My wonderful fiancé witnessed this story and has asked me to put it into my words on her behalf. ..
Streamlined and elegant, the cheetah strode purposely down the road in front of us. The late afternoon sun glinting off his eyes, giving them the impression of polished amber; his velvet coat glowing gold in the receding light. His long legs and slight frame hinting at the explosive power that lay beneath them. His eyes, perfectly adapted to diurnal hunting, scanned the bush on either side for his next meal. Driven by the need to find food, and constantly aware of the stronger competition that might take it from him, the cheetah leads one of the harshest lives of Africa’s most revered predators. Rarely is he able to finish a meal without the interruption of hyena or lion.
Today he was hungry. His beautiful eyes betraying the need to eat as they analaysed every inch of the landscape, searching for potential prey. His sharp vision soon picked out a herd of impala casually grazing close to a waterhole. Instantly his demeanor changed. With delicate precision, the cheetah circled his prey. His deliberate approach borne out a life of missed opportunities and experience; the ability to see but not be seen essential in his success as a species. Keeping plenty of cover between him and his folly, the cheetah finally settled in the lengthening shadows of a knob thorn to plan his attack. Between him lay a no-man’s-land of short grass affording no cover. For some of the larger predators this would be an unassailable obstacle but this would pose no problem for the blistering speed of the cheetah.
Like a sniper, trained to observe for hours and wait for the perfect moment, he watched the movements and actions of the impala. His long thick tail, so important for balance and maneuverability at high speeds, twitching occasionally, the only sign of his growing excitement. Finally, the trap was set. Inching forward, low on his belly, the cheetah positioned himself, ready to strike. Like a coiled spring, toned muscles rippled as they tensed for action. We waited, breaths held for their release. We knew we were about to witness something special. A cheetah in full flight is rarely seen by people in the wild, especially in the thicker savanna vegetation we have at Sabi Sabi. They have had to develop new hunting strategies to compensate for less room to operate at high speeds but this time, the cheetah had worked the opening that nature had designed it for.
Without warning, the attack came. Like a bullet from a gun, the cheetah exploded from his concealed position with acceleration that defies belief. Faster than the top production cars on the planet, the cheetah hit 60mp/h inside 2 seconds. A bolt of black and gold streaking across the grass. A feat of natural engineering doing what natural selection has chosen it for. The lightweight frame, enlarged nostrils, non retractable claws for grip all working in perfect harmony to propel him towards his target. The impala saw him coming and fled, they themselves so aware that danger can come from any side at any moment. For a moment the cheetah looked beaten but then he hit the afterburners… With so little time to get up to speed, the impala stood no chance with the proximity of the attack. Legs pumping like pistons, massive strides eating the ground beneath him, the cheetah singled out one of the ewes and employed the classic ankle tap. The over sized dew claw clipping the back leg and sent the impala stumbling into the turf. Like a flash, the cheetah was on top of her, strong jaws clamped down on her neck stifling any cries that would alert other predators and cutting off oxygen to the already exhausted impala.
We watched in awe as the entire event unfolded in front of us in the blink of an eye. However, we were not the only audience to this performance. As the cheetah lay beside his prize, panting heavily, trying to get air back to his oxygen-starved limbs, 3 rhinos now approached the spectacle. With no real predators to worry them, they approached the scene with apparent curiosity, their poor eyesight unable to resolve the situation to their satisfaction. A sighting is always magnified by having interactions between species. It lends itself to the bigger picture, rather than just witnessing individual characters go about their business. Though out gunned and giving away about 2000kgs in body weight, the cheetah stood its ground, ready to defend his kill against these armoured giants. Nose to nose, with only a metre or so separating them, the cheetah stood resolute over his kill, hissing and spitting at the spectators. Seemingly perplexed by this fiery little adversary, the rhinos soon moved on no doubt chuckling at the plucky little cat’s defiance.
With the battle won and his prize defended, the cheetah settled down to a well earned meal. With relish, his sharp jaws opened the soft flesh of the hind quarters and began to replenish some of the energy expended during the hunt. But this unbelievable sighting was not over for us yet! From the tree line skulked the unmistakable figure of a spotted hyena. The cheetah’s arch nemesis. We knew instantly that all the hard work would come to an end with the arrival of nature’s principal scavenger. Quite capable of hunting for themselves, but brilliantly adapted to reap the rewards of others’ labour they cheetah knew that his prize was lost. Resolutely he stood his ground, trying to get as much nourishment as possible before the inevitable happened. We know that death and taxes are inevitable, but in the cheetah world, its death and hyenas! For a moment, we thought that the two would share the spoils but with a look that could kill, the hyena took one bite and casually dragged his plunder away. The cheetah knew it had met its match and merely watched, before turning away and continuing his unending fight for survival.
Watching this filled me with so many emotions. The excitement of witnessing my first ever kill will live long in my memory but the interactions that followed will make this unforgettable. To see just one of the 3 principle characters in this soap opera would have been special in itself but to see them all was special. Of course we were rooting for the cheetah. It is not often we see this fascinating animal and get to marvel at its abilities but also to see its weaknesses first hand. To possess such blistering speed means sacrificing strength – a point perfectly highlighted in his decision not even to defend his kill against the more powerful hyena. It is no wonder that experts say that cheetahs would be extinct by now if not for man’s intervention. The irony is that with the creation of national parks, larger predators have flourished in an arena that favours the strong. Cheetahs need wide open spaces to utilise their speed and the ability to avoid competition. Out competed and out muscled by all its adversaries, the cheetah must rely on good fortune and the ability to adapt to its new surroundings. This takes time, and with such limited numbers left, the question is, do they have enough.