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Safari Stories: A Stalking Cheetah
The cheetah is an attractive cat found over much of the savannah regions of Africa but also in some of the desert areas of Africa and the Mideast. The cheetah is the fastest land animal on Earth. To witness their incredible speed during a hunt is a sight to behold and will amaze even the most seasoned scientist, naturalist and guide.
These cats are not nearly as large as a lion but rather they are tall, with long legs and toenails like a dog, unlike other cats that have retractable claws. Cheetahs are predators, but they also are not truly apex predators. If they let down their guard, lions and hyenas will kill cheetahs, removing a competitive predator within an area.
Cheetahs are frequently on the watch for prey as well as for lions and hyenas. In doing this, they are often found perched on top of termite mounds where they get a higher observation view. One cheetah that was frequently seen in Kenya’s Masai Mara during IE East Africa safaris was in the habit of leaping onto the hood or even the roof of safari vehicles. From this vantage, the cat which we affectionately named Queen, had a great vantage point and showed no fear of people. In fact, on one of my Kenya safaris with International Expeditions, Queen jumped up on the roof of the Land Rover and her tail came down through the observation hatch in the roof! Guests were stroking her long tail and she actually seemed to enjoy it. Of course for the safari guests, it was the highlight of their trip.
One other experience I had on a safari was a lengthy observation of a female cheetah with two young. I have traveled to Africa many, many times over the past 15 years and this was one of my most memorable observations…actually not just in Africa but in my many travels throughout the world.
Our safari vehicle was all alone — no other travelers in sight — when we spotted a cheetah in the early stage of stalking. We stopped at an appropriate distance so as not to disturb the cat. We soon noticed the cheetah kept looking back over her shoulder and with our heads through the hatches, we could hear her whistle each time she looked back. After a few minutes we discovered that she was whistling to her two young, that were well grown, and this was going to be a lesson for the youngsters in hunting. The two young cheetahs were side by side, also crouched but absolutely motionless with their eyes glued on mom. The female very slowly crept on her belly through the grass and in front of her were many Thompson’s gazelle — Tommies. From the vehicle, we all made guesses as to what Tommie the cheetah seem to have in her sights. After about 30 minutes, we all were proven to be wrong. The female began to creep faster and her stalk lasted quite some time then she abruptly began a run towards a Tommie that was further away than many other Tommies that had been much closer to the cat. Tommies were running in all directions but the cheetah kept her focus and soon it was apparent which Tommie she was pursuing.
What was most astounding was her speed as she closed on the Tommie that to our good fortune began running in our direction, thus bringing the pursuit closer to us. However, little did we know that she was still in low gear. When she got within 30 feet of the Tommie, she put on a breathtaking burst of speed. She waited until the right time to really accelerate and when she did she caught up to the Tommie within seconds. One quick swat with a front paw sent the Tommie tumbling in a huge cloud of dust, and the very next thing we saw was the cheetah with its mouth clamp securely on the Tommie’s throat. It was over very quickly and the cheetah cubs very quickly ran to mom to join in the feast. She allowed her youngsters to feed while she sat alert watching for lions and hyenas to ensure the safety of her cubs. This was one of those moments that brought a lot of tears to my eyes. I tend to get very emotional when I observe an event in nature that I know is special and feel incredibly fortunate to witness such events and even share them with guests on a trip.
Naturalist Greg Greer is a favorite among IE travelers, and has gained a reputation for his friendliness and good humor, along with his incomparable knowledge of natural history, photos and articles have been widely published in books and magazines, including Georgia Outdoor News, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Alabama Outdoor News, Riversedge and Southern Wildlife.