What The Wind Brought: Two Cheetahs, an Impala and a Hyena

The month of June was wet in the Masai Mara Game Reserve but the morning was clear and invigorating. Comely gazelles grazed gracefully in the expanse and goshawks preened on sun-kissed tree-branches. The wind was only a gentle zephyr wrapped around a caressing silence.

Then the radio crackled to the news of a cheetah near the Mara Simba lodge. Reaching there, we found double the joy – two restive cheetahs up and about seemingly in search of a vegetarian for a non-vegetarian breakfast.

That was perfectly normal, for cheetahs hunt mostly during the day to avoid their larger competing cousins, who kill mostly by night and are partly responsible for the grimly high mortality rate of the spotted sprinters.

Daytime also affords cheetahs better visibility and the black teardrops running down their cheeks cut the sun’s glare from their sensitive eyes – eminently handy when you’re hotfooting at over a 110 kilometres an hour trying to pin down your ‘fast food’ that’s running away from you at a lively pace with no intention of ending up in your intestines.

In the near corner a herd of topis sat resting in the morning warmth, wary but not quite frightened of the big-cat pair – topis form only around five percent of a cheetah’s diet in Masai Mara as they are generally too large for a lone cheetah to risk taking on.

But then a vehicle full of noisy tourists stirred them and inexplicably, under the sagely witness of a giraffe, a vagrant waterbuck and a distant impala, they walked right towards the cheetahs, not in blissful ignorance of their whereabouts, but with surprising belligerence, provoking in lieu an indignant charge that served the cheetahs nothing more than to come up a few calories lighter in the bargain.

Exasperated and still hungry, the cheetahs lay down to catch their breath while the tourists left to catch other action. We waited for before us lay a special life – an athlete par excellence, a small big-cat that pushes the boundaries of physics everyday in pursuit of life – the spectacular Acinonyx jubatus.

With the acceleration of a Formula-One car and the top-speed of an expensive motorcycle, cheetahs are the fastest animals on land but can sustain the speed for only for a few hundred metres before they must stop to avoid fatal damage from overheating.

Powering their blinding advances is a body designed for speed, with extra- large lungs to supply air, a spring-like spine for acceleration and a long tail that acts as a rudder to aid sudden changes of direction. At the height of the chase, a cheetah is taking strides 23 feet long, completing an astounding 3 or 4 strides a second and is airborne for 50% of the time. A lateral thinker may say this is not running; this is flying close to the ground.

And so we were happy enough just watching this mammalian marvel, expecting nothing more than a voyeuristic admiration of its extraordinariness, merely celebrating its existence and our fortune in experiencing it.

What we didn’t expect was a resumption of the drama, a demonstration of superhuman skill and grit, and above all that profound and sobering revelation of a fundamental law of the wild – where the termination of one is often necessary for the continuity of another.

What we didn’t expect was what the wind brought…

After an unsuccessful topi chase, a pair of male cheetahs rests in a meadow in Masai Mara
National Reserve, Kenya.

Having rested enough, one of the males stretches and gets ready for action.  A storm is brewing.

Spotting a prey animal in the bush, the two cheetahs begin their stalk.
The cheetahs are off, there is a charge and a sound, and in a flash, an impala has fallen into the clutches of the cheetah pair.
Masai Mara Kenya
As the cheetahs begin to feed on the ostensibly dead impala, a hyena appears on the scene.

Masai Mara Kenya
As one of the cheetahs leaves the ‘carcass’ to chase the hyena away, the partially eaten impala rises to his feet and attempts an escape!

Masai Mara Kenya
The cheetah confronting the hyena returns in the nick of time and together the two cheetahs put the impala to rest after a brief struggle.

As the cheetahs resume feeding on the now certainly dead impala, the hyena returns but faced with two strong cheetahs, all it can do is watch.

Masai Mara, Kenya

The cheetahs are nervous as they usually are, lifting their heads from the carcass to scan for any danger, every so often. Luckily, with the hyena having left the scene, there is none for now.

Masai Mara, Kenya
The cheetahs feed well, and nearly an hour after the drama began, have managed to keep the carcass for themselves. With skill, they have managed to earn a meal and with courage and determination, have managed to retain it too.

This story appeared in the February 2013 edition of Saevus magazine.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Chetan Jain says:

    reading this was like watching it live on nat geo .. awesome!


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