It was crazy, the rain was coming down in droplets the size of my head. The sky was dark and green like a bruise, and if I’d been in my home state of Michigan I would have sworn that a tornado was minutes away. The cheetah and her four cubs cared little about the weather, they were too busy eating a gazelle lunch the mother had killed 30 minutes earlier.
When we first spotted the family, a short while earlier, the sun had shone brightly. The mother cheetah sauntering across the Mara, her head moving imperceptibly from left to right scanning the horizon, her five little ones trailing behind her in single file. Her babies were hungry and she was looking for something to kill. As she moved through the high grass she climbed every termite mound in her path using the extra height to her advantage. Every now and then she’d sit and her cubs would lay next to her and cuddle.
She didn’t stay down long though, in fact it seemed as if every time the cubs got comfy it was her cue to get up. The cubs would watch her saunter away and when she got a little too far for their comfort, they scurried after her as fast as their fuzzy little feet would carry them, leaping through the grass like rabbits.
In the distance, a gazelle was sitting in the grass oblivious to the approaching danger. We saw it and waited for the cheetah to see it too, and the instant she did her entire body became rigid, followed by the familiar elongated posture of a stalking cat. The cubs instinctively stopped and huddled together—she was on the hunt and they couldn’t follow. The mother left the cubs exposed behind her—though the high grass gave them a modicum of cover—to go after the gazelle. It was dangerous to leave them alone, a predator could easily snatch a cub while she was away but she had no choice. They could not hunt with her.
We moved our jeep to a better view vantage point putting the cheetah directly in front of us with the gazelle in the foreground to our right sitting in the grass. It was a long wait. Cheetahs are mighty patient animals, creeping ever so slowly towards their prey, doing their best to get as close as possible before pouncing.
It was strange seeing the gazelle sitting there without a care in the world, knowing that I was probably witnessing its last moments alive. Intellectually it all made sense; this was the circle of life. I’d seen it a million times before on National Geographic, but having it play out in front of me was surreal and sad and exciting, which made me feel a little guilty.
We waited for the cheetah to make her move.
I was ready to photograph the cats. My camera was all set and my finger was on the shutter. I had no idea when or where the two would run and I just hoped that I would be able to capture a decent image when the drama unfolded. We had no doubt something was going to happen. The cheetah may not win but we all knew there would be a chase.
Suddenly the game was on; the cheetah ran straight towards the gazelle (and us). The gazelle, jumped up and instantly ran to our left parallel to the jeep. The cheetah switched gears and ran to her right looking to intercept her target. They ran around a log and headed back in the opposite direction, the cheetah closing the distance between them. They covered an enormous amount of ground in what seemed like a split second, leaving a trail of dust rising in the air. Their speed was astonishing. The scene had a real-time, time-lapse quality to it if that makes any sense. I took a lot of pictures, my frame-rate clicking at 12 frames per second, trying to follow the zigzagging as best I could. I had no idea if I had been remotely successful. (I realized later that I should have had my shutter speed even higher for the chase. My images were came out soft…wahhhh).
Seconds later a large cloud of dust shot up from the grass and we knew she captured the gazelle. With the hunt over we moved closer and found the cheetah still at the gazelle’s throat until eventually it went completely limp.
Still panting heavily after her run, the cheetah sat up and looked in around to make sure there was no danger or scavengers anxious to steal her kill. When she felt it was safe she called to her cubs, with a chirp of sorts, and moments later they were at her feet.
Ten minutes later we had to leave.
The way that the conservancy works is that with big sightings, of which this was one, only 5 vehicles are allowed near it at any one time. When a sixth or seventh car pulls up and wishes to have a look, the first two jeeps must relinquish their spot and move on. If a line develops, each vehicle is given 5 minutes to take pictures and then it must drive away yielding to the next in line. The word had gotten out about the kill and vehicles were coming from every direction. Our disappointment was palpable but since the rules were made to protect the wildlife, we immediately obliged. We had a plan however, we got back in line.
Fifteen to twenty minutes later we were in front of the cheetahs again, but by then the crazy rain was falling and the sky was filled with thick, grey clouds that looked like dirty snow making it unusually dark for that time of day and difficult to shoot. The cheetahs continued to eat, periodically looking up with blood-soaked goatees to scan the horizon or shake out their fur in response to the weather, their hair matted by the rain into little furry peaks that looked like meringue.
When they had their fill, the mother began licking her cubs in a haphazard, whoever-happens-to-be-in-front-of-my-tongue kind of way, removing the scarlet remnants of their feast. In return, the cubs surrounded her, licking her face in one of the sweetest behaviors I’ve ever seen. As usual I wanted to leap out of the jeep and hug every last one of them until their little wet bodies burst.
It wasn’t long before our time was up. Again. And as we pulled away, the cheetahs, full from their meal, nestled into the soggy grass and went to sleep.