Duma: A Diamond in the Rough by Erin Rainey

Pride is like that kid you went to high school with that was cool, popular and good at everything they tried their hand out. She would've been valedictorian, for sure. Pride only spent 6 months in a trial to see if she would be successful on her own in the LifeLine. She made her first kill within a few weeks and never looked back. Harnas made a big deal out of her official release and just because she could, she took down a young springbok 100 meters away from the crowd that had gathered at Anthill, sipping on sparkling wine and enjoying light nibbles. 

Duma was like Pride's younger sister that was always being compared to the accolades of her perfect sister, but didn't really care and was happy to do things in her own time. 

Following the unbelievable success of Pride, who made us all look like we knew exactly what we were doing when in fact we had no idea and really, it was Pride who was calling the shots and running the show with effortless grace; we decided to see if Duma, another female cheetah residing on the farm would be suited to the Lifeline Release Project.

Like Pride, she was also a volunteer favourite. She was a 'simple pleasures' kind of lady and a true confidant. Duma knew everyone's secrets and you could always tell when Duma was close - you'd hear her purr long before you'd ever catch sight of her. A glorified house cat that actually welcomed unsolicited attention from dumbstruck volunteers. 

Duma had a very gentle nature and wasn't quite sure about this whole Lifeline business. Unlike Pride, she felt completely out of her depths. Whenever we let her out of the bakkie into the lifeline, she was extremely cautious. Her molten amber eyes wide and alert, each step she made with caution as her toes splayed into the hot, loose sand. She retreated under the nearest tree for protection and started emitting a high pitch yip. It was quite sad. Like her protest against the whole program. It was not unusual for us to find her in the exact position we'd left her eight hours earlier. She was not buying this freedom horseshit. Frustrated, we'd bring her back to the farm and even though we knew it was fruitless, we always tried to look forward, "maybe tomorrow, hey Dumsy?" As we'd lift the latch of the bakkie and she leapt out with relief. Finally back in her enclosure with her cheetah friend Joanie and a meal she didn't have to source for herself. 

   Duma. Always alert.

Duma. Always alert.

The day she made her first kill, we were elated. We tracked her out to the DamHouse quite confident we'd find her snoozing under a tree or watching the wildebeest at the waterhole. We could see her silhouette behind a large CamelThorn tree but she was hunched over something. It was a juvenile wildebeest! It was like the penny had finally dropped and over the coming months, she even started to "outperform" Pride. She was adapting, moving and hunting like a wild cat.

   Enjoying one of her first kills, a juvenile Kudu. An impressive feat for a beginner!

Enjoying one of her first kills, a juvenile Kudu. An impressive feat for a beginner!

"If anything happens whilst I'm away, I'm holding you responsible," Marnus explained to me before he left the farm for a research trip to Botswana. He'd be away for a week and I was put in charge of the research department in his absence. Duma had a special place in his heart as we had to work so hard to get her to where she was. Management kept telling him he was wasting his time with Duma - she was just not suited to the LifeLine and they wanted to work with 'better candidates'. Being the person he is (those that know Marnus will need no explanation and those that don't, he is an extremely passionate individual), he wasn't even tempted to listen to their unsolicited advice. 

I'm not sure with that type of condition to my 'promotion' I could be excited but I was keen to show everyone I wasn't some stupid foreigner and those 3 years at University and working closely with Marnus for the past 6 months actually meant something. At this stage, I wasn't permitted to drive the trucks on Harnas, so another staff member had to drive me everyday with the volunteers out into the Lifeline to find (at this stage) Pride and Duma.

   Relaxing in the LifeLine.

Relaxing in the LifeLine.

One morning we picked up Duma's signal from the south western corner of the reserve. As we got closer, the signal became stronger and we were close enough to get out of the truck and pursue  her on foot. I struggled to track her down through the thick bush and the signal was bouncing around. She was on the move. I eventually caught up to her and she was stalking a small herd of springbok. I signaled for everyone to stop walking, be quiet and watch. It was a still day and the herd hadn't picked up our scent or spotted us and we watched Duma slowly choose her favorite and carefully stalk her prey. She took her chance and launched towards the herd of about 8-10 springbok. They scattered in every direction and Duma sped off, disappearing like a blur through the surrounding scrubland. I told the volunteers that we should wait a few minutes, just to give Duma a few minutes if she had indeed caught something. After a few minutes, I turned on the telemetry and followed her signal. I followed the signal back out to the road where we had parked the truck and Duma was laying underneath the truck. Sprawled out on her side. I laughed, "Typical Duma. She's missed the kill and has decided to wait for us in the shade of the truck! Duma! Hey Dumsy! Duma?" She didn't lift her head when I called. She seemed motionless. I tried not to panic as I had volunteers with me but my voice was starting to shake. I reached the truck and dropped to my knees and clambered underneath the truck to reach her. She was positioned perfectly centered underneath a Land Rover. She had to have crawled under there. I struggled to reach her and she hadn't moved. Not even an ear twitch. As I reached her line of vision, I reached out to touch her, "Duma?" As we made eye contact, she let out the most blood curling howl. I could feel the color drain from my face and I felt temporarily paralyzed as I tried to process what was happening. Nausea. Adrenaline. My body wasn't sure what to prepare for. I pushed myself out from underneath the car and just looked at Orton. He'd started at Harnas maybe a week prior and had been given the mundane task of driving me around. I scrambled into the truck to call the main office. My hands shaking, I struggled to open the weathered door handle of the truck. All I could think about was the often poor reception being this far from the farm. What if they couldn't hear me? "Kantoor, Kantoor, Kantoor, Kantoor!" I tried not to sound panicked, but Renette, who took my call immediately knew something was wrong. "Kantoor standby..." "Duma. Duma isn't moving. She's under the truck. I need help now." Or that's something along the lines of what I said. Trying to recall that day, I either remember the most minute details or I have long blanks with no recollection.

