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In the Land of the Desert Cheetah

I’m not entirely convinced this isn’t a death march.  It’s high noon in the oldest desert on earth.  Glancing down at the red sand to see a beetle burrowing back under, saving itself from the scorching heat, I’m transported to a long lost nature program viewed from the comfort of a ‘70s wood-paneled family room...

I’m not entirely convinced this isn’t a death march.  It’s high noon in the oldest desert on earth.  Glancing down at the red sand to see a beetle burrowing back under, saving itself from the scorching heat, I’m transported to a long lost nature program viewed from the comfort of a ‘70s wood-paneled family room on a black and white television, and it all comes flooding back.  This is the place where the animals bury themselves in the earth rather than be roasted alive in the deadly heat and I think ‘Oh no, this is where I am?’

Barely a thing stirs, a few oryx can be seen having squeezed their large forms beneath tiny, isolated trees.  They’re very talented at this, filling up every inch of available shade, the oryx are pros.  I feel like a fool, but there is a reason for this madness.

Somewhere out there the desert cheetah named Lilly is raising her cubs
Large herds of oryx & zebra gather at a waterhole in NamibRand


N/a’an ku sê is sending their researcher, Stuart Munro, to check on a translocated cheetah named Lilly. Why, you may ask, is a cheetah living among the dunes of NamibRand Nature Reserve?  Lilly returned to this area to give birth.  Very few predators have what it takes to survive out here and the harsh desert is the perfect safe haven for her newborn cubs.

She was last spotted was months ago.  Stuart got just a glimpse of a tiny cub, but no more.  Since that time her VHS collar has given a signal that she is alive but she hasn’t been seen.  He needs to check on her to report her condition and how many cubs she has.  So with that in mind, Stuart, two N/a’an ku sê volunteers and myself rise before dawn to find her.

The Southern Cross an hour before the sun rises

The southern cross is low in the pre-dawn sky and flying dung beetles swarm in the cool dark air, dive bombing me as I run for the Land Rover.  To find Lilly’s signal, Stuart has us climb to the top of a high hill with the antennae.  The day has just begun and the view of the vast reserve that was once farmland is beyond beautiful.  Herds of springbok, oryx, ostrich and zebra gliding through the veld formations of ‘fairy circles’ can be seen from our point high on the peak.  We get lucky and hear the tell-tale beeps of her frequency that says she is alive, somewhere within five miles of our location, and scramble down the hill to drive in the direction of her signal.

N/a’an ku sê Researcher, Stuart Munro, leads the team across the dunes in search of the cheetah

Getting as close to the dunes as possible, we park and set out on foot across the perspective-defying landscape.  Trekking up and down the ridges, dotted with vegetation from last winter’s rain, we scan for her signal.  We’ve lost it but know that she is somewhere nearby, so we keep moving forward, the truck long since disappeared on the horizon.

On the next ridge, vultures circle in the distance and one decides to circle over us to see if we might consider perishing soon.  Stuart raises his fist to the bird and yells ‘Not dead yet!’  The presence of the vultures signal there is a kill somewhere close, our Lilly might be nearby after all.  A few minutes go by, no signal from the ridge and the vultures have disappeared, perhaps to feast on the carcass out of site but it’s not clear from where we stand.  A hot wind brings the scent of fresh scat although we don’t see any animals.  Could it be Lilly, are we so close we can smell her?  At this point the clues are telling us there is a cheetah nearby, but without a signal and without a clear line of sight of a kill or the vultures, we could put ourselves in harms way by veering off course on a wild goose chase through the dunes.  It’s a maddening situation, we all know something is near, something that doesn’t want to be found, it could be our cat.

A key prey species for the cheetah, springbok herds are in abundance in Namibrand.

As the hours roll by, we decide to head back and search for her signal along the way.  We walked pretty far, but apparently not far enough.  Ridge after ridge of dunes start to blur as we make our way to the vehicle.  A small herd of oryx run off from beneath another isolated tree.  In the shade is a full grown oryx carcass about three weeks dead.  Sightings of three male cheetah in the area have been reported recently, unrelated to N/a’an ku sê’s translocation program which is a sign of successful return of predators to NamibRand.  Nothing solitary could’ve taken down this large animal, it must be the male cheetah coalition.  It’s kind of creepy to realize the live herd was hanging about the carcass of their fallen comrade, but out here shade is shade.

With temperatures over 110 F in the shade, lingering to examine an oryx carcass becomes a challenge

Throughout the day the temperature has risen, and although we’re standing beneath the tree we’re still sweating.  “Do your feet feel hot?”, Stuart asks.  I’ve been concentrating on the rotting oryx and nothing else.  Heat rises through my shoes feeling well over 110 F in the shade.  The desert melts the seals on my trusty hiking boots and now I understand why that beetle dove for cooler sand.

Fairy Circles dot the landscape as far as the eye can see

The search from the top of a high peak along craggy treacherous rock, across a burning hot, dry desert; this is perseverance, tracking a cheetah on foot.  A released cat that requires intensive monitoring which requires trekking across a vast landscape for an animal that does not want to be found.  Her radio frequency tells us she is alive and moving.

The very next day, we do it all over again.  To be continued…

All images & text: Marcy Mendelson © 2012 /

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Meet the Author

Marcy Mendelson
Marcy Mendelson (above) is a conservation photographer working on a project to help save the cheetah through visual storytelling and reportage of the hard work by fundraisers, farmers, NGOs and local communities. She will be traveling to Africa this coming fall and reporting to National Geographic News Watch in addition to her site, Cheetah-Watch. In the meantime, she resides in San Francisco, California and works with nonprofits like Cat Haven and Animal Ark in observation of the outreach they do with animal lovers eager to help and learn. More about Marcy’s photography and interests can be found on her website, Mendelson Images.