I was taught during my Field Guide training that an elephant’s skin lacks moisture, and so it needs to be loose to provide the necessary flexibility for motion. And the wrinkles in an elephant’s skin helps to contain moisture, and thus keeps the skin in good condition.
When I took this picture, I wanted to try and show the beautiful complexity of an elephant’s skin in this picture, because seeing it close up really show the details of the wrinkles…
But there is more to it than that…the elephant’s skin, to me, holds a remarkable lesson.
And so in this, I find myself reminded of how amazingly complex and perfect each of our own individual lives are. Throughout our lives, we find ourselves going up and down. Some days we walk in a valley. Some days we climb a mountain. And some days we reach the top of the mountain. Some days we try to climb, but we fall instead. However, whatever trial we might be facing today, every wrinkle in life comes with a purpose. There is a reason.
The elephant needs wrinkled skin for moisture and to remain healthy. It’s wrinkles are necessary for a happy life. Just like the ups and downs, or “wrinkles”, we go through in life, are necessary for our happy lives.
I was out one morning, checking up on a cheetah named Ava.
I had come to know Ava so well, I could often find her without even tracking. I knew her well enough to go directly to the area she would most likely be in, depending on the weather, how much she had hunted, and whether or not she had caught anything.
She has always been one of my closest “friends” among the wild animals. Ava probably taught me the most about myself of all the cheetahs I’ve come to know.
When I found Ava, she was lying comfortably in the morning sun. Watching me. She had seen from afar. And having become so accustomed to her, and her ways, I had spotted her from a long ways as well.
I came close. And Ava purred a greeting. As she always did.
It was an extremely peaceful moment. I had Ava’s respect, and she had mine. And so with her, I knew I could squat down where I was, and she would not be bothered. As I did, Ava shifted to a even more laid back position. And for a few moments, we both had our own thoughts. Observing the awakening world around us.
It can be a extremely difficult task to reach a point of feeling at peace with yourself. Especially when, all around, you are constantly being overwhelmed by negativity coming from others or unpleasant happenings and circumstances. The issue tends to be, we as individuals think we can control others and events. We think can convince others to change their ways, that if we just keep trying, they will finally listen. Problem is, no matter how nasty and truly wrong another person might be, we cannot simply change them. We can’t force them to stop. We can’t force them to change.
But that’s not our job anyway.
This does not mean we have to cease giving guidance and advice where needed, or love. But it’s not our job to just give these things because it’s demanded. It’s our choice. No one should force us to give these things. So we should never force others to give these things either. Or to simply change because we want them to.
Finding peace with yourself means you can except what you can do, and what you cannot force to change. Life is going to happen whether you except it or not. But how you live your life, and the choices you make while you live, is ultimately your choice.
You can make a mistake. Guess what? It’s actually ok. Because you can choose to fix it.
You can be successful too. And you can choose to enjoy it. This is also ok.
From day one, I observed how at peace Ava was with herself. There was no action or circumstance that ever had an effect on her. Because she knew herself. She knew what she could control. And excepted what she couldn’t. When she missed her prey, she excepted the outcome and tried again. And it was her choice. When a new cheetah entered her territory, she faced it, and then they both went their separate ways. She excepted the circumstances that could not be changed. And even when Ava was relocated and released onto a brand new reserve…I will never forget how she stepped out of the crate, took everything in around her…and made her choice to except it. And keep living. And to be at peace with it.
This cheetah was living a life in chains. He was chained to the ground. Forced to be petted by hundreds of people a day.
He did not know his mother. He was taken from her as a cub. And thus he was never taught how to hunt by her.
He was destined for a life behind fence. A life behind bars. But then, this cheetah, whose name is Ivory, was given another chance at life…
He was released into the wild.
Experts said he would never be able to hunt. It was impossible. Because he never had a mother to teach him.
They said, he could never be wild.
It was a hot afternoon, I was out monitoring, and was looking for Ivory.
Deep in the thick bush, I found him.
He was a huge cheetah. Most people were nervous of him. He was very powerful. And I had seen him charge several men before. Though with me, he was always very calm. I believe because I showed him respect, and simply remained very calm when around him, it gave him the sense that, me being there, was totally normal. And thus he had no reason to have a reaction to me.
I also never went to close to his food. So eventually, Ivory knew me to be an “Acceptable human”. He would allow me quite close.
So when I took this image, Ivory had just made a kill. And as he tore into his meal, I watched his absolute ferocity. His most certain strength. How could anyone look at the magnificent example of power, and not see how incredible he was.
