When I asked Headman which animals he loved to see the most, he replied that it was too difficult to pick one animal. However, upon my repeated questioning, he admitted that he did love to see the cheetahs. At the beginning of our time in Shamwari, when Headman asked us which animals we most wanted to see and I replied that I wanted to see rhinos, David said he wanted to see cheetahs. Headman obliged. After our near immediate sighting of a rhino, he followed that up by spotting with his binoculars, two cheetah brothers resting on the plain.
Headman told us that these brothers had formed a hunting coalition. Although cheetahs are generally solitary animals, life for cheetahs is very hard. In fact, during my time at Shamwari, I become more sympathetic to the plight of a cheetah than any other animal as I learned more about them. Cheetahs, quite simply, have a very rough life.
For starters, they rank way down on the list of predators in the wild. They routinely have to sacrifice the fruits of their hunt to larger predators like lions and leopards. To add insult to injury, cheetahs aren’t members of the Panthera genus, like the rest of the big cats (lions, panthers, leopards, and tigers). Although they are a part of the felidae (feline) family, they are the only members left of their genus Acinonyx, which tells you a lot about how highly endangered these cats are. They don’t have close relatives. They are distinct from other big cats, because they have semi-retractable claws primed for running traction, and their claws and pads keep them from being able to climb trees. They don’t run like other cats either. If you watch a cheetah run (and we did), they run with their front legs thrust between their back, looking more like a dog than a cat. They have enormous strides and tremendous spinal flexibility which aids in their speed. They are primed for catching prey on large, flat tracts of land (without a lot of trees), but all of that specialization makes it impossible for them to adapt to other types of environments. Cheetahs need land and space, which is hard to come by in our modern era of human agricultural expansion.
We were incredibly fortunate that at Shamwari, we were able to see a cheetah hunt as it occurred. One evening shortly before sunset, as we were ascending a ridge, we saw a small herd of wildebeest on the plan below us:
All of a sudden, we saw the herd break out into a run and noticed two specks in the grass..two approaching cheetah. We saw from a distance as the specks gave chase to the wildebeest, but the effort looked half-hearted. Headman turned the truck around, and we headed back down the ridge and to the open plain for a closer view of what was going on. We made it down the plain, and saw the wildebeest basically staring down the cheetah in the distance.
The wildebeests were well aware of the cheetah’s existence in the tall grass, and Headman thought that the cheetah’s wouldn’t give chase again, since they couldn’t sneak up on the wildebeest by surprise. Also, cheetahs tire very quickly after they have exerted all of their energy to run quickly, so it was unlikely that they would have the strength to give chase again. However, in spite of those odds, these cheetah were hungry, and they gave chase to the wildebeest again. It happened very, very quickly. Not being a professional photographer and also because I was shaking feeling my heart pound so heavily in my chest, I didn’t get any pictures of the chase up close. It was amazing. In a matter of seconds, the cheetah had caught up to the wildebeest, and was running in the middle of the group. He knocked one of the wildebeest down, but it was too large, and he couldn’t get a grip on it to kill the wildebeest. The wildebeest managed to get away. This time, the poor cheetah was exhausted and didn’t give chase again. Headman told us that the cheetahs had given chase to the herd, hoping that they had a young wildebeest in the middle of them. The fully grown wildebeest just can be too large of a kill for a smaller cheetah to manage to take down.
These were the same two brother cheetahs that we had seen a few days before just lying in the grass. We had cheered on their hunt from our vehicle, and we were disappointed that they came up empty-handed. My heart went out to them, as we observed them in the fading sunlight, questioning their failure. They just looked so hungry.
Aside from going after game that was too large to kill, their tactical hunting skills looked superb. As it turns out, it might have been a blessing in disguise that they didn’t make a kill right then at that time. As we crossed the plain, a short distance away in the grass was a male and female lion, who could have potentially taken any successful kill away from them.
How real is the threat from a larger predator for a cheetah? Headman told us that just a couple of months ago, a leopard killed a male cheetah at Shamwari. Cheetahs try to stay away from leopards and lions, because they know that they are real threats to a cheetah’s survival.
The next day, we were on the northern side of Shamwari, when we observed two different brothers exercising caution will both eating and protecting a recent kill that they had recently made. The two brothers pulled their recent kill, a waterbuck, under a tree to eat it while being able to keep a watch out for larger predators around them:
In this hunting coalition, the younger of the two males was only about a year old and had only recently left the protection of his mother. As a result, he was still wearing a radio collar so the biologists could track his progress in the park. Considering how tough it is for a cheetah to succeed in the wild, having a young cheetah wear the collar made sense.
You can see how young this cheetah was because of his tufts of his young fur common to cheetah cubs, that had not yet fallen out:
One cheetah watched, while the other one ate, and I felt relieved, that knowing that both of these cheetahs would eat that day and live to see another day. The life of a cheetah is tough and entirely deserving of sympathy. Look at how noble and beautiful they are: