Cheetah have a compelling aura of great speed.
Although smaller than the lion and the leopard they still capture the potency characteristic of big cats, allied with the versatility and grace of the smaller cats. They may be clumsy climbers but at full tilt across open ground they are agile and lightning fast! The list of attributes that contribute to this blistering, turbocharged ability is a long one. The cheetah is essentially a cat with a greyhound chassis, non-retractible claws for extra traction, a flexible spine and a long tail that acts as a counter-steering rudder. All this allows them to attain a top speed of anywhere between 100 and 110kph (depending on what you read) and leap a full eight meters in a single stride. This evolutionary arsenal of high-speed skills places the cheetah truly in a league of its own.
The cheetah population over the greater Kruger National Park, however, is estimated to be around two hundred cheetah, which is not a lot in the greater scheme of things. Ever in competition with a high density of larger competitors, this delicately built carnivore often has a hard time holding its own. In order to survive they basically have to run fast, kill fast and eat fast before the commotion of the hunt can draw the attention of a passing competitor. We recently witnessed two cheetahs in action and I was able to snap a few photographs of the sighting:
Early on a cool Sunday morning we were elated to find two young cheetahs walking down the road towards us. Based on their behaviour they had but one thing on their agenda: food.
The Combretum and Acacia bushveld that covers most of Londolozi is ill-suited to the fleet-footed cheetah but there are patches of grassy Marula-Knobthorn savannah that make for prime hunting habitat. The cheetahs walked through one such clearing in search of prey.
I was unable to get a photo of the actual stalk owing to the Combretum thicket on the edge of the clearing and the fact that it all happened so quickly, but this image captures the last moment of hope for the unfortunate steenbuck antelope; a small animal whose sole survival strategy is to draw as little attention to itself as possible. It even goes so far as to bury its own dung! Note the cheetah’s tail straight up in the air as it reacts to the steenbuck’s quick change in direction.
This image captures the moment of truth.. the steenbuck realizes that the game over.
But one more stride from the steenbuck forces a full stretch from the cheetah…
In the blink of an eye, the cheetah catches its prey! Note the Land Rover in the top right corner. As is so often the case, timing is everything!
With the very real possibility of the hunter becoming the hunted, the female keeps a lookout while the male cheetah kills the steenbuck and muffles any sound of distress which could attract competitors.
The two cheetah walk off with their hard-earned kill. They moved into the shade of a nearby bush before settling down to eat. It was a rare sighting that became etched into the memories of the Londolozi guests lucky enough to see it!