For many of us, one of the most fascinating aspects of this year’s Summer in Mara was tracking down 3 Dumas (Cheetah in Swahili) – 2 brothers and a sister, all of them young, ambitious daredevils. They were super-efficient in hunting with almost a 100% success rate whenever they hunted Tomy’s gazelles. Of course they were bold enough to try the same feat with bigger game like Topi or Warthog and failed. They do remind me of Honey’s boys – 3 brothers who were legendary till one of them was killed potentially by lions in 2011 fall. They used to hunt pretty much as a unit, super successful most of the times and beating success statistics for cheetah hunts time and time again. I hope these 3 stick together a bit more though the sister might move off sometime soon. Even the 2 brothers alone could become a formidable hunting pair by the looks of it.
The most fascinating aspect to see was their planning and formation for hunts – reminding one of large lion prides- in bringing down prey.
As typical of many cheetah hunts, they spot a gazelle or impala from afar typically from an ant / termite mount.
The gang then splits and one of them stalks prey close.
While the others move ahead and flank escape routes.
The stalking cheetah then charges the prey. I felt in group hunts the cheetah stalking charges earlier than I would have expected in a solitary hunt – maybe smug in the knowledge that it is team work and he is not a solitary cheetah hunter.
A confident gazelle bets itself to outrun the first attacker given the distance and most of the times it might do so. Alas with the killer machines it only manages to run into their well woven trap. Within seconds, the second hidden cheetah joins the race with fresh legs.
If the gazelle manages to maintain stamina to outrun the second one, it then faces the daunting task of 3rd pair of fresh legs up ahead in its trajectory. You almost feel as if at that point when the third one comes into the frame, the Gazelle gives up its hope.
The last seconds of the chase and kill is amongst the most difficult things to shoot in the field even with the latest superfast bodies and lenses. There is speed, there is zig zag motion and there are grass blades which takes focus tracking off the subjects. Add to it vehicle position, lighting condition, other photographers / movie makers in frame, trees and bushes, and it’s most often than not a mix of extreme luck and some reasonable skill to get shots. During such a chase a cheetah’s legs touches the ground only for ~50% of the time. You can almost see the fear in the eyes of the Gazelle if you ever get a focus lock!
In the final moments, the cheetah trips the prey even while in full speed of close to 60-70 mph.
Once the prey is on the ground, the cheetah home in to get a strong hold on its windpipe suffocating it to death.
They eat quickly and warily with at least one of them keeping an eye for dangers like Hyena or Lions which could easily dislodge them from a well-deserved meal but also kill them if it comes down to a combat.