It was my first kill scene. By the looks of what was playing out in front of us, our ranger guessed we had missed the actual attack by only a few minutes. Courtesy of a small antelope, a mother cheetah was relaxing while her five adolescent cubs were, quite literally, tearing into breakfast. It was perhaps the most visceral experience I have had watching wildlife. The cats, washed in a palette of gold, browns and blacks, punctuated by bloody red, moved eerily through the shadows cast by the early sunlight. The Dolby surround-sound of tearing flesh and crunching bone broke the silence of the morning, while strong odors, neither offensive nor pleasant, hung in the air. I watched, transfixed.
About ten feet from the truck lay the discarded stomach of the impala, gingerly being poked by a cub crouching beside it. Tentatively it sniffed the organ and nibbled at the edges before hastily retreating back to the main course. The stomach tendrils had been removed right after the kill and the carcass then dragged quite a distance away for the feast. Our ranger explained that had he pierced the organ, the stench would have been so strong we would have all had to move away. Clearly, the young cat knew to leave — this was an unacceptable appetizer.
In the course of about 25 minutes, the cheetahs had pretty much dismembered and devoured the meatiest sections of the animal right down to the bone. By the looks of the remains, it would certainly seem that ribs and hind quarters were the favorite. One by one they retreated to the grass to thoroughly clean themselves (and each other), digest and enjoy an after-meal playtime.
The need for speed
A female cheetah gives birth to an average of one to four cubs and she raises them on her own until they are about a year and a half old. The infant mortality rate for cubs is quite high (argued between 70 and 90 percent, depending on the age of the cubs and their country) in part due to predators and starvation, so the fact that this pride still had five healthy teenagers speaks to the hunting prowess of this mother.
Cheetahs hunt during the day and a female cat feeding a family of five has to do a lot of hunting. The fastest animal on land, they can run at bursts of up to 110 kph, but there is a physiological toll for such speeds. They can only chase for 300-500 meters, which is why cheetahs have to stalk their prey very closely before their attack. (Unlike other predators such as wild dogs, who are slower, but have greater endurance for a longer pursuit.) If the cheetah is not successful, she most likely has the stamina to do only two or three more sprints a day. Three strikes and you're out — the family goes hungry.
Gruesome or great
More than any other photos I have taken, the cheetah kill photos draw the greatest fascination, but also the most disgust. Rarely is it in between. For some it is simply the "gore factor" that turns them away, but for others it is an overwhelming sympathy for the innocent animal being killed. Nature has its own checks and balances that we sometimes find hard to accept. Quite overwhelmingly, when animals kill, it is either to eat or protect themselves. (Except for crocs — those guys just like to kill!) While it is never pleasant to see an animal lose its life, it is equally unpleasant to see an underweight and starving animal, unsuccessful at catching a meal. On this morning, nature unfolded as intended and a wild cheetah provided for her five young cubs.