Life and death in the Kalahari

Original source: www.roxannereid.co.za

Summer in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and we were watching the miracle of birth about a kilometre south of Kamfersboom waterhole on the Auob riverbed.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_7 The springbok mum was resting next to the road when we found her, the head and front hooves of a lamb poking out of her rear end. Soon the body would follow and the newborn would get its first experience of Kalahari sand. Mum was quiet, dignified, none of the wailing and gnashing of teeth you get from humans giving birth. After a few minutes she got up and walked two or three metres north, the lamb’s tiny hooves flopping as she stepped.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_6 Then out of nowhere came a sprinting cheetah. Dust flew as the springbok tried to run up the dune and get away.

Now we had ringside seats for a kill we didn’t really want to witness.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_5 Encumbered by the half-born lamb, the springbok was not at her best. She hadn’t gone more than a few metres when the cheetah pulled her off-balance. She fought and kicked but made no sound. He held her down with his front paws and bit into her throat to close off her windpipe, keeping well clear of her horns. A cheetah’s canines are so small that they penetrate only a short way into the neck, but the jaws have a vice-like grip.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_4 The two stayed locked in this position for about five minutes, the springbok occasionally jerking and thrashing, trying to get free.

Then she stopped struggling.

The cheetah unclamped his jaws, grabbed her by the neck and dragged her five metres to the shade of a camelthorn tree. After the chase and the kill, this was a mighty effort. The pregnant springbok was almost the same size as him and probably weighed only about ten kilograms less. It was 40 degrees Celsius so the shade of that tree was critical for the already overheated cheetah.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_3 He lay down and we could hear his panting, see his chest rising and falling at hyperventilation speed. A cheetah’s breathing rate can go as high as 150 breaths per minute after a chase, its temperature soars, and it has to cool down for about half an hour.

All this time we watched the lamb’s face, its eyes blinking, its mouth opening and closing without a sound. It was only a matter of time before it would be dead too – a horrible end to all of mum’s investment in a six-month pregnancy.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_2 Fifteen, twenty minutes passed. Still the cheetah lay panting, cooling down before he could feed. Then he got up and flipped the buck the other way round so we couldn’t see the lamb anymore. That was a relief for us, although it didn’t change anything for the lamb.

He set about opening the mother’s back leg with his side teeth. From just three metres away, we could clearly see his spittle and the wet fur on the springbok’s leg. We could see his bloody jaws and face, even the white tendons as the cheetah ripped at the dark meat, his whole face disappearing into the hole as he ate.

cheetah_kill_kgalagadi_1 Once he satisfied his first hunger pangs, he lay down next to the buck and started panting again, his eyelids falling then opening again, alert for thieving lions or hyenas. According to cheetah boffin Luke Hunter (in his book Cheetah, Struik 2003), adult cheetahs need about 4-5 kilograms of meat per day but if they get the chance they can eat up to about 16.5 kilograms at a sitting. This cheetah would rest and feed again as long as no lions or hyenas came to bug him.

Setting aside the human upset over watching a springbok lamb die, the best part of this sighting was that we saw it from start to finish. And that at any one time there were never more than three other cars with us at the sighting.

And that’s life and death in the Kgalagadi. The miracle of birth, then a streak of spotted fur and two animals are dead. It’s not evil or cruel, it’s just nature.

Copyright © Roxanne Reid – No words or photographs may be used without permission from roxannereid.co.za.



Roxanne Reid

Roxanne Reid is a freelance writer and editor. She has authored two travel books, Travels in the Kalahari and A Walk in the Park, and her articles have appeared in magazines like Getaway, Wild and Country Life. She also has her own blog, which focuses on African travel, people, wildlife, heritage and small country villages. She's happiest in the middle of nowhere, meeting the locals, trying something new, or simply watching the grass grow. No words or photographs may be used without permission from roxannereid.co.za

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