Masai Mara – spotting cheetahs

Large sections of our African wildlife are disappearing at an alarming rate. We humans, as a species, are taking their space with little care or concern. Given our consciousness or perhaps the lack of it, most of humanity sees itself as the superior being in the community of nature. Humans are inventive and restless but few have understanding about their responsibility or the sustainability of their actions when it comes to the natural world. That is not to diminish the incredible work of a minute proportion of the human race are doing to try to preserve and sustain what we have left in the natural world.

“Have the will of a tiger, the speed of a cheetah and the heart of a lion.” ~ Kevin McCarty

When you enter the Masai Mara your senses are filled with the wonder of the natural world. The vastness of the place, the huge open blue skies, the abundance of wildlife combine to make it all feel so natural and right.

In these posts, I am trying to show the diversity and stunning beauty of the Masai Mara. This is one of nature’s great stages upon which African wildlife puts on a daily show the likes of which will be beyond your imagination, even for the most seasoned rangers, and will fill its audience with wonder.

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” ~ W.B. Yeats

The global cheetah population continues to decline with only about 7 000 individuals left in Africa, half the population of 40 years ago. The decline has been caused by the loss and fragmentation of their natural habitats, a decline in their abundance of their prey, the illegal trade in wildlife and growing conflict with humans for space.

Some of the actors on this stage will leave you spellbound, One actor in particular which will capture your imagination is the cheetah. It is the fastest land mammal reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. Even more impressive is that it can accelerate from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in three seconds, making its acceleration faster than that of a Ferrari Enzo, a McLaren F1 and a Lamborghini Gallardo.

“Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”
~ Wayne W. Dyer

On our travels around the Mara Triangle in November, we were fortunate enough to find cheetah on two different occasions considering the vastness of the Mara Triangle, which is only a small part of the Masai Mara National Reserve.

“It is only when you immerse yourself in the vastness of the Mara do you realise how much you value space to wander, space to gaze, space to breathe deeply, and appreciate the new perspectives which the space unlocks.” ~ Mike Haworth

Our first sighting was of a coalition of two rugged looking adult male cheetahs. These two were obviously seasoned hunters. We found them down in the southern section of the Mara triangle where you find the inselbergs. These two males were resting in the shade at the foot of an inselberg. Judging from the size of their bellies they must have fed earlier that morning.

Cheetahs need space and the Mara gives them that. Research shows that Kenya’s Masai Mara has one of the highest cheetah densities in the world, but it is a landscape under increasing human pressure, mainly from tourists. The Mara Reserve – with the exception of a conservancy called the Mara Triangle – doesn’t limit the number of tourists who enter the park per day, and there are no restrictions on the number of tourist vehicles at a predator sighting.

“Nature’s stage changes daily. The plot is mercurial, the actors are unscripted and the backdrops, washed with blues, greens and yellows, are splashed with wind and rain, and illumined with the sun.” ~ Mike Haworth

Thankfully, we were the only vehicle travelling around the south of the Mara Triangle one morning when we found these two male cheetahs which were walking up the hill towards a ridge crowned by a few bushes. The bushes would provide them with shade and the ridge had sufficient elevation to give them a perfect view of the plains below when looking for potential prey.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” ~ Martin Buber

This male looked strong and healthy as he was walking towards us on his way up to the ridge behind us. The two males were walking up from the plains below where they must have made a kill. They clearly fed well but probably had to abandon their meal due to hyaenas.

A cheetah’s nemesis, the ubiquitous hyaena lurking in the background. The Mara has a large, healthy and active population of spotted hyaenas. There are many clans. These clans are usually centred around a den and the clan members scatter to far reaches of the clan’s territory to hide during the day in gullies, ponds of water or large tussocks of red oat grass. This surveillance system ensures little happens in their territory without the hyaena clan knowing about it. Even though the hyaenas operate mainly at night they are aware of cheetahs hunting in their territory and only too ready to steal the cheetah’s hard won prize at any time of the day.

Cheetahs are well known for their speed, but there is more to these creatures than their pace. They have several unique features. Much like a human fingerprint, the arrangement of a cheetah’s spots and the ring pattern of its tail are unique.

Cheetahs have distinctive spots which are quite different to the leopards rosettes. The spotted fur of the cheetah helps it to blend into its surroundings. The spotted pelage is thought to create camouflage by offsetting shadows in the gray-hued grasses. This camouflage enables them to stalk and hunt their prey more effectively.

