Published at https://wildsojourns.com/ Mar-Apr 2016 Edition
The Cheetah is one of the most remarkable species that brings a lot of visitors to Africa. With its present range limited to few areas in Africa, the stories of it’s speed and agility and the record of the fastest land animal makes a sighting ever more exciting. With ever shrinking area, the cheetah like other big cats is fighting for survival and when a story of a bold mother raising six cubs makes it to the headlines, it makes it even more special.
Text and Images by Suresh Basavaraju
It was in the month of Aug 2014 that I first saw Malaika. By this time, she was already famous for the litter of six cubs she had. The cubs were a couple of months old and rangers and researchers used to keep a close watch to keep off tourist vehicles that would get too close or hinder her movements during hunt.
The sighting was even more exciting as Malaika had hunted a small Gazelle and had brought it alive to the cubs. This seems to be the mother’s way of teaching hunting skills to the now growing cubs. I could only see four fully grown cubs with the white mane still intact. The fifth one was not seen for couple of days and I hope it is still doing well. The cubs who by now sensed the hunt were running to her. She left the calf and for about 5 minutes the cubs took turns in chasing the Gazelle and tripping it, waiting for it to run again and the chase would start all over again. After a few minutes, the four siblings carried the trophy around and started to feed under the watchful eyes of their mother. Malaika could successfully raise her offsprings braving all odds amidst a hostile environment. It is an inspiring and heartwarming tale of a very proud mother.
Bringing up cubs in the open lands of the Masai Mara is no easy task for a Cheetah. With numerous predators around, protecting the cubs and feeding them is a daunting task. With six cubs already in their 3rd month, Malaika was succeeding against all odds. Mornings would start with the cubs playing around under the watchful eyes of Malaika, Hunting for her was quite an effort. I saw her failed attempt one morning when she was stalking Gazelles and the hunt came to an abrupt end when the Zebras gave her away. She did hunt later in the afternoon. Spending two days watching her daily routine does create a sense of bonding and I would follow her progress through photographers who were documenting her journey. During the year she had lost one cub. It was natural that seeing Malaika and her cubs was on the top of the list for the next trip. It was October 2015 and fourteen months later, I wanted to see the cubs which by now had grown to her size. Reports of the five cubs doing fine was encouraging.
The hunts are in daylight spread around mornings and evenings. I have witnessed hunts in noon time. Cheetah sprints consume a lot of energy and its body temperatures soar. After a failed hunt, a Cheetah spends more than an hour resting before attempting another one.
One such mother (in the adjacent picture) who had three cubs, failed in a hunt on an afternoon and the guides were telling of her being a unsuccessful mother who had lost her earlier litter as she could not hunt often. After resting for a while, she attempted another one. This time there was a herd of Gazelle grazing on the horizon which was about a kilometer or so away, I could barely see the herd and the mother had sighted the prey and started a slow canter, taking cover behind termite mounds and shrubs. As she neared her striking range, lunged forward and isolated a Gazelle with a fawn. Following the Gazelle as she turned trying to shake off the predator, the Cheetah turned and tripped the fawn which by now was separated from its mother.
A swift kill it was and it took almost double the time to cross back to the mound where hungry cubs were waiting. Once the fawn was brought back to the waiting cubs, the mother rested for 15-20 minutes. I was not sure what would happen next and it was surprising to see the mother bite out the thick skin of the fawn and left to rest, while the cubs started feeding. Over the next few days, I saw other Cheetahs do the same. The fawns are brought back killed for the smaller cubs to feed on and the mother feeds on larger kills. When the cubs are older and ready to hunt, still alive fawns are often brought and left for the older cubs to hone their hunting skills.
The Cheetah with its ever shrinking habitat and prey base is facing a challenge in surviving. One can only visualise these magnificent creatures in the Indian plains before they went extinct.
The earliest reference to a Cheetah in any book that a child would read is always about its speed, the fastest mammal on earth is the introduction we all grew up with. A cheetah runs so fast that its legs might touch the ground only half the time it’s in motion. In fact, a Cheetah is not just about speed, it is also about its ability to twist and turn at that speed following its prey - the agility that makes its hunts so remarkable. While there are other species that a visitor to Africa would wish to see, the sheer number of vehicles around a Cheetah sighting are testimony to its stardom. Being built for speed, a Cheetah does have its disadvantages, its relatively smaller size when compared to other predators makes it difficult to survive. Not every hunt results in a kill and often a Cheetah has to surrender its kill to other predators. It can only hunt herbivores like Gazelles, smaller calves, and Hares. The Cheetah with its ever shrinking habitat and prey base is now facing a tough challenge in survival.
A passionate photographer, during the twenty four years journey in photography, had his works published in wildlife books, nature periodicals, calendars, conservation articles, presentations, catalogues, and in advertising. He is a life member in Photographic Society of India and Bombay Natural History Society. He is a founder member of Indian Wildlife Conservation Trust (www.IWCT.in). A dedicated teacher, he has mentored many budding wildlife photographers.