A cheetah sighting that I had on 16 July 2019 was both moving and difficult to watch. For me, it will remain a highlight not just for the month of July, but for my entire guiding career. On the day of the sighting, I was privileged to spend the entire morning with an adult female cheetah. When we first found her, she was in the high grounds, sitting atop a small termite mound overlooking the plains below her. Although she looked hungry, the hundreds – if not thousands – of wildebeest surrounding her seemed to be of no interest to her.
Instead, she focused her gaze beyond the herds of wildebeest. After a short while, she stood up and began walking down the plains. She was doing her best to avoid attracting too much attention, and although she was not interested in the wildebeest, she nevertheless did her best to ensure that they did not notice her.
The cheetah regularly paused and looked around, and she scouted out any mounds in front of her to use as vantage points to scan around. She continued walking, but didn’t seem to have any real focus in mind. Then at one point, just after she walked over a slight crest, her behaviour changed completely. She had spotted a family of Thomson’s gazelles: a male, a female, and two young.
While she remained well-hidden in the long, dry grass, the gazelles continued feeding, completely unaware of the imminent danger. The cheetah edged closer to the gazelles in a smooth and quick manner. Her head was kept low and aligned with her body, and her eyes were locked on her target. She began trotting, and then sprinting. The gazelles suddenly noticed the cheetah, and they all scattered. The young gazelles seemed confused, but ran anyway. The mother gazelle, who was closest to the cheetah, took off as quickly as possible, but her attempt to flee was not enough. The cheetah used her front paw to swat the mother gazelle’s hindquarters, tripping the gazelle and sending her to the ground. Seconds later, the cheetah grasped onto the gazelle’s throat with her sharp teeth and suffocated the mother gazelle. Then the cheetah dragged her hard-earned prey to the nearest shade. The cheetah sat up and caught her breath while scanning around for any approaching scavengers that could pose a danger.
Luckily for her, the commotion of the hunt did not seem to have alerted any other predators in the vicinity. She began to feed. Meanwhile, the male Thomson’s gazelle watched the devastating scene from a distance, and he regularly stomped his front feet in discontent. The two young gazelles seemed very confused and unaware of what had just happened. They continued wandering through the plains not too far from the cheetah. The male gazelle eventually made the decision to save itself and ran away at full speed, leaving the two young gazelles behind. Vultures began landing in the various trees surrounding the cheetah and her prey. Regularly, the cheetah paused from feeding, lifted her head, and checked for any potential oncoming dangers. Given that vultures had detected the carcass and were descending, their presence could attract other scavengers such as lions, leopards, and hyenas. As the cheetah scanned, she noticed the two young gazelles. The gazelles – still unaware of their predicament and of their mother’s demise – continued to graze peacefully.
As the gazelles got closer to the cheetah, the cheetah suddenly stopped feeding on the mother gazelle and began to focus on the young gazelles. Carefully and quietly, the cheetah approached the young gazelles, and then waited motionless for them to come even closer. Then she began to chase. Within seconds, she was holding a young gazelle by the throat. She killed it, and then dragged it to the shade of a nearby bush and began to feed. The vultures, who had been waiting patiently, began to come down from the trees. They approached the carcass of the mother gazelle and began to feed on the remains. Meanwhile, the cheetah remained with its baby gazelle prey and was able to feed in peace, away from the commotion of the vultures.
While feeding, she noticed that the other young gazelle was still in the vicinity. When the young gazelle got close enough, the cheetah stood up and successfully hunted it too. After feeding on three different gazelles, the cheetah had a belly size that had almost doubled. She walked away and found a comfortable spot in the shade to rest for the day.
Watching a cheetah hunt three times in a single day is not in any way a common occurrence. But that’s part of the beauty of being on safari – we never know what we’ll come across. And whether we find what we are looking for or not, this wilderness area always has the power to move us in unexpected ways.
Image by Ross Couper