Cheetah cubs are born with a thick coat of fur, called a mantle. The mantle protects the cubs from the sun and rain and helps camouflage them against predators. They have adorable facial features including a tiny button nose. They are also born with deeply embedded natural instincts, one of which is to chase.
When watching them play or interact with each other, they look cute and innocent. But make no mistake, they are merciless killing machines. They learn at a very early age to seek out meat-to rip apart anything that moves. There is a very thin line between life and death in the Mara. This has to be respected. It is estimated that between 50% -75% of cheetah cubs will die before they reach 3 months.
Below is a shot of two small cheetah cubs with a young gazelle. The cheetah mom had just come back from an unsuccessful hunt, I believe it was after three straight failures. The two cubs saw something move in the grass; it was a newly born gazelle. Female gazelles leave their babies in tall grasses while they go out to feed, in an effort to hide them from predators. The young fawn stirred only to find that its movements alerted the young cheetah cubs. The cubs immediately began the chase the second the fawn stood up and tried to run, it was too young to run fast as it could barely stand.
In no time the one cub had gotten a hold of the fawn and began to try to bring it down. It was clumsy with its grasp and had trouble pulling it down. Finally it got a good hold of the gazelle and started to rip it apart. This did not kill the fawn.
We did not have time to set up for this shot as we didn’t see the gazelle until it stood up right in front of us. I literally just pointed and shot-that is the advantage of having your camera ready to go at a moments notice. I always enter the field with my camera set to an exposure to get me in the range. This discipline allowed me to capture this image. It’s not a great shot but it is a story telling photo. Warning, the image below this one is gory.
Hungry mom (shown below) soon came over to lend a hand and take care of the actual killing. She quickly broke its neck by shaking it and then picked it up and carried it off with both cubs fighting for their share-after all it was their kill. It was so sad to watch but knowing that the lives of the cubs depended on it I couldn’t help but be happy for the cubs.
On another day we had five Cheetah taking down a Wildebeest. They are siblings working together (with the exception of one that just watched) to catch and kill their prey. This chase was quick and I was at a bad angle to capture the shot. Several of my clients (in a different vehicle) got a great shot of the one Cheetah with the death grip on the Wildebeest just before taking it down. Sally Foster from Baltimore actually got the best image. Her vehicle was in a perfect position and her quick reflexes allowed her to capture the exact moment. BTW, Sally celebrated her 80th birthday recently. She is a true inspiration.
Stories like this are common in the Mara, it is a special place. Last year we had many photo opportunities with Cheetah. I can never get my fill of these beautiful cats, though these type of images are not my favorite—I much prefer the tender moments. Plans are underway to return to the Mara again in 2021, as our 2019 and 2020 tours are both filled. Please email me if you are interested in securing a spot.