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TeeJay the Majestic Tusker and Mount Kilimanjaro Amboseli Kenya

The Problem With Being a Predator

Two cheetah brothers go on a hunt

WARNING: This story has very graphic images, video and description. Please do not read further if you are sqeamish and easily upset. Nature is what it is.

Cheetahs, like other big cats, are predators. They can only eat what they kill and being the smallest of the ‘big’ cats they cannot steal or take from another. Female cheetahs are always solitary while males often form a coalition with their birth brothers, rarely with a stranger too. These groups can be as large as five, though usually it is no more than 2-3. The famous ‘Five Boys’ of the Masai Mara were a group of five male cheetahs. Sadly, three have died and at the time of this writing, only two still live. I had the pleasure of seeing all five together in February 2020.

Cheetah Coalition: Famous Five Boys of Masai Mara

The Famous Five Boys of the Masai Mara - February 2020

These beautiful animals are diurnal and hunt mostly in the daytime, often in the afternoon, unlike the lion or the leopard that mostly hunt at night or just before dawn. Cheetahs chase down their prey - at full speed they can get up to 70 miles per hour - but cannot sustain it for more than a minute to avoid overheating. A solitary cheetah targets the smaller antelopes like gazelles or impalas or the young ones of the bigger animals. However, a coalition can take even a fully grown topi or wildebeest. Still, even with a number of them working together, cheetah hunts are successful less than 40% of the time.

As the hunt usually happens in broad daylight, it is witnessed by not just other animals but also a whole host of safari goers. It is not uncommon to see multiple vehicles chasing a cheetah that is chasing its prey. The problem gets compounded by the ever present opportunistic hyenas that are experts at stealing from other cats, sometimes even from lions. This makes it very frustrating for the hunter that is trying to creep up stealthily on its target. Prey animals are always on the alert and will send out alarm calls to the rest of the herd the moment they spot trouble.

The cats among the pigeons - er, wildebeest. A cheetah family walks past the antelopes.

If a cheetah is a female and has cubs to feed, it is even harder for her to provide. A successful cheetah hunt is rare to witness in the wild. I have only ever had one such opportunity. While it was thrilling to see the strategy, the chase and the ultimate takedown, it was a gory and horrific sight to witness at the end.

It was the middle of the day and the sun was beating down hard, we were hot and ready to return to camp when our guide spotted two cheetahs in the bush. They were marking territory beneath a tree, a herd of wildebeest and other antelopes visible on the horizon. The cats seemed uninterested and were relaxed, our guide felt they would hunt soon.

Cheetah brothers watching the herd on the horizon,

As predicted, the cheetahs walked out, almost as if they had not a care in the world. There was no pretense at stealth and sure enough the baboons nearby gave out alarm calls and the antelopes went on full alert. The cheetah brothers (for that is most likely what they were) walked past the herd as it stood watching them, the big adults snorting their disgust and concern. Once the cheetahs had gone beyond the herd, they turned around and stood facing the herd of wildebeest. They then started walking toward the herd and for unknown reasons the animals all panicked and ran towards the cheetahs, hoping to run past them.

The hunter walking towards the herd as a group of Topi watch warily.

It was a strange sight, the predator and prey running towards each other – usually it is one chasing the other. One cheetah led the charge and picked up speed, running towards and through the herd of wildebeest who were running as fast as they could, hoping to run past the big cat.

Jungle Book: Cheetah Hunting Wildebeest

Panicked wildebeest running towards the cheetah as it flies through their midst.

The cheetah had already spotted its target, a young calf that was following its mother. The cheetah was now at top speed, flying over the land. At this speed it can cover as much as 20 feet in a single stride. As soon as the mother passed him, the cheetah turned around and began chasing the baby wildebeest who despite his young age was almost as fast has his parent.

Jungle Book: Cheetah Hunting Wildebeest

The cheetah turns around to intercept as the calf lags behind its mother

If the cheetah had been chasing the calf from behind it may have had trouble catching it, but it was coming at it from the front and while the youngling tried to run to one side, the cheetah was on it in a flash and brought it down by tripping its hind leg, the classic maneuver all cheetahs employ.

