Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri first opened in 1910. And with over a century’s worth of experience, the facility has likely seen it all when it comes to the creatures in its care. However, in 2017 staff there were in for an almighty shock.
The establishment’s latest surprise actually came courtesy of its four-year-old cheetah Bingwa. The big cat, whose name is the Swahili word for “champion,” had been loaned to Saint Louis Zoo from Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon. And she soon set about making waves in her latest home.
After Bingwa arrived at the zoo, you see, she mated with nine-year-old cheetah Jason, who was on loan from White Oak Conservation in Yulee, Florida. And low and behold, her keepers later discovered that Bingwa was expecting a litter.
Cheetah pregnancies generally last around three months, after which time the mothers would be charged with caring for their babies alone. Interestingly, the absent fathers can actually pose a significant problem in the wild. That’s because the mothers are forced to leave their cubs unattended while they go hunting, and this makes the babies susceptible to threats.
So while a litter of cheetahs will usually consist of three or four cubs, it’s unlikely that they will all reach adulthood in the wild. In fact, given that their mothers are forced to leave their cubs a lot of the time, mortality rates among the young are as high as 90 percent.
Since she lived in a controlled environment, though, Bingwa didn’t need to worry about straying from her litter for too long. Zoo staff would continue to supply her with food, after all, so she could spend more time rearing her cubs.
In fact, Bingwa and her babies would be in expert hands. That’s because Saint Louis Zoo is a major breeding facility for cheetahs, having welcomed over 50 cubs at its specialist center since 1974.
So after Bingwa has welcomed her babies, staff would closely monitor the family during the critical first few months. Yet while the mother’s life is easier than her counterparts in the wild, little did she know that she would still have her paws full.
The eight births were also particularly significant considering the challenges that are facing wild cheetahs. The wild cats were once found across large swathes of Africa and Asia, after all. But in the past five decades, they have become extinct in 13 countries.
By breeding cheetahs in captivity, then, zoos claim to help to protect the species from extinction. And Saint Louis Zoo has a center in Africa that is leading conservation efforts there, too. Working with local partners, the African team also helps to resolve human-cheetah conflicts, conduct research and provide education.
So while Saint Louis Zoo worked on preserving her species’ future, Bingwa was busy being a mom. And luckily, she was a natural. “She has quickly become adept at caring for her very large litter of cubs — grooming, nursing and caring for them attentively,” Steve Bircher from Saint Louis Zoo told People in January 2018.
So in becoming the mother of a record-breaking eight healthy babies, Bingwa has truly lived up to her “champion” name. Now, then, the zoo staff had to find suitable monikers for her litter. And once again they turned to the Swahili language for inspiration.
Rather than trying to find names to suit all the cubs’ personalities, though, their carers took a more straightforward approach. They named the babies Moja, Mbili, Tatu, Nne, Tano, Sita, Saba and Nane – the numbers one to eight in Swahili.
For the first month of their lives, the eight cubs remained in their special maternity wing with their mom. But when the babies reached six weeks old, they slowly started exploring outside of their protected environment.
Later, in May 2018, keepers gave the then five-month-old cubs access to their full habitat. Since May, too, the public has been able to view the young cheetahs at the zoo. And, judging from the response they’ve had on social media, they’ve already become firm favorites.