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Cheetah! My favorite of the big cats, but I'd only seen them half-a-handful of times in the wild before coming to East Africa. So I was overjoyed with the number of cheetahs we saw in Ndutu in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. Allow me to share some with you. But should I first show you the heart-melting cuteness or the dramatic action?
I will keep you in suspense for just a wee bit while I first give a shout-out (again) to our awesome guides at Endless Safaris, Elly and Hamisi. They were so on top of it. I often felt bad for the people in other vehicles who were all poised with their mega professional cameras, phenomenally more expensive than the sum of what I own in gear, their window pads all installed to hold their huge lenses ... who again and again got mediocre side shots, butt shots, missed shots altogether, compared to me with my little 70-200 lens (only occasionally using a 100-400) always placed in the prime spot ... either alone with the animals or if there was a crowd of vehicles, in the best place. Now, I did not always give my position justice with the quality of my pics, but I'm in the photo game for fun, so if I mess up or my gear isn't up to the challenge, I'm not super upset. The point is, I was THERE seeing the animals at their finest.
I was told by knowledgeable wildlife photographer peeps that Ndutu was the place to go for big cats. They were not wrong! So now, cute or action? OK, let's go for cute.
This morning, we spotted some lions in some marsh grasses in Ndutu near a small herd of wildebeest. Our guides thought it possible by the way the lions were behaving that they might make a kill. So we stopped nearby to watch and see what might happen. We waited for probably 45 minutes, during which time a lot of other vehicles showed up. Elly and Hamisi had a brief discussion and then told me and my mom that they were now skeptical a kill was going to happen and asked if we wanted to keep waiting or go see if we might find something else going on. As always, I relied on their intuition, and we left. The other vehicles stayed for a long time and never saw a kill.
So what did we find instead? I told Elly on the first day of our safari that the one thing I most wanted to see, because I had never seen one in the wild before, was a baby cheetah. Welp, guess what .....
Squeal! We were within sight of the crowd of vehicles waiting for the lions to (not) kill, yet we had this mom and baby all to ourselves for 20 or 30 minutes! It was just the best thing ever. I had told my mom also that this was what I most wanted to see because from all the photos and TV shows I'd seen of baby cheetahs, I thought they were about the cutest critters on the planet. She apparently didn't take me seriously, because when she spotted the baby, she just about died. "I told you!" I said to her as I wiped away my own tears of happiness.
Well, I don't want you to die, either, I'm sure you're far too young, so let's take a break from the dangerous adorableness, and cut to the event bested only, with a fairly narrow margin, by the cheetah cub. We were just arriving in Ndutu when we saw a few vehicles gathered by a clump of bushes. We went to investigate and saw two cheetah brothers lying down. They got up and eyed the horizon where a lot of wildebeests and zebras were hanging out in the distance, and laid down again. Elly and Hamisi said they thought the cheetahs would be making a kill soon. How they could discern that from two lounging cheetahs with prey far in the distance, I have no idea.
So we left the other vehicles and traveled way far away from the cheetahs, nearer to the grazing animals. We waited and waited. Eventually a few vehicles drove over to where we were. But after a few minutes, Hamisi started the truck and drove further away. After awhile vehicles followed. Again, we up and drove further on. Although I was surprised at the distance we were putting between us and the cheetahs, I trusted Elly and Hamisi. They asked if we wanted to keep waiting it out and I said, "Heck, yeah!" Meanwhile, more and more vehicles were getting wind of the potential imminent action and we were eventually surrounded.
While waiting, I had time to think about what settings might be best on the cameras, I had time to carefully set both cameras (100-400 lens and 70-200 lens) up on bean bags ... I put them on the roof because the action was going to start so far away. We waited patiently. If it didn't happen, oh well. If it did, it would be well worth it. I decided I now know what a solider feels like waiting for a battle, like an archer at the top of the castle waiting for the enemy to crest the horizon, preparing weapons, just waiting anxiously for the "let loose" command.
After nearly an hour, now closing in on 5:00pm, I said, "I know what will make the chase start." And I grabbed a beer from the cooler and opened it. Because now that my hands were otherwise occupied, the cheetahs were sure to leap into action.
Guess what, I was right! After a few sips, Elly said, "They're up!" I hastily put my beer down, just about throwing it, panicked to get to the cameras, haha. Let me say here that should I ever be so lucky as to see another cheetah chase, I will not bother with a camera. But being my first one, I wanted to try my hand at capturing it.
The whole thing was almost a blur ... the one nice thing about the pics is that I can see how truly amazing the action was, frame by frame, second by second. I started with the 100-400 and soon switched to the 70-200. Our guides gave us excellent positioning, of course.
I still have a hard time believing the time stamps on the photos, except that Elly told me that most cheetah kills he'd witnessed were over in about 20 seconds. I just think this is phenomenal, so I'm going to show you a bunch of pics from the sequence with the time stamps. I was of course shooting in continuous-shooting mode, and apparently (by the time stamps) my cameras shoot 6 to 7 frames per second.
So, let's start with the first photo I took -- I started with the 100-400 lens -- of one of the cheetahs who was already in motion since Elly spoke and I put my beer down, and call it a stamp of 0:00:00 seconds.
I like this pic with the cheetah's legs outstretched and the wildebeest's legs contracted in. Still at 0:00:04.
I joked about this one, which is technically a botch but I really like the three sets of legs ... "If you look down and see a pair of legs that isn't yours, RUN!" 0:00:05
Now there is a time gap of a few seconds as the action came close enough that I needed to switch over to the 70-200 lens. I would guess this took me two to three seconds to move and get focused with the second camera. So we'll start the first pic from this lens at 0:00:08.
