For those of you who have been following the Londolozi posts and virtual safaris over the course of the last few months, you will be familiar with the mother cheetah and her two sub-adult male cubs that have been spending a great deal of time on the reserve. They traverse a huge area and can easily be found on our southern boundary one morning and then turn up just east of our camps 24 hours later – a testament to the natural size of their home range and nomadic tendencies (especially during this phase of their lives).
At this stage the mother will be under a great deal of pressure to provide for her offspring. This is not to say that she hasn’t been doing so for the last year, but now that the youngsters are nearly the same size as her, the food requirements for the trio has trebled in the last couple of months. Each and every kill that the mother makes is now divided up between the three of them forcing the mother to hunt nearly every day. On top of this pressure, cheetah sit rather low on the so called ‘predator hierarchy’ and regularly lose their hard earned bounty to hyenas and lions.
This testing time for the three cheetah has been rather entertaining for us to watch. Each time the cheetah are found there’s bound to be some action involved if we have the patience to wait and see what they get up to. The two sub-adults are at an awkward age where they are not quite yet experienced enough to contribute positively to the hunting forays. They are however visibly interested in learning from their mother. This can at times frustrate the mother as the youngsters spoil the hunt time after time. However there is a benefit to this, each mistake is a valuable lesson learnt and is banked in the memory of the sub-adults. In a few months time these sub-adults will be required to start making their own large kills, independent of their mother.
Here is a video from a few years back which demonstrates this behaviour where a mother cheetah encourages her offspring to deliver the final blow to an impala.
On a recent afternoon, we set off to relocate these three cheetah on an open marula crest. They had been found earlier that morning and to our luck were still lying down in the same spot that they were left. As the sun slowly dipped towards the horizon they began to shuffle about as the youngsters got restless. After sitting with them for a little over half an hour, they stood up and started heading east, pausing momentarily to scan the grasslands for any prey. They were clearly keen on a hunt should the opportunity present itself but we (and they) were in a race against the setting sun – we don’t view cheetah after dark and they aren’t likely to hunt then either.
A rutting impala ram in the distance then caught their attention and they made a turn towards the herd. The youngsters were clearly raring to go and moved a lot faster towards the herd than the mother did. She took herself up onto two separate termite mounds, slowly approaching the herd which was now roughly 200m away. Her patience and calculated movements were soon noticed by her young who then began to move slower, albeit still ahead of their mother.
We positioned our vehicle in such a way that we could see the cheetah to our front right (about 30m away) and the impala herd to our front left (still roughly 200m away on the edge of a thicket line). It was here that we would then sit for the next hour watching how the hunt played out. Communicating only through their body language, it was incredible to see how the two young males suddenly hung back further. They placed themselves in a small bush willow thicket and became spectators for the remainder of the hunt. The mother took a wide birth into the thicket that the impala were alongside. We lost sight of her but we were certain that she was making headway towards the herd.
As they began to settle down again the mother cheetah erupted from the thicket line behind the impala chasing them directly towards us!
After another 15 minutes one impala gave an alarm call. We scanned with our binoculars and saw a few perplexed impalas all looking in different directions. We suspected that they might have smelt the cheetah or were otherwise spooked by something else. As they began to settle down again the mother cheetah erupted from the thicket line behind the impala chasing them directly towards us! They then turned and we had our last glimpse of the cheetah about 2 meters from an impala. I switched the engine on and raced towards were we last saw her, passeing the chaos of alarming impala who had now stopped and turned to look back at her. She had caught one!
A young male impala lay between her jaws, pinned to the ground. You could see she was exhausted from the chase as she was trying to get her breath back while still suffocating the impala. The youngsters were visibly excited about the hunt and came bounding over through the clearing to join in on the feast. All three sat and fed quickly, making sure to get down what they could in case a hyena or lion arrived on the scene to rob them. We sat and watched them finishing up the kill with a fantastic sunset behind us before leaving them as darkness took over. What an incredible afternoon that we will never forget!