“It is not what you look at that matters it is what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Cheetahs have a small head in proportion to their bodies which help their streamlining when running at high speed. Their eyes are set high on the skull. Cheetahs have small rounded heads, a small muzzle and short whiskers compared to a leopard. The cheetah has a long neck and a deep chest which enables it to accelerate its breathing from a normal rate of 60 breaths per minute to 150 breaths per minute when in full chase. Its feet are also specially adapted with claws that are non-retractable and special pads on their feet which provide extra traction when running. The cheetah’s legs are long, slim and muscular. All of these features combine to enable this predator to run at exceptional speeds. Cheetahs are unable to run at full speed for much more than about 300 metres because of a danger of overheating.

Other than mating, male and female cheetahs do not interact. Cheetahs are territorial and intruders who breach these scent borders are attacked. Cheetahs do not roar like lions or cough like leopards, but when agitated hiss and growl or whine.

These two male eventually walked up onto a ridge where there were a few bushes to rest for the morning. This ridge gave them an ideal vantage point over the plains below. We left them in peace for the rest of the morning only to return later that afternoon in the hope that we would see them hunt. We stayed with them until dusk but they must have feed well first thing that morning as their tummies still looked full.

It was getting dark by the time we left the two cheetah males who were blissfully resting in the cool of the evening. It was a quiet and serene time but with heavy skies

This is typical of the landscape down along the Mara Triangle’s border with the Serengeti. Huge open plains dotted with balanites. The first place you look for a cheetah is in the shade under a balanite or, if the grass is reasonably long, perhaps on top of an anthill which offers an elevated view of the plain.

The second cheetah sighting was of a lone male cheetah on Topi plain west of the Eluai ridge. The Mara Triangle has rolling hills but there are also large plains which are relatively flat. Given the long grass, cheetahs need to find a vantage point from which to look for potential prey and scan for possible threats. A decent size anthill can provide just such a vantage point.

The next image shows the lone adult male scanning the surround plain for prey. Set in the background was the Oloololo escarpment which provided blues and greens and gave a sense of the vastness of the place.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”
~ C.S. Lewis

As you can see the red oat grass can get quite long so the cheetah gets an endless shimmer of golden grass strands until it can find a lookout point. The advantage of the long grass is that it also hides the cheetah very well.

Cheetahs are equipped with several special features which provide them will excellent vision. Binocular vision is a very important asset since Cheetahs rely on sight to hunt as opposed to scent. The retinal fovea of the eye is an elongated shape, giving a sharp wide-angle view. This aspect of the eye is also adapted for speed. The dark “tear marks” on the Cheetah’s face reduce glare from the bright sun. The black hairs in the tear lines absorb light from the sun and are thought to enable cheetahs to run straight towards the sun and still be able to see. (source: Bigcatrescue.org). Cheetahs can see up to 5 kilometres in detail.

Although cheetahs will hunt throughout the day, they mostly hunt during the early evening and early morning when it is cooler. The temperature in the Mara is relatively stable between 25 and 30 degrees centigrade during the day and 12-13 degrees centigrade in the evenings. When its rains it can be quite a bit cooler. The temperatures are even throughout the year because the Mara is so close to the equator.

The cheetah’s long tail is multi purpose. It is a perfect fly swat for all the biting flies such as horseflies and tsetses. It is a counter balance enabling the cheetah to make surprisingly tight turns at speed when chasing down prey. The shape of its tail from the base to about a foot from the tip is elongated and acts like a rudder at high speed.

Cheetahs are racing towards extinction. It is clear to save cheetahs we need to save the wild open spaces. According to National Geographic, the cheetah has been driven out of 91 percent of its historic range—the big cats once roamed nearly all of Africa and much of Asia, but their population is now confined predominantly to six African countries: Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, and Mozambique. The species is already almost extinct in Asia, with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in one isolated pocket of Iran.

“Nature is a working machine constantly evolving. We can only start to understand the moving parts through patience and observation” ~ Mike Haworth

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun, Mike

2 thoughts on “Masai Mara – spotting cheetahs

  1. Mike, your writing is so interesting – informative in an effortless manner and your photographs are special. I probably express similar sentiments after every post! This has been a splendid virtual tour beyond my garden.

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