A lifelong dream realised
It was a poster on my wall as a child that fuelled my love and obsession for this spotted cat. The photographer had captured an image of a cheetah hunt, the animal frozen in time, the background scenery blurred as the creature focused on its fleeing prey.
I wanted to witness this spectacle in the real world but not out of a macabre lust for blood, it was for the supreme poetry of the evolution of the predator vs. prey battle. There was a brief glimpse of a Cheetah setting off on the run many years before in the Kruger National Park, but the trees and dense bush obscured all the action. I had to wait for 25 years.
My Kalahari Debut
Fast forward a few years, and I drove around a dusty corner on the road to Mata Mata camp in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. A group of cars were parked up on the side of the road and my excitement level kicked up a notch. A polite gesture from the driver in front of me directed my gaze to beneath a tree across the dry river bed. There they were, five of them. Mom and her four adolescent cubs, all huddled in the shade of a thorn tree. It was a scorching Kalahari day.
Her gaze was fixed on something across to my left, and after a quick scan with the binoculars, I realised that she had an approaching Springbuck in her sights. I moved the car in the direction of the Springbuck and parked up with my 500mm lens on the car window frame. A minute later she exploded into life and with thunderous footfalls, raced past me and was out of sight once again. I did manage to get a few banker photos though.
I realised how unprepared I was for the speed at which the whole event took place and vowed to change my way of shooting if I got another chance. All in all, I got a further three opportunities to photograph these marvellous animals on their hunts. Yes, that’s four Cheetah hunts in the first week of my trip. Unbelievable, and very memorable.
The sequence of a cheetah hunt
Below is a cross-section of photos I took from the various hunts illustrating the sequence of events on a typical Cheetah hunt.
The above two photographs are from one of the unsuccessful hunts that I witnessed. This particular female walked across the road and up towards the dunes with two adolescent cubs when she spotted the springbuck. The cubs remained behind her as she stalked her prey. Sadly, the springbuck detected her and fled before she could even get within a striking zone.
The attack started with a few slow strides, and then she pulled the trigger. Within a few seconds, she was up to full speed. The noise of her footfalls as she ran past is the thing I remember the most. They resonated in the dry riverbed and sounded something similar to horses hooves thundering along in a horse race. I just love the focus in her eyes, locked onto the Springbuck, which by now had detected her and started to run.
I have visualised the above picture in my mind for many years and out of the four hunts, this was the only time that she passed me at the perfect angle to get a side profile shot of her at full speed. I just love how you can see the fully extended claws on her back feet creating the perfect running spikes. Another observation I made from all the photos I took, was how they narrow their eyes down to fine slits at full pace. It’s also an absolute marvel how they can change direction at full speed with the simplest flick of the tail.
Once she brought her target down with a perfectly timed trip of its hind legs, the coup de grâce is quick, ruthless and efficient. Many of the gazelles and buck that she preys upon will trip themselves up over rough terrain, but the result is usually the same. Although this mother had two adolescent cubs who quickly walked across the riverbed to see what mom had served up for lunch, she did not offer them the opportunity to finish off the buck themselves. This was the same Cheetah that had missed the kill the night before, and she was not going to let this meal escape.
When the Springbuck was dead, she allowed herself the chance to get her breath back. In many of the reference books I have read on the Cheetah, they all seem to say that the Cheetah can only keep up the burst of speed for short distances. Maybe the books should rather read ‘a short space of time’ as the distance covered by the female above was hundreds of meters. She looked around in all directions before she started to drag this Springbuck into the shade of a Camel Thorn tree. Cheetahs do often get chased off their kill by Lion and Hyena, so they take great care to get their prey out of sight if at all possible.
Some graphic images to follow.
Mealtime is not the cleanest of affairs with blood covering their faces. Amazingly, in this case, the mom spotted a few more springbuck approaching and exploded into another ‘lung-busting’ run resulting in her pulling down a young springbuck on the other side of the riverbed. She then started to eat that Springbuck while her cubs ate theirs in front of me.
Occasionally they might lazily get up to chase off the odd crow or jackal and even take the chance to roll around in the carcass. One of the female Cheetahs had reared four cubs to adolescence, which in a riverbed with many Lion, Leopard, and Hyena, was a fantastic feat. Speaking to all the other photographers who were driving up and down the river, she had killed every day that week. No wonder they all looked so healthy
Finally, they might all move off and leave the bones to the scavengers, or just stay around and sleep. I managed some great photos of the two cubs as they relaxed after their meal in the heat of the afternoon. Over the 16 days that I was in the Park, I was privileged to see Cheetah on at least 13 different occasions which was amazing. It is the perfect place to see this resilient cat in action.
For another Cheetah story, please have a look at The Cheetah Skyline.
The read more photographic stories, see my latest photos, benefit from print giveaways and free gifts, please subscribe to the monthly newsletter