And as I was thinking this, marveling at his beauty and strength, he paused for just a moment, and looked into my eyes…
It was almost like he knew what I was thinking, and in his eyes he seemed to say, “I will always overcome.”
This magnificent cheetah did not doubt his ability to overcome all things.
So I believe Ivory is sharing a message to the world:
Your current circumstances may have you feeling trapped, chained, and behind bars. All those “experts” and “judges” who seem to be good at declaring your wrongs, yet refuse to see their own, may be telling you what you are. Who you are. What you cannot do. What you can never be.
But if a cheetah can prove wrong the naysayers, and rise above the darkness of current predicaments, you can too. Challenges are a part of life. But we can overcome all things. We are built to succeed. And Ivory is a perfect example of this.
Ivory is a fully wild cheetah.
He is living free at Amakhala Game Reserve. And is a father of two cubs. And sure to be a father of many more magnificent cheetahs in the future.
In this picture, one of the cubs I enjoyed monitoring the most, was caught in the act of trying to grab my backpack strap! Note his look of surprise that I caught him sneaking up from behind. This little cub was certainly the most mischievous and brave of his brothers. He was one of four brothers. And his mother was a beautiful first time mother cheetah named Catja.
It was part of my job to monitor this family every day.
Catja, the mother cheetah, would sometimes bring all four of the cubs close to me, when they were being particularly energetic and noisy, and she would then leave them with me and go off hunting on her own for awhile. Catja and her cubs had come to know me well, and I them. Catja was a very clever mother, and she trusted me to the extent that, she knew I was human, and other predators will not bother humans. And thus, she knew if her cubs were alone with me, they would be safe.
So when she needed to hunt without the noisy cubs, and I happened to be out monitoring on foot, she would bring them to me. I guess she also figured I would be a good distraction for her naughty youngsters!
Telling her cubs to stay, Catja would come up next to me, look me directly in the eyes for just an instant, and in this passing glance, I could see a weary gratitude. And she would pass on, disappearing into the scrubs beyond, heading towards the direction of antelope herds.
During these times, the cheetah cubs would chase each other, squeezing and squeezing and yowling at each other, they would climb trees, and of course, come and inspect me.
But it was this one particular cub that made it his goal in life to try and sneak behind me to try take my bag.
And eventually he did manage it.
He snagged my bag, which was empty because I had my camera with me, but it was to awkward for him to run with it. So, with his mother and brothers watching nearby with mild, but lazy interest, we had a brief tug of war for the bag. He eventually let go, but not without breaking the zipper. And then he proudly scampered back to Catja, who gave him a couple quick licks, and then rolled over to sleep.
I was laughing the whole time. And to this day, I still use that bag, and have never fixed the zipper. The memory is just to great!
So needless to say, this little cub certainly became a favorite of mine.
He was quite a unique character, and he never behaved this way with any other human.
He would come very close to me while I was taking pictures, so curious of what I was doing. Walking up to me, quiet yet confident, he would lie down next to me, almost touching me, and just watch me. Sometimes, if I was focusing on something else, he would then start rolling around. Watching me all the while. And would just lay on his back, like he wanted to play. He was simply adorable! Of course he was wild, and I would never disrespect him by touching him. But his showing off certainly made it difficult!
But the most fascinating behavior of all, was he would purr at me.
It was amazing. Here were these wild cubs, but because their mother knew me, and never saw me as a threat, and because I was having to check them every day, they just saw me as part of their lives.
And especially this cub.
It can only be described as an honor, and a blessing, to have meant something to these wild, beautiful cubs. To the point that one of them, would purr at me when I was around.
Now these cubs are getting bigger and bigger, soon to be adults, and they will start hunting on their own.
But I am certain they, this band of four brothers, will become as successful and powerful hunters as their mother!
