Cheetah - Serengeti savannah

Savannah Sprinter – A day at the office with the cheetah

When I started writing this blog a few years ago, little did I imagine that I’d write about leopards and tigers. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d ever see them, considering my luck and lack of finances to do multiple safaris to increase my chances of spotting these wild cats. I mostly wrote about birds, insects and neighbourhood wildlife. But then I did see them, the big cats. I almost even walked into the largest cat (Let the sleeping tiger lie) in the world! What more could I ask for? Well, I did dream of seeing a cheetah some day — and sometimes, dreams come true!

I had decided that I would visit the African savannah someday, but I didn’t realize that it would be so quick. Last November saw me scouring the East African savannah for the spotted big cat which was surprisingly not that easy to spot.

At last, a cheetah is spotted!

On a hot afternoon, I was scanning the termite mounds that dotted the Serengeti landscape to spot a cheetah, in vain. I had almost resigned to the fact that I may not spot one when my safari guide and driver James suddenly stopped the Landcruiser and announced the presence of a cheetah. Through the hot afternoon haze he pointed at a termite mound almost half a kilometer away. I looked through my binoculars and discerned the shape of a cheetah! To this day I am in awe of James and his field skills; the guy didn’t even use binoculars half the time!

I was happy that I had finally spotted a cheetah. Although it couldn’t technically be called a sighting because we could not see it properly. I am easily satisfied in wild places — years of visiting the wilderness and not being able to spot animals has made me accept the fact that it has got to do a lot with luck and being in the right place at the right time. So, instead of getting frustrated as most people do on safaris, I accept reality and am generally happy with whatever little I get to see. But then you see, this is the East African savannah we are talking about! A landscape with short to medium grass length and very few trees and a lot of herbivores that feed on the plentiful grass. And where there are so many herbivores, carnivores can’t be far behind!

The vast savannah grasslands dotted with with zebra and wildebeest

Duma!

A day later, on our last day in Central Serengeti, we left camp and I was taking in all that I could — the sights and sounds, when I heard James mention “Duma” over the radio. In Swahili, Duma means Cheetah. I asked him if there was one around, half expecting to hear that it had moved elsewhere where we couldn’t see. Instead, to my surprise, James nodded! A few minutes later, we came to a halt behind a few other safari vehicles and I was overjoyed to see the spotted cat right next to the jeep track.

Surveying the scene

Cheetah on the prowl

After looking around from the termite mound she started walking, heading towards us.

Walking in shoulder-length grass. Not sure if the vulture in the background was expecting something to happen

She then spotted the movement of a few Thomson’s Gazelles across the jeep track.

Pausing as she spotted the gazelles

She then climbed another termite mound to have a better view of the other side of the track.

Termite mounds are a cheetah’s best friend
Taking a seat, in typical cheetah fashion, and surveying the terrain

This gave me a few minutes and as I was fiddling with my camera settings to suit the early morning low light conditions, she spotted some potential breakfast and got into a stalking position.

Getting low for the stalk!

Chase!

Now, this is where my amateurism becomes very evident. At the eleventh hour, I wanted to change some settings on my camera in case the impossible happened. And the impossible happened even before I realized — she started her sprint! Completely unprepared, not just with the camera settings but also in my sitting position, I tried my best to keep my viewfinder locked on the fastest sprinter on the planet!

The fastest sprinter on earth!

She sprinted across the jeep track behind us and came to a complete stop. Then, as if released from a catapult, she took off from standstill to I-can’t believe-it km/ hr, after the Thomson’s Gazelles, which had set off already.

The scene was something I cannot begin to describe. The fleeing herd of gazelles coming into view from the left, the cheetah calculating and not running towards the left but straight ahead and then to the right, knowing the direction of the herd! The gazelles jumping over the grass with their pale backsides highlighting their movement and the cheetah chasing after them through the grass, in every stride flexing her spine, was a scene to behold.

Prey!

Cheetahs have low stamina and they will abandon a hunt after a few hundred metres. Most hunts end in failure as the prey have more stamina and are able outrun the predator over longer distances. This hunt ended as soon as it began, in about 200 meters or so. I stood inside the open top vehicle clutching my camera not able to believe what I had just witnessed. As I was trying to take it all in, James turned the vehicle and moved ahead on the track to where it looked like the chase had come to an end. Hoping to see the cheetah again as it was catching its breath, I was in for another surprise — this was a successful hunt! In her jaws was a gazelle fawn.

Delivering the killing bite. Cheetahs, like most felids, kill by suffocating their prey.

Cheetahs are one of the most harassed cats. Hyenas, lions, leopards and even vultures can steal a hard-earned meal from them. Once the gazelle was dead, she proceeded to carry the carcass to a patch of taller and denser grass to enjoy her hard earned ‘fast-food’. Fast-food for sure, because Thomson’s Gazelles are extremely fast too. I am not sure of any mammal other than the cheetah that is faster than them in the East African savannah.

Carrying the carcass to hide it in denser grass.

Dream come true

We decided not to stay there and bother the cat, so we moved away to let the cheetah enjoy its meal in peace. As we we went looking for other wild denizens, I was in a kind of trance, not being able to believe that I had seen a successful cheetah hunt! The word ‘successful’ is very important as statistics say that cheetah hunts are successful only 40-50% of the time. I kept replaying the whole scene multiple times in my head, over and over again. Not only did I see a cheetah up close, I witnessed its legendary speed ending in a successful hunt — a pure natural history moment, by being in the right place at the right time and with oodles of luck!

It was a dream come true!

3 thoughts on “Savannah Sprinter – A day at the office with the cheetah

  1. Super Narration Arun. As I am reading I t, it was like guided visualisation of every movement of cheetah.

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