For two days, Kirsten Frost had tracked the radio-collared female cheetah through the stony hills of Rogge Cloof Nature Reserve, the coldest place in South Africa, and now the snowstorm was intensifying.
Straining his eyes through the falling flakes, he glimpsed the wildcat’s face, the rest of her body lost in the whitewashed landscape.
“It felt surreal: Am I really viewing a cheetah in the snow at the southern tip of Africa?” Frost, a Cape Town-based wildlife photographer, told National Geographic by email while on the road. “I realized this was a moment few have ever experienced and a moment in nature I’ll never forget.”
His resulting photographs, taken in August of a female nicknamed Mona by conservationists and two males, are likely the second-known records of African cheetahs in snow, says Vincent van der Merwe, who manages cheetah reintroduction for the South Africa-based nonprofit Endangered Wildlife Trust. Van der Merwe’s team took what he believes was the first photo in snow in 2014 in Mount Camdeboo Game Reserve, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.
Both instances show cheetahs reintroduced to private game reserves in parts of their native range. Those reintroductions are key to a conservation strategy designed to protect the dwindling species while giving tourists a chance to see them. With about 7,000 total left in the wild, the cheetah is considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (See stunning photos of cheetah in action.)
“We tend to put them into categories,” such as assuming cheetahs are unique to the East African savanna, says van der Merwe, whose translocation efforts are funded in part by the National Geographic Society. He says the new pictures show “these animals are a lot more adaptable than you think.”
In fact, before colonists wiped out 95 percent of the cheetah’s population by the 1960s, the cats roamed much of the continent, from 10,000-foot-elevation mountain ranges to coastal forests to deserts (such as the Kalahari) where temperatures fall below freezing at night.
In recent decades, conservationists like Van der Merwe—a self-described cheetah matchmaker—have translocated about 60 of the agile cats to various game reserves. They placed two males and two females in Rogge Cloof, a 71-square-mile reserve in the Northern Cape Province, in 2018. (See more photos of the snowy cheetahs.)
South Africa is one of the only countries whose cheetah numbers are rising.; In 2017, van der Merwe and his team transplanted South African cheetahs to Malawi—a nation about 1,400 air miles from South Africa—where the feline had gone extinct in the 1980s.
“Our goal is to use our surplus cheetah for reintroduction into other parts of Africa,” he says.
“I’ve never seen anything like it”
The Rogge Cloof reserve was created from a family sheep farm in 2017. Van der Merwe says it’s large enough to support five adult cheetah and offspring, and boasts a rich supply of springbok, a cheetah favorite.
Even so, he was initially worried about whether cheetahs could withstand the region’s temperatures, which can drop to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. “The fallout from a cheetah potentially freezing… the media will have you for breakfast,” he says.
So he did his homework, digging up old British colonial records, and confirmed that hunters had once shot cheetah in this part of South Africa. This meant that Rogge Cloof was once part the cheetah’s native range, and suggests that modern-day cheetahs would likely have an innate ability to deal with snow, he says.
So far, van der Merwe’s gamble has paid off: All four cheetahs have survived, and one female gave birth to three cubs this July—the middle of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. (Read more about the threats to cheetah survival.)
Luke Hunter, executive director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Big Cats Program, says Frost’s photography is “beautiful—I’ve never seen anything like it.”
He agrees that cheetahs historically lived in Rogge Cloof, though he says it wasn’t “fantastic” habitat due to the cold, arid environment.
He notes that the region is similar in climate and topography to the central Iranian plateau, which is now home to about 50 Asiatic cheetahs, the last of their kind in the wild. The once-widespread subspecies ranged throughout Central Asia and as far east as India.
The Iranian animals, which regularly experience snow, grow a thick coat in the winters, as do African cheetahs in Northern Hemisphere zoos, Hunter notes. This suggests there’s “some inherent evolutionary ability” for cheetahs to handle snow, as van der Merwe believes.
So although “the fact that they’re pictured in snow is striking and brilliant, it’s not so unexpected,” Hunter says. (See National Geographic photos of cheetahs on the edge.)
He cautions that cheetahs would likely not cope well with very deep snow, especially since cubs have trouble regulating their body temperatures. A few inches here and there, as occurs in Rogge Cloof, is likely all they can handle, he says.
For those keen on seeing such a spectacle in person, it’s possible to visit Rogge Cloof. As with most of Africa’s nature reserves, it has struggled due to the pandemic’s impact on tourism, van der Merwe says.
Because Rogge Cloof is one of the few nature reserves without predators that pose threats to humans, such as lion and leopard, it allows tourists to view cheetahs on foot—albeit from a careful distance that does not disturb the animals. (Find out how fast the world’s speediest cheetah could run.)
Mona, the oldest female in the reserve and the star of Frost’s photographs, is particularly relaxed around people. “She just doesn’t give a damn about humans,” van der Merwe laughs.
As for photographer Frost, he’s now hooked on what he calls these “ice cats of Africa” and wants to go back to film them for a wildlife documentary.
“The fact that cheetah have endured the winter snow fairly undocumented,” Frost says, “shows nature holds many secrets.”