*All photos ©Noelle van Muiden and taken with Nikon D80 with a Nikkor 18-105mm lens and Nikon D7000 with a Nikkor 55-300mm lens.
On a recent trip to Cheetah Plains, (Sabi Sands), we were fortunate enough to come across a cheetah and her nine to ten month old cub. Previously in the week she had been seen with two cubs but one had since vanished, presumed dead. The female was busy zig-zagging her way through some dense scrub. We circled around into an open area where a large herd of impala were gathering at the far end. Occasionally she would stop and sit up, still as the bushes she used for cover, and check on the impala. The wind was in her favor and the cloudy skies lent to a slight summer chill. Good weather for hunting! The impala herd vanished from sight and she, and her curious and playful cub, made their way to the opposite direction.
We angled our vehicle and managed a few good shots of the two of them making their way towards our vehicle and then behind us. Their direction, if followed, would take them into contact with another herd of impala. The lambs have been dropping in the area for a couple of weeks already and the pickings of young and supple flesh are good for predators like leopard, lion, and cheetah. Her cub is of an age where she will catch a young impala and then let it go so the cub can learn to hunt. Practice makes perfect. We were hoping for such a sighting but as well all know the Bush will give us what it will.
Following her, no walking slowly down the road, the cub leaping up on the mother’s back from time to time and then veering off to smell the roses as it were, and then coming back once again to plague his mother with love. One can imagine humans and their youngsters having a similar interaction on the way down the street with a child running up and hugging his mum and then running off to look at an interesting bit of this and that and then coming back and asking, ‘When will we be there? I’m hungry!’
As she rounded a bend there was the herd of impala, impervious to the threat that now pricked her ears up, and then back and slunk low. The cub on high alert but careful not to bother the mother as if he knew that one wrong step from him would cost them their much desired breakfast. We stopped the vehicle and watched, breathe baited, as she weaved through the trees. Her strength and skill evident as was the enthusiastic and almost as silent rear guard of the cub. Then came the snorts and stampede of the impala as she broke her trot and broke into full speed, weaving through the short shrub after her anticipated prize.
Starting the vehicle and racing after her the impala leapt into the road and stopped, turned, and stared. There they both were, sitting straight as statues. We came closer, thinking maybe she had failed, and as we approached, just mere meters from them, she lifted her paw. Bleating and screaming the young lamb tried to get away. The cub chased after in a parody of what his mother had just so carefully achieved. Hunger and the ineptness of her offspring lead the mother to turn and chase down the lamb, now bleating for his life, and catching it by the throat next to our vehicle. The bleating stopped the cub raced to his mother and danced around her as she dragged the almost lifeless body towards the shade of a small tree some fifty meters away.
There she lay down panting and avidly looked around for any possible threat to her, her cub, and their meal. The alarm calls of the impala and the bleating of the lamb could bring any leopard, lion, spotted hyena, wild dog, or other leopard into her area to steal the kill and possibly harm her cub. The cub, glee visible in his eyes and demeanor, played with the carcass as a house cat plays with a mouse or bird. The lifeless form was flung from side to side. Picked up and dropped again and again, then dragged in his mouth from one spot to the next until he hunkered down to start to feast. The cub looking up every few seconds to scan the area. After about fifteen minutes the mother joined the cub. The two of them feasting is not the loud, snarling, hectic feed of lions try to eat side by side, but a much more calm and relaxed mother and cub sharing a well deserved meal. It took them maybe thirty minutes to finish off most of the meat.
We were lucky enough to be positioned for great photos and I even managed to get the kill on film, which I will download and put with this story in the near future. What a great drive and an amazing, not often witnessed, sighting and interaction of such a beautiful endangered species!