square mile preserve in the midst of the Karoo with sophisticated décor that the Financial Times has called "heart stopping beautiful." Developed by Londoners Sarah (born in South Africa) and Mark Tompkins, Samara looks like the real life version of Avatar with rhinos that pop up within 150 feet of the lodge. It is a part of the Tompkins' plan to transform a million acres into the Nelson Mandela National Park by turning back the clock, repopulating the area with elephants, critically endangered black rhinos, black wildebeest, cape mountain zebra, blue crane, cape vultures, cape buffalo and the rarest of jungle jewels- cheetahs, the fastest animal in the bush and one of the rarest with only 1000 in existence in South Africa.
Even though there are two other male cheetahs, Sibella is the soul of Samara who became the great South African Hope for her endangered species. She lives with a radio collar that allows Samara to track her movements and her life, including giving birth to 18 cubs in the last 6 years. Every litter creates a media frenzy.
Who wouldn't want to meet this South African celebrity? Finally, after waiting for 3 days for her to descend from the mountains we tracked her to a small water hole. What emerged was the most beautiful, sexy, charismatic animal I have ever seen. She put on some show for us, slowly strutting through the rocks and bushes to a watering hole, yawning and stretching, clearly knowing she had our attention, as our cameras were firing on overdrive. Nowhere in the bush does one get the luxury of seeing such a rare animal at their leisure.
One of the people in our party remembered a day in Tanzania, with a wild life photographer, trying to get a shot of a cheetah. Why is she opening up to us... letting us within 20 feet without fleeing? Does she remember her rescue, and the way she has been treated since her near death experience?
For sure, no one dares to venture so close to her as to confirm what is making her belly bulge...food kill or baby cheetah?
We do know that because she is ten years old this would likely be her last litter. Gestation period is 3 months so that's about how long South Africa is going to have to wait to see how the final chapters in this fairytale will be written.