Monday 30th of October – New life
Tiny hoofs are sticking out already. She is nervous, uncomfortable and probably in pain. This is the moment of truth. For 8 months she has carried her calf, now she has to birth it and keep it safe without getting hunted in the process.
Her body contracts as she finds a sandy spot to lie down. Soon the front-legs of the newborn come out. Now comes the hardest part and she knows it. She stretches, she bends, she contracts, she relaxes. Still half inside its mother the calf gives a first sign of life. Ears twitch, the head shakes. With a few more powerful contractions, mother pushes the calf out and a new wildebeest gently slides onto the earth’s surface. Mother turns around to meet her child. The calf is soaked and its ears still hang down but it raises its head towards its mother and the first contact is made.
They have no time to waste though. Trivialities as bonding will have to happen later. Now the calf must stand and walk and with so many predators around, it better be quick.
Soon the calf gets to work. It is quick to learn how to move its head and body. Carefully it tries to put its legs under its body, rolling over a few times in the process. After a few rolls it changes tactics. Instead of 4 wobbly legs under a newly born body, it might be better try 2 at a time. So there it goes. First the bum is raised and the hind legs are carefully and widely placed under it. Half is up. Now the calf is half-standing with widespread hindlegs, leaning on the knees of its frontlegs. It tries to get them under the body as well and then the calf stands! with widespread wobbly legs. Then it tips over, face-forward into the sand. Confused it shakes its head. One more time then…
It tries again, leaning against its mother for extra support and then… It’s STANDING!!! Hesitantly the first few steps are made. It falls over a few times but encouraged by its mother it carefully walks and walks, away from the blood that kept it alive for 8 months. 10 minutes after birth the calf walks and is able to keep with its mum. Incredible, isn’t it?
A huge hurdle has been conquered. It is not there yet, Liuwa is a dangerous place for newborn calves, but it has made it further than some of its fellows already. Within a few days, this calf will be able to run almost as fast as its mother and it will stand a fair chance to outrun potential danger. With a good mother like that, I’m sure it will be alright!
Thursday 2nd of November – Expect the unexpected
Out in the field, far away, looking for collared wildebeest, I get a radio call from Daan. He asks me if I might be able to go and find 2 cheetah. Of course! He gives me coordinates and we decide that I will get on my way and Daan will follow with the filmcrew a bit later. I am still in the ‘wildebeest-find-mood’ so I do stop about half way to check a big herd. When I look around with my binoculars I see many vultures descending in one spot. This usually means a carcass, a carcass means data, data is exciting. So I get on my way to where the vultures are.
Half way I lose my bearings and I have to look with my binos again to relocate the vultures. When I find them I also see a familiar shape under a tree. I look again and my heart makes a little excited somersault in my chest. It’s a cheetah!
I ride closer and see that it’s not one cheetah but three! They are the sisters of the sibling coalition and they are feeding on a freshly killed wildebeest calf that the vulture seem to find tasty too. They used to be with four (including their brother) but now it seems that their brother has left them. It obviously hasn’t compromised these girls’ hunting skills!
I did not expect or prepare to be in the field all day but I don’t want to leave the cheetah alone as they might continue their hunt. But there is also that other cheetah I was supposed to find… A radio chat with Daan solves the problem. We decide that I will stay with the girls and that he will continue the search for the other cheetah. Now I get to spend the rest of my day with 3 awesome ladies.
Friday 3rd of November – Just wow
It’s just amazing. I don’t know how else to describe it. The calving peak!
In a timespan of roughly a month all cows drop their calves. From the one day to the next the plains are covered in wildebeest calves! The same herd I saw 3 days ago has now doubled in size and light-brown wildebeest run around, sleep in the grass, practise running or make their first attempt at walking. It’s unbelievable. I have no words for it.