With under 1,000 wild cheetahs remaining in South Africa and just 10,000 left worldwide, these cats are increasingly under pressure. Whilst not classified as endangered, they are the most vulnerable of the cats due to habitat loss which forces them to live in close proximity with much stronger lions, leopards, and hyenas that steal food and eliminate their weaker competitors, especially vulnerable cheetah cubs. Cheetahs are my favorite animal to see on safari and one of the best places to see them is at Phinda Private Game Reserve where a thriving cheetah population increases the likelihood of spotting this graceful cat. I have been lucky enough to witness two different mum successfully hunt for their cubs, countless small cubs and subadults playing, and coalitions of adult males (brothers who will stay together throughout their lives) hunting.
On this past visit we were able to spend time with a mum and her three cubs on two separate drives. The loss of one of her cubs was so recent that over the radio rangers referred to her as cheetah four, now three, never mind she had started out with five. While no one knows precisely what happened to the recently killed cub, it is suspected that lions were to blame. Raising these three to adulthood will be a challenge and mum will have to be a proficient hunter to feed her growing cubs, as well as vigilant of their safety.
An incredible moment occurred while we were watching mum move across the open grasslands during the golden hour as the sun sets, we watched as she stiffened. Our ranger pointed to a reedbuck in far distance noting he would make a good meal for these cheetahs. The unsuspecting reedbuck was on a direct collision course with her and she patiently waited. When he was nearly upon her, she gave chase sending the reedbuck nearly 5 feet into the air in a herculean leap over her. They raced into the distance until she was able to catch up to her prey. Cheetahs can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in just three seconds, but all of that speed exhausts a lot of energy. By the time we got closer to her she was still suffocating the reedbuck by clamping down on its neck. She waited sometime before calling (a high pitched bird-like chirp to her cubs). She didn’t lead the cubs to the kill right away, perhaps preferring to recoup her strength and allow any predators who might be nearby to lay claim to the kill without endangering her cubs. After about 30 minutes, she led the cubs to the kill opening the hindquarters so her cubs could feed. When we saw the same cheetahs the next morning, they were panting heavily their bellies full from the large meal. I don’t have any photos of the kill because I deliberately put down my camera. Sometimes as you peer through the viewfinder, you miss the moment in search of a great shot. I am still working on capturing moving animals and I knew I would not be able to capture the shot.
One of my favorite moments occurred two days later when we came across the dominate male cheetahs – a two brother coalition that were mobile in the early sunlight. It was amazing to watch them saunter by two rhinos neither animal particularly bothered by the other. Our astute ranger scanned the horizon and predicted that they would climb a small marula tree in the distance. He positioned the vehicle so we would have an amazing vantage point if the cheetahs jumped into the tree. Sure enough one of the cheetahs positioned himself on the branch. His ascent and descent from the branch was fairly awkward and he looked rather uncomfortable as he scanned the horizon for potential predators and prey. After several minutes, the brothers were mobile again in search of food.
Remember if you have a favorite animal, try and find a reserve or park that is known for that particular animal so as to increase your chances of catching a glimpse. Phinda offers amazing cheetah sightings and I keep returning to this reserve to see my favorite animal in the wild.
The first photo is one of my favorites. I like that his twisted body mimics the tree and that there is a dark storm cloud in the background.