Tear marks highlight the cheetah’s golden eyes as she scans the Serengeti from atop a fallen acacia tree. “She’s searching for prey,” our guide tells me, “We are about to experience a cheetah hunting.”
According to experts there are only about 10 000 wild cheetahs remaining in the world, making them Africa’s most endangered big cat.
Considering there are so few of them, I’m surprised how often I’ve seen the iconic cat while out on safari. I’ve ‘met’ the infamous Serengeti cheetah brothers, as well as the female Mara cheetah known for jumping on safari vehicles; although the day I saw her, she was with a cub and not interested in visiting our truck. I’ve seen a group of baby cheetah chasing each other, and another cub playing (unfortunately) with a discarded empty plastic water bottle.
I’ve witnessed the world’s fastest animals just after they have hunted. One cheetah carried its kill (a small gazelle) to a shady spot by the side of the Land Rover I was in. Well adapted to the presence of vehicles in her environment, she used it to shield her from the hyenas that would try to steal her kill once they smelled it.
But with all my sightings I have never seen a cheetah hunt. Now, it looks as if I am about to have that chance.
A soft purring sound breaks the Serengeti’s dry silence.
“She’s calling for her babies,” the guide tells our group.
Within seconds, seemingly from nowhere, two cubs appear out of the long golden grass on the opposite side of our Land Rover. The cubs respond in kind to their mother’s rubs and licks and with some difficulty they climb up next to mom as she resumes surveying the plains. At first the cubs appear oblivious that mom is searching for prey, instead they’re concentrating on maintaining their balance while playing with each other’s tails.
Then mom sees something: a lone gazelle eating about 150 yards away. She jumps off her perch and crouches low to the ground. The cubs, who are now in a serious mood, jump down to the ground instinctively assembling into a ruler straight line behind their mother.
At a pace slow enough to not elicit a reaction, yet focused enough to not loose sight, the three cheetahs proceed to stalk the unsuspecting gazelle. Their twelve legs are perfectly synchronised, as if they are only one predator, not three.
The gazelle sniffs the air and scans nervously, but appears not to have seen the cheetah trio. Yet.
Now, as close as the cats can safely be to their prey without detection, they wait, still as sand, ready to make the deadly pounce. The gazelle looks down at the ground.
Watching from our safari truck, we all think: big mistake, and hold our breath.
But instead of seizing the moment with her sixty mile per hour sprint, Mommy cheetah makes only a half –hearted effort towards her victim, leaving the antelope to easily prance away.
“Today’s lesson was in mastering the art of stalking, not killing,” our guide tells us.
I only have the memory, no photos, of this extraordinary experience because, like me, the group was so engrossed in what we were seeing, we didn’t want any movements from us, or camera noises, to thwart this important ‘growing up cheetah’ lesson.