This year I decided to cross a major travel milestone off my lifetime bucket list: a classic African safari. After reviewing a number of options I decided to join a two-week tour of Kenya offered by British company Birdquest. This tour, billed as a Birds & Mammals Safari, was led by Nik Borrow, a leader with over twenty years experience guiding in Africa and who is the main author of the field guide to West African birds. The itinerary included a number of key wildlife watching spots: Nairobi National Park, Thika, Mount Kenya, Samburu/Buffalo Springs/Shaba, Lake Nakuru, Lake Baringo, the Kakamega Forest and the Masai Mara. The trip literature stated we could expect somewhere in the range of 500 or so bird species and 50 or more mammals. It sounded perfect and indeed the itinerary did prove to be an excellent sampler of Kenyan habitats and wildlife.
The last four nights of our trip were spent in the Masai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya, which is the northern extension of the famed Serengeti of Tanzania. On our first game drive near the Oloololo Gate on the western side of the Reserve, we were fortunate to enjoy great looks at a family of five cheetahs: an adult female with four grown cubs. It is quite unusual for a female to raise four cubs to adulthood by herself so we knew immediately that this cheetah Mom must be a formidable huntress. We spent quite a while watching and photographing these magnificent animals but eventually forced ourselves to move on as we had much left to explore on our first day in the Mara and the animals were primarily relaxing in the mid-day heat.
Two days later, at the start of our third game drive, which transited the boundaries of the Mara from west to east, we again got word of a cheetah sighting and arrived to find the same family in a new location. This time the cats seemed alert, even agitated. At first we attributed this to to a convoy of large, noisy trucks moving past. Then trip leader Nik Borrow speculated that there could possibly be a lion in the area making the cheetahs nervous. We sensed that this time we might see some action but we were not sure yet exactly what. After several minutes, the cheetahs moved down off the small hillock they’d been on and disappeared into the tall grass. Our vehicle followed at a distance down one of the dirt tracks and soon relocated the cheetahs a short distance away on another small hillock, still looking intent and alert.
Then Nik spotted a lone Thomson’s Gazelle in tall grass near our vehicle. The significance of this was not lost on us. Earlier that week we were discussing how the “Tommies” generally remain in low grass so as to be aware of any nearby predators. This gazelle was breaking that cardinal rule and was about to pay dearly. As we waited in anticipation I felt eager and excited but also a little guilty.
I knew that a massive photo opportunity was only seconds way, but I was anxious whether or not my equipment (and me!) would be up to the task. I took a minute to consider my camera settings. There was plenty of light for a fast shutter speed so I decided to stick with aperture priority and set the aperture to f8 to give myself a little depth of field, hopefully enough to keep things in focus as the animals moved. I also decided not to zoom my telephoto lens out all the way as I figured I could better follow the action with a wider field of vision. I told myself I could crop later, if necessary. Since we had no idea where the animals would run or how much we would be able to see from any particular spot in the vehicle, I just stood my ground and hoped for the best. There were five of us, and we would all be trying to photograph through one single roof hatch. I knew this was not going to be easy.
Then one-by-one we saw the cheetahs move down off the hillock almost as if in a military-style deployment. We braced ourselves and readied our shutter fingers. My first shots were of a cheetah running parallel to the van. Too close! I had to take a few precious seconds to unzoom even more. I caught up with the chase again as the gazelle ran down the track away from our van with the cheetahs in close pursuit. DAMMIT – my field of view was being blocked by the two guys in the back! There was no time for this and there was no way I was not going to give myself the best chance at getting the best photos I could possibly get. I quickly stood up on the seat where I could have a clear view over the heads, shoulders, elbows, cameras, and floppy hats around me.
My view was good now and I resumed photographing. The gazelle was pinned down on the ground surrounded by the cheetahs, one of whom (I assumed the Mom) had its powerful jaws around the Tommie’s neck. They were in tall grass and against the light. I had no idea what I was getting but the only thing to do was to keep shooting. I may have taken a second to adjust exposure compensation but there was really not much time to think. Then, just when I thought the whole thing might be almost over, the cheetah moved off the gazelle and a second later the Tommie was up on its feet and running.
They crossed back to the other side of the track and again it looked as if the gazelle had fallen. But just as quickly it rose to its feet and began running. Once more the chase passed parallel to our van and back to the area where the Tommie had been pinned. A different safari vehicle in front of us kept moving around trying to get into a better position and I realized this was futile since there was no way to know where the chase was going next.
We stayed put and were richly rewarded when the Gazelle came running down the track STRAIGHT TOWARDS OUR VEHICLE with the cheetahs in hot pursuit! As the chase hurtled towards us, I could see the mortal fear in the gazelle’s eyes and even the blood shining on its flanks from the powerful paw strikes that had several times already brought it down. Only a step behind, the lead cheetah moved fluidly, the epitome of power and grace. It appeared cool and calm, it’s face expressionless, strictly business: a professional killer going about the sometimes dirty business of survival. It was a truly extraordinary sight and I don’t expect to witness anything like it ever again. I managed to capture a burst of six shots (all in reasonably good focus I would happily discover later), which was miraculous since they were running directly towards us and I did not have time to refocus once the sequence started.
Several more times the gazelle was felled, only to get back up running again. It dawned on us that the cheetahs could easily have finished off the gazelle the first time it was pinned to the ground. The skull of a cheetah is specially built to allow the jaws to serve as a vice-like clamp capable of maintaining a tight throttle hold on the neck of its prey for up to 20 minutes, until the prey dies of suffocation. So what was going on here? We could only conclude that we were witnessing the cheetah Mom teaching her near-adult cubs how to pursue and handle prey during a successful hunt. It certainly seemed that she was both showing them by example and allowing them to participate. With this realization the entire event became even more extraordinary. It was a once-in-a lifetime experience that I will certainly never forget as long as I live. Truly “one for the bucket list”!
Click the gallery below to see this hunting prowess in action.
All photos by Sandra Paci.