When I was on my first safari, I wondered, what do cheetahs eat? They’re big cats, but not half as big as a lion or a leopard. What’s large enough to keep one fed but small enough to be manageable during a hunt? My curiosity in cheetah cuisine was soon answered: gazelle. Sure they eat other things but a gazelle is the MacDonald’s of the predator community. They’re everywhere. Once they’re caught they’re light enough to carry if a mamma has hungry cheetah cubs waiting for dinner.
I REALLY had my question answered the first time I saw a cheetah hunt for her cubs (I’d never seen cheetah cubs before)right in front of me.
Wow.. what a sight.
The story begins the very first hour of my second trip back to the Masai Mara in Kenya. I was with my buddy, Sammy, a guide for Wild Eye Photographic Safaris. Sammy learned about the Cheetah family from other guides speaking over a walkie talkie and we were on our way!
I’d never seen cheetah cubs before, and as we pulled up to a large bush at the base of a tree I could see the adorable kitties lounging beneath. Our angle wasn’t the best—there were a few other jeeps already there—but my angle wasn’t horrible either. To my delight, the cheetah placed herself directly between two bushes that would have otherwise blocked my view. (Thank you momma cheetah!)
We watched as the cubs scampered about playing or gnawing on the twigs of the bush while the mother lounged next to them. Then, she saw something. Her body tensed and she looked west. Both Sammy and I immediately turned in the direction she was looking and we saw…….nothing. She, however, with her bionic cheetah eyes, locked on to a lunch waiting to happen. As she moved away from her cubs, they instinctively hid themselves in the densest part of the foliage so as not be visible should a predator pass by while she was away.
Walking forward, she used a nearby termite mound to get a better look and then suddenly she was off, trotting towards the horizon until she became a tiny speck in our binoculars. Sammy said she was hunting a Thomson’s gazelle. His trained eye could see it at that distance, I saw nothing but grass and dirt. He said that we should stay put, and if the cheetah was successful, she’d bring the kill back to the cubs. So that’s what we did.
Within 10 minutes she was on her way back, carrying the unlucky gazelle in her mouth. She made several stops along the way to rest and to scan the horizon for hyena or other predators that might steal her food or following her back to the cubs.
Eventually she arrived and unceremoniously dropped the gazelle in front of her young ones who swarmed the carcass. She laid down next to the furry piranha, but it was clear after a few minutes of unsuccessful carnage, that the cubs couldn’t bite through the gazelle’s hide. Momma used her considerable oral skills to puncture the gazelle and then the cubs were off to the races!
At one point, one cheeky little scoundrel of a cub decided the gazelle wasn’t big enough for all of them, grabbed its head and started to drag it away from the others. Momma cheetah wasn’t having it, and a tug of war ensued while his siblings desperately tried to latch on the remains. As one might expect the tiny thief lost the battle.
Once the happy family was well fed, the under-bush lounging once again commenced, with baths and naps following close behind.