A mother and her son. This is a remarkable story of some of the cheetahs I worked with while I was employed as a Biodiversity Monitoring Officer in Southern Africa. My main duty was monitoring the cheetahs on the reserve. Some cheetahs were wild. Others were being reintroduced into the wild. It was the most fascinating line of work. Long hours tracking cheetahs in all manner of terrain, getting to know each one as an individual, seeing them succeed, seeing them fail, and seeing them rise again.Some of these cheetahs were captive their whole life! No one believed they could ever make it in the wild. But then they were given the chance. And they proved all the “experts” wrong. Cubs that had been taken from their mothers at birth, raised as pets, and then, through some very simple steps, released into the wild. Experts said it was impossible for them to hunt. No mother had ever taught them. But instincts showed otherwise. One of the first cheetahs I met and released was named Ava. She “couldn’t hunt”. In less than 24 hours, however, she had made her first kill. But today I want to share a very special story, of two very remarkable cheetahs that hold an everlasting place in my heart, and taught me very meaningful lessons that I want to share with the world…
Aero was a very special cheetah. She was a remarkable example of caring love and sacrifice. Aero was in captivity her whole life, she had many liters of cubs during this time, but never was allowed to raise them. She “was not able to”. She “wouldn’t know how to”. During these years Aero was fed a diet of chicken. Which is not natural for cheetahs. And does not have all the nutrients they need. 10 years of age, Aero was finally given the chance to be free. She was released into the wild, and began making kills. And she was finally allowed to have cubs, that she could keep. When I started monitoring Aero, she had three cubs.Two females, and one male. The male’s name was Storm. As I began my monitoring career, Storm became very sick and was struggling greatly. I was told that, before I arrived to start working, he had a run in with the fence surrounding the reserve, and had gotten his little paw stuck. However he had been fine, just stressed by the experience. Only days after starting my job, I came to find him one day, unable to walk. And I thought perhaps he had been climbing the fence again and this time had broken his leg.Storm was calling out, lying next to the fence, and unable to get up at all. He could only roll, as if his leg was not working. I had to do something.
However, I had another issue…The reserve manager and anyone that would know how to help this cub was away on holiday. AND they had no phone service. So I couldn’t even call them. But I did have the number for the vet in the area…who ended up being on holiday as well. Needless to say it quite a stressful situation. It came down to simply trying to keep the cub alive through the very cold and sometimes, wet, nights until we could get a vet to come see him. A lot of cheetah mothers will often abandon their cubs, especially if their cubs are so ill that they lose the ability to walk!
But not Aero. When her little one became ill, she gave him continuous tender love and care. No matter how he struggled, she never abandoned him. I remember how Aero acted. Vividly. From the moment I met her, Aero was simply, calm and gentle in nature. She allowed me to come quite close to her young cubs, and never showed me any aggression. She showed me tremendous respect, and of course, I did the same for her. I respected her boundaries, and her cubs’ boundaries.
It is a wild feeling, coming so close to a large, feline predator. Knowing what they can do. Knowing they take down prey larger than I am. But it is an even more incredible feeling, to have such a predator trust you. To come to know so many predators as individual beings, and have them know ME as an individual being.It is what makes these stories so much greater and more meaningful to share. Storm needed to be fed by hand, but he wanted nothing to do with the delicious food offerings he was being given. His sisters did not mind eating it though. So I was very stressed waiting for the day that either the vet could come out and check him, or to be able to take him to another veterinarian in town. And just simply trying to keep him ALIVE till that day. A former head ranger of the reserve, Jeandre, was visiting the lodge at the time, and helping out teaching new rangers.He assisted me greatly by coming with me to try and care for Storm, and giving me advice to try and figure out what to do. Jeandre also knew Aero, as he had been there when she first arrived. This was a massive relief for me. There was also the reserve fence patrol/maintenance team Gavin, Joseph, and Ashley. And though only Gavin spoke some English, they helped me so much also through a lot of the trials. But the true hero is Aero. Finally getting Storm to a vet, we were given medicine to help him, but still there was no answer to his ailment…nothing was broken. Yet he could not walk. And it what was even crazier, was that it seemed to be changing from limb to limb. One day his front leg ceased to work, the next day it was his back leg. But Aero did not abandon him. Some morning I came to him, expecting to find him dead or abandoned, because it was a very serious situation with no answers. But there was Aero. She would be lying with him, cleaning him and keeping him warm. Not only did Storm have to be fed his food by hand, but he now had to be given shots and medicine as well! And he did not like this, as you can imagine.Have ever tried to make a dog or cat take a pill? Try and get a cheetah cub to do it. With mama cheetah trying to keep you away. Storm was very upset by all of this, and would call for help from Aero.And at first, Aero did what any mother would do, she defended her cub. She kept her other two cubs away, and would then stand over her Storm, in his defense. She would slap the ground, hiss and snarl, and you could never turn your back to her. During this time I discovered a very simple solution to calm a charging cheetah…and it is now used by many cheetah sanctuaries across Africa…but this is another story. The cub needed food and medicine to continue living. He HAD to have it! So something different needed to be done. If Aero knew it was safe, then Storm would trust her and