Now scroll back up and realize what has taken place in the span of THREE seconds. The wildebeest is just as impressive as the cheetah up to this point in terms of its agility and perseverance. It's gone from being down on the ground under the cheetah's paws to up and chasing the cheetah and ramming with its horns. Now here are five of the six frames from the next second which show the cheetah's superior high-speed agility.
I dunno, I still can hardly believe that much action took place in one second! A complete 180 by the cheetah. I'm tempted to doubt my time stamps, but Elly's words stick in my head: "20 seconds." You can use the bushes for reference to see the cheetah literally stopped and turned on a dime.
Now the cheetah and wildebeest are done dancing and it's an all-out straight-run chase for several seconds. Then the cheetah gets serious and starts taking the 'beest down.
Just look at the power in this cat! Latched on and pulling the wildebeest's head down with all of his might and weight.
Now there is a big jump in time (relatively speaking) as the cheetah was quite far away now and his brother had now joined in, taking the wildebeest down. All the vehicles around us fired up and starting zooming toward the kill site. Overwhelmed by vehicles zooming in front of us, we started up, too, and drove forward. This is the last pic I have at 0:00:31 before the cheetahs are eclipsed and encircled by other vehicles.
What happened next was disturbing. We didn't join in the fray but came slowly over to the clump of vehicles which had *completely* surrounded the cheetahs and wildebeest. If the wildebeest had managed to pull himself up again, he would have had nowhere to go, and the cheetahs couldn't drag their kill anywhere. I mean, it was a tight circle, probably less than 30 feet in diameter with two cheetahs and a dying wildebeest in the middle. I could see through the windows of a front-row vehicle, the wildebeest in his final throes. Elly and Hamisi asked if we wanted to be a part of this and we said, "No." Clearly, they didn't either, and so we drove off. Other photographers with big expensive cameras who had been left out of the front row were yelling at the other vehicles. It was crazy. I almost hate to tell you about it in case it ruins the spectacular feeling of the thrill of the chase. But it's what happened. I appreciated that our guides did not contribute to the encroachment and didn't want to be a part of it.
So we drove off disgruntled, but that lasted for all of about 30 seconds for me after I caught my breath, retrieved my beer, and reviewed what I had just witnessed. For me, it was a highlight in my life experiences, one I certainly did not expect. Even now, my heart is thumping and I almost feel weepy reliving the emotions of such pitched excitement.
Sure, I feel bad for the wildebeest, but a cheetah's gotta eat, and Mother Nature arranged the circle of life this way, so I think we have to just admire the abilities of both animals in this situation and know that the dangerously cute little cub we saw lives another day whenever its mom executes the same kind of kill.
So maybe some more cub pictures will make you feel better about the kill, remembering who the wildebeests and similar prey support. Here's little cheetah working on his stalking skills already! Going to be a predator some day!
Oh precious little one! My pics didn't end up being great quality, I've had time now to think about why, but for me personally, they are off the charts in cute quality, so that's good enough for me.
Mom left her kiddo alone for awhile, venturing out into the reeds. This is the perfect place to hide her cub in the tall reeds, and we would see lions hiding their cubs in the same zone. While male cheetahs form coalitions either with male siblings or other male loners, female cheetahs live solitary lives with only their cubs for company. While males have several of them to bring down prey, the mother brings it down all on her own. She is a remarkable creature. She will typically have many cubs because their lives are precarious, prey to lions and hyenas. Typically broods are four to seven cubs. This mother had only one left from this litter. Which made watching their bond ... in the first set of photos in this post ... all the more special.
The cheetah form is so beautiful and not like the other African big cats who are more thick and beefy. Cheetahs are sleek and lithe, and their whiskers are very short compared to lions and leopards. They are daytime hunters unlike the other two. And they are the iconic savanna cat because they need the wide open space in order to use their specialized chasing skills.
These are some other female cheetahs we ran across at Ndutu and in the Masai Mara.
On our last day of safari, in the Masai Mara in Kenya, we had a spectacular leopard sighting in the morning. As afternoon wore on, I told Elly that this was my last day to attempt the big cat trifecta. I had never seen all three big cats in one day. In fact, not even in one safari. Lions on all safaris, but then either leopards or cheetahs, not both.
So we're driving along a lonesome path, no one else around until we finally ran into another truck and that driver and Elly had a conversation in Swahili. The other car drove off and we drove on. After awhile Elly said, "OK guys, I have a surprise for you. You have to close your eyes now until I tell you to open them." Well, I love surprises so I kept my eyes closed and held on while we bumped along. Because Elly knew how excited I was over cheetahs, I suspected we were on our way to fulfill my trifecta dream. The truck stopped and Hamisi cut the engine. Then Elly said, "OK, now turn your head to the left. Now open your eyes."
It took a few seconds to realize what I was seeing. It was not a cheetah. It was FIVE cheetahs! I didn't even know they were in groups as big as five. Elly said it's a coalition, if I remember correctly, three brothers and two loners they took in. Apparently they are a rather famous gang in the area. You might know them, what they are called, I can't remember exactly ... The Amazing Five or Fabulous Five or something like that, in deference to their adeptness as predators. Never in my life did I expect to be beside an adult cheetah pile!
Well, my friends, I can scroll through my cheetah pics all night and feel warm and fuzzy every time I look at them with the memories of how fantastic it was to be watching them in person. I hope you enjoyed looking at them with me and can admire their incredible power and beauty as much as I do!
And a goodbye wave of the tongue .....
And did I get to complete the sought-after 3-cat day with a lion? You'll have to stayed tuned to find out!