Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On Safari: The Patient One.

It would be easy for this to turn into somewhat of a 'fish story,' as the only handful of people who could dispute or corroborate this likely don't read this blog. So you'll just have to take my word on this that I'm retelling honestly, and this fish was in fact as big as I claim. And it was a big one.

Except the fish here was a mother cheetah and her three cubs. The part of Serengeti that we were in was the part known for its big cats. Our trip was effectively divided into three parts: predators, the migration, and beasts. So far the 'predator' portion had not disappointed: we'd been awoken by the roar of lions, seen them close up, and even seen a hyena or two after a prized carcass. But we'd not yet seen cheetah. Part of me did not even expect to see one. I mean after all, they are quick, elusive, and blend in perfectly with the endless plains which surrounded them and from which the Serengeti took its name. 

So on this morning, our second in the Namiri Plains, we had been out for a few hours and were beginning to head home after an unsuccessful hunt for the cheetah. Sandor, our guide, explained that you never know what you will see, and it is somewhat silly to head out on safari actually expecting to see any one creature or beast.... but I could tell we were all a little disappointed that we had not seen one of these quick cats as it may have been one of our last chances. But then the radio came alive. The other truck. We quickly veered onto another dirt path in a different direction. Given that I was in the back and that I don't speak Swahili, I wasn't sure what it was all about. Sandor turned back, and in the calm and collected manner of a proper British gentleman said the word we'd hoped for:

"Cheetah." 

After a few moments we spotted the other car - engine off with all inside standing binoculars in hand looking out across the plains. After we joined suit and our spotter pointed his hand off towards the horizon, I finally saw her. A small head popping out of the grass probably a few hundred yards out. How our Masai spotter saw this amazed us all. I quickly began snapping photos with my fully zoomed 300mm lens with the expectation that this was the closest we'd ever get. But the longer we waited there, the more we realized that there was a situation unfolding. Off to our right: our cheetah, who now revealed herself as a mother with three cubs. Off to our left, a herd of Grant's Gazelle, grazing on wild grasses and generally a tightly knit group, expect one who lagged from the pack, but seemed extra cautious, his head popping up to look around every few seconds. He likely fancied himself a careful one who was comfortable enough to be this far away from the safety of the herd.

Our truck was positioned right in the middle. Of course, in our minds, a nature documentary was about to unfold any minute as superior cheetah broke upon hopeless gazelle who had no chance and closed upon him over the distance of a few football fields, taking him down just like we've all seen on the Nat Geo specials. But as minutes passed and the Cheetah barely moved, we realized this was not going to be the case, and that a Cheetah was completely capable of moving at a snail's pace, and indeed seemed to prefer it as far as we could tell. 

She was methodical. Careful. Cunning. When the gazelle put his head down to graze, she moved. When his head came up, she fell. This happened for maybe 30 minutes while the 200 yards was cut to 100. Then she passed in front of our car. Elegant and graceful, she did not pay us attention, but her cubs came close and played at our tires while their mom pressed on. On she went, getting closer now. Maybe 80 yards from her target she looked back at her three cubs and they immediately laid down, knowing what mom meant by the look: "game time." We all watched on with our binoculars as she got closer, and moved towards the gazelle who had by now allowed quite a bit of extra space between himself and his herd. 

Then she dropped into the grass. We totally lost sight of her. Five minutes turned to ten, and ten to fifteen, then twenty. Sandor explained that she may lay there for three more hours or attack in ten more seconds; she played this game very carefully. After about 30 minutes of not seeing her again, we decided that we'd take a brief  bathroom stop as one in our group was about at a breaking point. We drove a few minutes in the other direction so that he could de-truck and find nature's loo to do his business. Just as he was getting back in the car the radio came alive again. This time with several yelled words reported back from the truck still by the cheetah which I assume could have only meant one thing: she was making her move. 

Our truck took off across the plain directly back to the herd and Sandor yelled out something like 'Oh hell!' In the distance I saw a cloud of dust as our Cheetah sprinted from her hiding place towards the gazelle. She had indeed made her move. And in the time it took our Grant's Gazelle to look up and notice, he had lost two seconds. Quick math here: a cheetah during a sprint travels 40 mph, which is about 20 yards per second. Our Cheetah has closed the distance to fifty yards before revealing herself and breaking to a sprint. Result: that was an important two seconds lost. By the time we got back she had made her target. 

Next was the part which was hard to watch for some in our group. The impact of the takedown had broken the gazelle's leg, but he had not lost hope.  As the cheetah stood over her prize and her cubs trotted over to join, the gazelle attempted to stand and make one last run for it. The cheetah effortlessly proved that it was all over. She leapt at the gazelle's neck and the hour plus long hunt came to an end. Her cubs came and made a few bites at the already incapacitated gazelle's neck as mom looked on - school was in session. The feel of this gazelle between their teeth was what would keep them alive in the Serengeti. They were to become familiar with it. Practice it. Perfect it. Or they would die. 

We could all barely believe what we'd seen unfold. We went to set up and have our lunch nearby on a makeshift table and recounted our own versions of the story with each other before returning to the cheetah and her cubs to watch them have their own lunch. The cheetah did not spend long at her kill. They filled their bellies quickly and moved along. Before long the vultures would come, circling far above and descending on the kill. They were only an annoyance to the cheetah, but the hyenas who they signaled were a problem. Strong and ferocious, only a single one could chase the cheetah off her kill. So we left the cheetah and her young to finish up their meal in peace and headed back to camp. 

We joked that each animal out there had something to teach us. And she had taught us patience. What we had expected as an epic 200 hundred yard sprint which wound up with the big predator cat winning over the helpless gazelle. But what we got was an almost two hour long stalk which was anything but dramatic, but rather a lesson in patience. In the end, it was our lack of patience which caused us to miss witnessing the climax up close. The cheetah is known for her speed. But so is the gazelle. It was mom's speed which ultimately took down her prey, but it was her patience which got her 90% of the way there - reality may not be as sexy as the stereotype. 

Oh, how the wheels are turning in my head for the basis of my self help book totally inspired by this hunt. Stay tuned... As just our fourth night in Africa came to a close - I was amazed at how much we'd seen, and how if one wanted to be introspective, what they would learn out here. But it was not quite the time for that just yet. The fire was going, we were among family and friends, enjoying good food and drink, and hoping the lions did not get too close to our tent that night.
  



https://grimeskr.tumblr.com/post/168774754411/a-mother-cheetah-on-the-hunt-with-three-cubs-in
https://grimeskr.tumblr.com/post/168774848876/mother-cheetah-on-the-hunt-with-three-cubs

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