be more likely to cooperate. I took her view of the matter into consideration, and started really working with her to show her I meant no harm. Everything needed to be done with calmness and assertiveness. Thus, Aero began to trust me. And it was not long before she began to bring her other two cubs out when I would come. And then each morning and evening, Aero would lie down or sit next to me, while I worked with Storm. She was so calm sitting next to me. It felt as if we were simply two individuals on the same team, working towards the same goal. There was no aggression. She watched her cub, and did not even question what I was doing. It got to the point, when I was there with Storm, no matter how he argued with me on being cared for, Aero did not respond to his squeals of displeasure, she merely lay there, trusting what was being done. Knowing her cub was not being harmed. Aero’s presence next to me helped Storm to remain calm, and it gave me an overwhelming love for the incredible family bond they shared. She doted on her son. No matter what, she was not giving up on him. But Storm almost did not make it. Needless to say I spent many a sleepless night praying and worrying about the cub. Getting up before dawn to check on him, and give him his food and medicine, often afraid I would find him dead. But he was a VERY determined little one. And his mother was always with him when I would arrive, and his sisters were there too. He was very much a mamma’s boy. Aero certainly had him spoiled. Storm was almost put down when management thought he surely could not ever make it. And certainly would not be able to hunt if he did. There was no answer to what was wrong with him. But one thing that was found, was he had a massive deficiency in almost all nutrients. So we began loading him up with vitamins, calcium, and everything imaginable. And it turns out, due to Aero’s diet in captivity, she had none of the nutrients needed in her milk to give her cubs. And stress brought on issues as well, resulting in the extreme problems Storm was struggling with. Management came to the conclusion that the cub down would probably have to be put down, so that his suffering could be ended, and a full on biopsy could be done to figure out the problem, and maybe learn a solution. But I definitely could not see this happen, after all that he, and Aero, and I had been through. We were in it to win it!! I had to trust in Aero’s instincts. If she, who was a cheetah and whose natural instinct is usually to abandon a cub that can’t make it, still stood by her son, then we HAD TO ALSO. And sure enough, with some convincing to give him more time, we then put all focus on his extreme vitamin deficiency, and with a lot of care, love, prayers, and support, the little cub pulled through. Aero never gave up. She never ceased in the comfort she gave Storm. And Storm never stopped fighting to live. How can it be, that the Earth’s fastest predator never gave up on her son, and laid calmly next to me as I worked?
Sometime months later, I watched Storm, now grown into a young adult, learning to hunt with Aero, running as well as any cheetah. And only just recently, Storm, now quite a strong young adult, and one his sisters, made their first kill on their own.
Is this the same cub who “could never run again”, who “should be put down”? I do not doubt, for Aero showed me what was true, this young cheetah will “storm” through life, sure to be a powerful and unstoppable force. He was worth believing in. Everyone is worth believing in.No one should give up. We may not all have an Aero in our life to believe in us, but we can all be an “Aero” to anyone. We can choose this. There is so much we can learn from these two cheetahs, but one simple lesson that Aero portrays is this: we must never give up on our loved ones. Aero is a cheetah. But surely if the world’s fastest predator can have the care and determination to stand by her young, no matter his struggle, then we as human beings can give the love and determination to stand by ALL those who need us. Being so privileged to gain the trust of a cheetah mother, seeing that incredible support she showed her cub, will remain with me all the days of my life. And I hope all who read this story will be as moved and inspired as I am to have lived it.
Sometimes wildlife can remind us of how important our loved ones are. This picture I am sharing today holds a beautiful message. During my time monitoring cheetahs in the wild, and working for a cheetah conservation program, I witnessed this moment between these cheetah cubs and their mother.
The mother had been struggling with hunting. It was during the time of a great drought, and her prey opportunities became less and less by the day. And she had four growing cubs to feed!
So day after day, I tracked and monitored this cheetah family. Hoping and praying that something would happen for them. That this struggling first time mother would catch a break…or you know, at least catch an antelope!
I found the mother and her four cubs, resting after a very long day of failed attempts at hunting. They saw me every single day, so to them, I was just part of the environment.
I observed then a most remarkable moment between the cubs and their mother…
The mother had collapsed wearily, seemingly at her wits end.
And then, her little cubs all gathered around her, and began washing her in the same way she always did for them when they wear weary or afraid. It was so moving and touching, seeing this happen, and hearing their sweet purrs of comfort.
The mother cheetah then began to relax, and feel comforted, purring loudly with her encouraging babies.
And only days later, I watched this very same mother cheetah, make an absolutely stunning kill at her full speed. (This is around 70mph). This is another remarkable story for another day…
I am so blessed to have witnessed such incredible moments in the wild. And to learn from them. And share this with the world.
In this picture I photographed of this cheetah family, I want to share what I learned from them… Love your loved ones. Forgive your loved ones. Be there for your loved ones. Be strong for them. The love and support of family is so important…because we are always better together.
How truly special it is that we can see and learn these messages from the wild world around us.
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