Schalk and Davide, an Italian Vet who was staying on Harnas, came out to meet us. All I wanted to do was put her in a van and drive straight to Windhoek but when you're planning on driving an injured 'wild cat' into town and through several traffic stops...it's not that simple. We needed the paperwork and approval. Third world countries love their paperwork. The greater the emergency, the greater the amount of time you would need to 'waste'.

Davide and another Italian Vet would drive Duma to see Dr. Ulf.  I asked Schalk if I could go as well. And by ask, I mean, stand in front of the man that I always felt I had to be completely composed and sensible in front of and wept as I muttered a few words about going to Windhoek. The harder I tried to compose myself in front of him, the worse it got for him to understand me. I don't think he wanted me to go. Two qualified vets were more than enough but he clearly pitied me. 

It is a three hour drive to Windhoek and it was late afternoon by the time we got to Dr Ulf's practice. I remember standing in his clinic and feeling this overwhelming battle of head vs heart. My heart was heavy but was in extreme denial, hopeful that Dr Ulf would be able to fix her. My head knew this was not going to be good news for Duma and I just hoped the family would do the right thing instead of prolonging the inevitable. The conflicting thoughts and emotions were nauseating. 

Duma had hit the back of the truck at such a high speed that the force dislodged two of her vertebrae up and out of where they should align. To this day we can only speculate as to why she didn't see the truck. It was parked on an open road and there's nothing inconspicuous about an old Land Rover. The best theory is that she was being chased by something, looking over her shoulder and didn't see the truck until it was too late. 

Ulf said he was confident in fixing the injury but the vertebrae would need to be fused and set with orthopedic cement. As a result, Duma would lose significant spinal flexibility. Cheetahs are engineered with a small spinous process (the part of the spine you might be able to feel if you run your hand down the center of your back) which allows their spine to hyper extend when they run and this helps lengthen the gait and ultimately, their speed. By cementing Duma's vertebrae, she would not have this flexibility anymore. She'd never be able to run again and there was no guarantee she'd be able to walk either. Then there were the neurological issues to consider. The damage to her spine had definitely affected her brain, her molten eyes were completely vacant.

There was also the uncertainty of her recovery. She would be in an excruciating amount of pain and even if by some miracle her brain wasn't mush, she might never be the same Duma we loved. There was a significant chance that the pain would be too much for her and she would become an aggressive cat, making it impossible for us to work with her. So the question was put forward: do the surgery and possibly put her through a lot of pain only to find out the surgery didn't work and then have to put her down or the surgery did work but she couldn't cope with the pain and then put her down or make the call now. Unfortunately it wasn't up to us. The family back on the farm had to make the call. They would deliberate over Duma's future and make the call in the morning.

I hoped they would make the right decision. I didn't want another Elsa. I loved Elsa and never would have had the relationship I did if the family had not made the decision for her to have spinal surgery but what life would it be for Duma? 

The three of us dragged our exhausted bodies to a backpackers for the night and waited to hear the family's decision. I was on my way to breakfast the following morning when Davide received a call from Schalk. Duma had been put to sleep in the early hours of that morning. I felt overwhelming relief and gut wrenching devastation. The right decision had been made but I my heart was empty. 

I'd finally been able to get a hold of Marnus to tell him what had happened and although it was a freak accident, I still felt like he blamed me and I still carry that guilt five years on. I dreaded having to see him once he returned to the farm. I was responsible for those cats for one week. Just one week.

We climbed back into the van and picked Duma up to take her back to the farm to be buried. We decided to bury her at the Damhouse, under the tree where she made her first kill. When I arrived back at the farm, I gathered several volunteers with several shovels and we drove out to the Damhouse to prepare Duma's final resting place. All of the staff and volunteers gathered at the farm and everyone was driven out to say goodbye to Duma. 

If you ever find yourself (back) at Harnas, make sure you head out to the DamHouse to see the sunset. You'll find a beautiful lone CamelThorn tree to the left. Weave your way around the rogue CamelThorn thorns that have fallen and sunk just beneath the sandy soil surface and you'll find a small, mound of slate and rocks carefully stacked at the base of the tree. There lies Duma and I'm sure she'd love the company. 

Duma showed me that no matter the perceived odds, we are all capable of achieving great change and progress if we are just given the opportunity, support and a little bit of time. She was our diamond in the rough.

   Duma's grave at the DamHouse.

Duma's grave at the DamHouse.

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