Jungle Book: Cheetah Hunting Wildebeest

The cheetah is almost upon its prey. The wildebeest have now stopped running, they know they are no longer in danger, one of their own is about to pay the price for their safety. They can only watch in helpless horror the events to unfold next.

The second cheetah was watching from a distance but was soon upon the downed calf. We rushed to the spot and found the hunter had pinned the young wildebeest down by its neck. The calf, though not fully grown was bigger and heavier than the adult cheetah and the big cat could not kill it by suffocating it, like most lions and leopards do. It could only hold it still by keeping a firm grip on its neck and pressing down with its foot while the second cheetah who had arrived by now attacked it from the rear.

Jungle Book: Cheetah Hunting Wildebeest

One pins it down while the other attacks it from the rear.

It was a terrible sight to see, the second cheetah was eating the poor calf while it was still alive and flailing its legs about, as if trying to escape its fate somehow. Cheetahs will usually eat their prey starting from the haunches.

The first cheetah could not help himself and soon joined its brother and began feeding too, again from the rear of the animal. Then he suddenly got up and dragged the wildebeest around and pinned it down once more by the neck, as if he was afraid it was going to run away, for the poor animal was still kicking, still very much alive.

Warning: This video is very graphic and may be difficult to watch.

Video ©Meera Bansal 2022

At one point the first cheetah let go of the neck and the wildebeest looked up at him in mute agony, asking for a quick release from its pain.

Jungle Book: Cheetah Hunting Wildebeest

End it, please!

Cheetahs have to eat fast, especially in an open savannah in the daytime as hyenas are always about. And sure enough, one showed up within a couple of minutes. Normally the cheetahs will run away once a hyena appears on the scene, even if it is only a solitary one. However, these two must have been terribly hungry for they continued to feed. By now the poor wildebeest had finally died and we saw the strange scene of two cheetahs and a hyena eating from the same kill. This was a very rare occurrence.

Jungle Book: Cheetah and Hyena at same Kill

The two brothers continue to feed while the hyena gets a free lunch.

As it often happens, where there is one there will be more and within another minute or so a second hyena appeared, no doubt attracted by the smell of fresh blood and the commotion preceding it. At this point the second cheetah simply gave up and walked away, having eaten as much as he could in such a short time. The first one had hardly eaten and he persisted while the two hyenas gorged themselves.

Jungle Book: Cheetah and Hyena at same Kill

Incredibly rare sight of a cheetah eating from the same kill as two hyenas. Note the vulture in the background.

Very soon, the first cheetah also realized the danger of having two hyenas looming over him and decided to play it safe, walking away. The two brothers sat a few feet away and watched from behind the bushes as their hard won lunch was devoured by the two interlopers.

in the wild, life is unpredictable, but animal behavior is not. And there is always a hierarchy, or in this case, a pecking order. Very shortly, the sky was full of circling vultures and their fellow-travelers, the marabou stork. These birds ride the warm thermals all day long and have phenomenal vision, spotting an animal carcass or a fresh kill from a mile up in the sky. One by one, they descended on the feast below. Initially the hyenas challenged the first arrivals, but they were soon overwhelmed and now the feeding frenzy was really on.

The kill is completely covered by a seething mass of vultures, the larger marabou storks lurk on the periphery, darting in when they can with their long beaks to pick up bits of meat.

Our original hunters watched silently from behind the bushes as before their eyes the wildebeest was reduced to skin, sinew, and a few bones the scavengers were fighting over.

One might think the big cats are super-fast and gifted with huge fangs and claws, life should be easy for them. But it is not. Even if they manage to take down their prey – something that happens only once every few attempts – the hunt is far from over because they must then defend their meal from others who are only too happy to steal it from them. It is better then, to be a scavenger than a killer.

And that, is the problem with being a predator.

Another tale from the wild side.

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