WATCH: A caracal release and rare cheetah encounter at Emdoneni Lodge
It's a bittersweet moment for the team at Emdoneni Lodge and Zululand Cat Conservation Project as they bid goodbye to Haze, a feisty caracal born into the project in 2018. Haze turned two in April and it's time for him to start his life in the wild.
After months of delaying the release due to Covid-19, Haze will soon roam free in his new home at Zuka Private Game Reserve, which is part of Phinda Private Game Reserve. Here he will spend his days hunting rodents, mongoose and monkeys.
Louis Nel, the owner of Emdoneni Lodge, gently transports Haze in his bakkie, and once we arrive at Phinda, the crate carrying Haze is placed into the boma.
Everyone waits with bated breath for the 2-year-old to emerge. He doesn't, not for a few minutes at least.
Haze seems sceptical, scanning his new surroundings with discerning eyes. Haze steps out unbothered by the presence of humans and clicking cameras. His curiosity makes him savour the moment while his eyes wander around. He turns around to give everyone one final look before he disappears into the boma.
He will spend two weeks in the boma before he starts his new life in the wild.
Haze was born at the Zululand Cat Conservation Project in 2018. His father Bar One, who got the nickname after he devoured a bar of chocolate that fell from a guest's pocket, unfortunately, died. His mother Bella remains at the project. Haze is one of three brothers. There's AK, who escaped but soon returned back to the project, and Drogo, who was released into the Zululand Rhino Reserve.
Haze is just one of the cats that Zululand Cat Conservation Project has released into the wild. The project started in 1994 when Ida Nel cared for three cheetahs from Namibia and later an injured serval. Nel passed the baton onto Louis and Cecillie Nel in 2000. The sanctuary for injured and orphaned cat species also has a breeding centre. The project has since released 5 cheetahs, 24 servals, 14 caracals and 9 African wildcats into the wild.
Cheetahs may be the fastest animal in the world, but their population is fast decreasing. Megan Balouza, the project manager at Zululand Cat Conservation, reveals that the cheetah's endurance is limited as they can run for only 30 to 40 seconds before requiring 45 minutes of rest. As a result, cheetahs are easy targets for prey. Balouza explains that they may get their food stolen by other animals or get killed. She also explains the unique characteristics of a cheetah, including the fact that it has around 2000 to 2500 spots.
We meet Reign and Dusk, two laidback cheetahs who are relishing the afternoon sun.
Dusk cannot survive in the wild as he was born with a few birth defects. He and Reign are the youngest cheetahs at the project.
Guests have the opportunity to walk into a cheetah enclosure where they meet two male cheetahs named Moya and Juba. The duo loves the camera and doesn't mind posing for a few pictures of guests, all within a safe distance. No touching or petting is allowed. All guests need to keep a two-metre distance from the cat. No one under the age of 16 is allowed to enter the enclosure.
Balouza says: "Our main goal here at the project is not to only education of the public about these lesser-known cat species but to rehabilitate as many as many cats as we can.
"If there is a genetic deformity or an injury or they are too habituated, we will keep them here at the project to use them for our breeding programme.
"As part of our social responsibility, we educate the local communities about conservation. We involve them to create an awareness of sustainability, to respect and treasure our wildlife."
The tour runs for an hour. Entry is R180 per adult and R90 for scholars. Visit http://www.emdonenilodge.com/cat-rehabilitation/