On our second morning at Samara, we were up before sunrise. Fortified after a cup of coffee and a muffin, we left the Manor House Lodge in the pre-dawn light to look for the cheetah family.
“To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” ~ Aldo Leopold
After a short while our guide found the cheetah family in the low early morning light with the help of telemetry. The family was mobile in the foothills of the escarpment. The sun rose in east but we, and the cheetahs, were on the west side of the escarpment so remained in deep shadow beyond sunrise. The terrain was rough. The cheetahs were moving along a relatively steep slope, the ground was very stoney, and there was thick Karoo scrub and brush.
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
~ Edward Abbey
When we found the family they were moving through the scrub and the youngsters were playing. It quickly became evident that we were in for some fun as Chilly was in hunting mode and on the move. The cubs regularly stopped and rested, then would have to run to catch up to their mother.
“In this quiet, peaceful time of twilight there is, in this great circle of life, an awful lot of hunting and fishing and catching and killing and dying and eating going on all around me. As the old fisherman said, ‘That’s the way with life. Sometimes you eat well; sometimes you are well-eaten.” ~ Paul G. Quinnett
The only way to follow cheetahs in this environment is to get off the vehicle and follow them on foot. This must be one of the unique features about Samara for wildlife lovers and photographers.
The cheetahs moved through the scrub quickly and at times we were left well behind. At one point we must have been about 100 or so metres behind the cheetah when we suddenly heard the pounding of hooves. As we raced down hill to see what was going on, we saw a herd of eland bolting away from us.
“Instead of buying your children all the things you never had, you should teach them all the things you were never taught. Material wears out but knowledge stays.” ~ Bruce Lee
Then directly in front of us in an open patch we saw the cheetahs. Chilly had caught an eland calf. Instead of killing it quickly she left it for the youngsters – a lesson in how to finish the kill. Cheetah cubs are usually weaned after around six to eight weeks and these cubs looked to be just over a year old so had been eating meat for many months.
It was clear the five cubs still had not yet learnt how to quickly and cleanly finish the kill. In the next image you can see Chilly lying in the grass watching the cubs tackle the eland calf.
Two of the cubs repeatedly tried to grab the calf by the neck but whenever it struggled they got a fright and one or both of them would dash away from the scene only to return seconds later.
The cubs inexperience was obvious. They had the tripping technique sorted out but the take down was lacking even with four of them on the calf at one time. It appeared that the cubs did not have the jaw strength or the stamina to hold the throttling neck grip for long enough to suffocate the calf..
“As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.” “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connnected in the great Circle of Life.” ~Mufasa in the Lion King
Every now and then we thought the eland calf had succumbed to its mauling as it just lay still. In response, the cubs would stop their aggression toward the calf and just stand around waiting for something to happen.
The smaller two of the five cubs were very skittish and easily scared by the calf’s sudden movement.
It was surprising to watch the five cubs take so long to get the calf down. In the Masai Mara or Serengeti they would never get this extended leeway. This was a privilege afforded by little predator competition at that time.
At one stage the calf managed to get onto its all-fours and move towards the scrub but the cubs were all over it. I was so impressed with the toughness of the eland calf, and despite an extended mauling by five cheetah cubs it continued to struggle to get back on its feet – quite remarkable.
Once the eland herd disappeared down the hill onto the open plains they never returned leaving this calf to fend for itself. I was surprised that the eland mother did not try to protect her calf as eland are large antelope. Eland females are known to cooperatively protect their young chasing off large predators to give the youngsters a chance to bunch together and run to safety. An eland calf will never outrun a cheetah but I would have expected to see some response from the eland females.
It was always going to end badly for the calf, with six cheetahs trying to kill it and no back up from the herd.
Incredibly, among all the disarray there were moments of quiet when the surrounding bush seemed to hold its breath.
I am not sure how long it took for the calf to finally succumb but it was difficult to watch the cheetah training in action knowing that the young eland calf was getting mauled to death. The kill lesson was taking a long time and Chilly became impatient and moved closer ready to finish the calf off.
According to Bigcatrescue.org, the cheetah is the most reproductive predator cat and after a gestation period of 90-95 days, a female cheetah can give birth to a litter of three to five cubs. This level of fertility begs the question as to why the cheetah is so endangered? It is estimated that 90% of cheetahs cubs die with in the first three months, 50% of which are killed by predators (lions, jackals, large raptors, and hyenas). The other 40% fall victim to lack of genetic diversity where there immune systems are compromised.
“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.”
~ Steve Irwin
Samara has achieved some interesting successes in regard to both of the factors which dictate the high death rate of cheetah cubs. Only belatedly, in their wildlife reintroduction programme, did they bring in lions. Importantly, the low level of predator competition has benefited the successful rearing of cheetah cubs. In addition, Samara has actively worked to achieve genetic diversification.
Adult female cheetahs are solitary unless mating or accompanied by their cubs. The mother cares for her cubs adroitly. Once she gives birth to her cubs she really has her work cut out for her. The cheetah mother must make sure her cubs are safe, feed them and teach them survival skills and how to provide for themselves.
“Think, for a moment, of a cheetah, a sleek, beautiful animal, one of the fastest on earth, which roams freely on the savannas of Africa. In its natural habitat, it is a magnificent animal, almost a work of art, unsurpassed in speed or grace by any other animal. Now, think of a cheetah that has been captured and thrown into a miserable cage in a zoo. It has lost its original grace and beauty, and is put on display for our amusement. We see only the broken spirit of the cheetah in the cage, not its original power and elegance.”
~ Peter G.G Freund
The group of photographers with CNP Safaris watching the cheetahs that day, myself included, were exceptionally privileged to bare witness to nature in its rich, raw, natural form for an extended period. Each day was learning experience for those cheetah cubs, another key to their survival.
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.
Have fun, Mike
A very difficult – although fascinating – spectacle to watch. I wonder if the eland calf’s ordeal was numbed somewhat by shock. It is interesting that the cubs took so long to kill the calf. Your excellent photographs and description illustrate that even wildlife have to develop and learn how to fend for themselves.
Thanks Anne – yes an intriguing question. One wonders whether the shock numbs the pain. Nature certainly has its harsh side in the circle of life.
Mike I find your Blog’s text supported by some extraordinary photography taken long before sunrise absolutely spot on in every way. Your description of Cheetah life in general, your analyses of the extraordinary way in which the Samara owners and management succeeded in creating a conservation balance in the unique Karoo biome alows for fascinating reading. In allowing Sibella, Chilli’s mom, and all their offspring that now accounts for 3 % of the total population of Wild Cheetahs in Southern Africa to stay wild admidst tourism pressure and with Sibella and her off spring returning the favour by allowing Homo Sapiens in their world represents one of the most positive conservation stories ever told. Thanks you for taking me back to the most extraordinary wildlife experience of my life!
Well documented Mike. Was certainly a once in a lifetime experience.
Thanks Stephen it was an extraordinary experience with the cheetahs and aardvarks.I hope you are having fun with your photography.
Thanks very much Lou – the flash certainly helped enrich the pre-dawn photography. Thanks for your help reducing the “pet eye” effect. It was an exceptional opportunity to be 25 metres from the cheetahs with their prey. I hope you are enjoying the Mara!!