Nature "The Cheetah Orphans" on WXXI-TV

Nature "The Cheetah Orphans" on WXXI-TV

Sun, 06/27/2010 - 8:00pm

Pictured: Toki and Simon King

Credit: Marguerite Smits Van Oyen/© BBC 2006

When the mother of two cheetah cubs is killed, a veteran filmmaker becomes their new parent.

At just four weeks old, cheetah cubs Toki and Sambu were orphaned when a lion killed their mother. Shortly after, Simon King, who has filmed wild cheetahs for 20 years, became their new parent at the 50,000-acre Lewa wildlife conservancy in northern Kenya. From bottle-feeding to teaching them how to hunt as their mother would have, King hand-reared the brothers and became deeply attached to them in the process. Nature “The Cheetah Orphans,airs Sunday, June 27 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/cable 1011 and 11), outlines Toki and Sambu’s life under King’s care, by turns idyllic and tragic, and unfolding amid the stunning vistas of the Kenya savannah. Simon King narrates. 

“‘The Cheetah Orphans’ reveals our ability to bond with animals at a depth that natural history films rarely capture,” says Fred Kaufman, Nature executive producer. “It’s a very poignant film that shows how we can find meaning in our interaction with nature.”

With King’s steady nurturing and guidance, Toki and Sambu make the crucial transition to hunting on their own. But even a wildlife conservancy has its dangers, and King is devastated when tragedy strikes: Sambu is killed in the night by a lion attack. “It’s impossible to describe the sense of loss that we all felt, that we feel to this day,” says King in the film. His grief and guilt are compounded by the troubling prospect of Toki now confronting life without Sambu’s companionship and protection.

With fewer than 13,000 left in the wild, cheetahs are among the rarest of the “big cats.” They’re found in Lewa, though, and King’s fears about Toki’s safety are realized when Toki is almost fatally mauled by a gang of three territorial males. The close call forces King to make the difficult decision to move him to another, much larger, Kenyan conservancy, Ol Pejeta, where he will be safer — but far less likely to find a mate. 

Toki’s new home is a 4,000-acre reserve within the conservancy, encircled by a predator-proof electric fence. He acts like a caged animal within it, pacing its perimeter. At last, King decides to release Toki into the larger, less protected expanse of Ol Pejeta. But when the radio signal from Toki’s tracking collar disappears, King fears the worst. Has he suffered the same fate as Sambu or perhaps fallen victim to a farmer protecting his herds?

His frantic search finds Toki alive and unharmed — but it’s a risk King is not willing to take again. While he still hopes to find Toki a mate, for now the cheetah orphan remains within the reserve at Ol Pejeta, where he is safe, healthy and alone.