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Tales from Kenya IV – An Afternoon with the Cheetahs

Not every minute, not every incident in the wild is packed with pulsating, adrenaline filled action. Not every opportunity for you as a photographer is one where you are struggling to keep up with the pace and speed of movement around you or wondering, as you are clicking, if the settings were the right ones as the action exploded in front of you.

There are also those opportunities where you spend hours just watching and observing the animals. Understanding some aspects of their behaviour.  Waiting for some action to explode.

But, even if it doesn’t, big deal, after all, how many get the chance to be so close to them and spend time with them ?


We were aimlessly cruising around most of the afternoon our appetite sated after witnessing our first ever river crossing. And, as if one was not enough, fortune favoured us with another wild, action filled crossing.

I was, as always, standing up, feeling the cool breeze against my face, looking around and yet again marveling at the sheer beauty that lay around me.

Golden yellow waist high grass, swaying in the breeze, a dull, colourless and cloudless sky above it, nothing but vastness around me. An odd giraffe or a herd of zebras would be around. Or sometimes its just us and the empty world around us. The camera also lay idle next to me. Almost.


A pair of giraffes provided the perfect moment for a click


Cute, aint they ?

Everyone in the vehicle was quiet, lost in their own thoughts, for once no one harassing Gabriel with the constant stream of questions about the land and its people.

Only the radio was crackling as the drivers across the Mara continued their constant chatter.


Something was definitely mentioned on the radio.

Our vehicle had a subtle change in its direction, it picked up a little speed and the meandering, bumpy ride suddenly seemed a purposeful one.

I scanned the horizon for the usual gathering of vehicles and I could see a couple of them around a thicket.

“Lions, I guess,” I offered, a little disappointed. The pride will definitely be sleeping now.





We rounded the corner on the last stretch to the thicket and we realized that the cheetah had gone into the thicket. The assembled vehicles had all started their engines and were moving away.

Gabriel quickly reversed and went round the thicket to the other side. The cheetah in all probability won’t stay inside the thicket but come outside.

As we reached the opposite side, we could see nothing. Gabriel decided to go ahead of all the parked vehicles and park right in front.

“ In case we have to move once the cheetah comes out, this position will give us more space to maneuver .”


Cheetahs usually roam around in groups. If we are lucky we might see more than one.

We didn’t have to wait for long. We saw one beautiful creature step out into the sunlight, look around, sniff the air and walk towards a small tree nearby.

And another came out. And, one more.

Cheetahs usually roam around in groups. The groups usually consist of either a mother and her cubs, siblings (who stay together for around six months after leaving the mother) or as a of males who live and hunt together. Adult females, however, tend to be solitary and only meet with males to mate. ( Fun fact : A group of cheetahs are called a coalition )

This was a group…sorry, a coalition of five. FIVE !!

They were the five sons of  Malaika the famous mother.


The Five Brothers. What a way to spend an afternoon. ( Pic clicked by my daughter )


For the next three hours we simply stayed put and just enjoyed observing the beautiful, lithe, graceful animals.

They would lie down, they would roll around in the grass, one of them will walk upto his brother and nuzzle him, suddenly they will be alert before deciding that the effort wasn’t comparable to the joy of catching a power nap….


Alert ! A prey ? Cheetahs are such graceful creatures

There was no hurry, we had all the time in the world to watch these gorgeous creatures. The second camera soon found its way to my son’s hands and he too busied himself taking pictures.


While we just sat there watching the five and getting into a clicking frenzy when a good pose presented itself, Gabriel was busy educating us about the world of the cheetahs.

So, what is the difference between a leopard and a cheetah ?

Look at the tip of the tail. One has a black tip, the other has it white. And the spots are different. Actually, only a cheetah has spots , the leopards have what is called as rosettes. The  cheetah has a clear, single, black spot separated from the other spots on the body. A leopard , has smaller irregular shaped spots that group together in circles to form rosettes

Great, but who will remember which animal has what.

The bodies. Very different. Cheetahs are taller than leopards and are slender.

A cheetah has a small head, long body, thin stomach, high chest and pronounced shoulder blades.


Lithe. The cheetah defines the word. ( Pic taken by my son )

Yeah, but how do you remember who has what.

Again, simple. Cheetahs are the fastest animal, right ? The bodies are built for speed. Muscle has been sacrificed for a more streamlined body. A leopard has a bulkier, a more muscled body.

Well, that helps…but something more striking, please ?

Yes, look at the face. Cheetahs have black ‘tear marks’ that streak from the inner corner of their eyes and down their cheeks. No one is sure about the reason for these markings  but one thought is that it helps to absorb sunlight and reduce the sun’s glare into its eyes when it hunts during the day.

Leopards don’t have these markings.


Cheetahs have black tear marks that run down their cheeks. No one has figured out their purpose.

A cheetah also has more amber coloured eyes as opposed to the more green-blue colour of a leopard’s eyes.


I learn what colour amber was 🙂


Its incredible to know how a cheetah hunts and how its body is designed for exactly that.

So a cheetah is the fastest animal on earth, right ? Ergo, clearly it hunts purely on the basis of the confidence of its superior speed.

How does its body help in that ? Multiple ways.

They have an unusually flexible spine that allows its to rapidly change its direction as its quarry changes direction in its frantic attempts to escape.


Cheetahs have a very flexible spine which helps them to effortlessly change direction while hunting

Remember, they are not as muscular as a leopard ? Since that means they won’t have as much strength, they don’t leap on their prey. Instead they trip their prey using their claws, knock down their victim and kill it with a bite to the throat.

And then their tails. A cheetah’s tail is flatter in shape. Cheetahs use their tails as a  rudder to steer itself when it’s running in hot pursuit of its prey.


A tail as a rudder while in hot pursuit.

Lastly, their claws. Cheetahs require rapid acceleration, that’s their main weapon and because they also have to turn at really high speeds, they have non-retractable claws to give them extra traction. ( That also makes their pug marks very distinguishable since the claw marks are visible ! )

Amazing, huh ? Nature and its lil bag of tricks.


Cheetahs love the open grasslands. Hence, they are easier to spot when compared to leopards. They usually climb onto a mound of earth or a fallen tree to gain some elevation while scanning the horizon for prey. Yeah, I know, a very clichéd shot but one which I was really keen to take. Guess, next visit 🙂

They usually don’t climb trees and that is possibly the reason why when this one ventured up a tree, the cameras just went plain crazy. It was quite an amusing sight. It climbed up and it was a rather short tree ( check the very first pic to get an idea ) but it seemed quite mortified at what it had done since it couldn’t figure out how to get down.


Hanging on for dear life. Cheetahs don’t usually climb trees which possibly explains the anxiety here

If only even for a second it had looked into the camera…this picture would have been a treasure !!!


Just one head turn and I would have got such a stunning shot !

It finally jumped and then looked around nonchalantly as if it was all planned.


Three hours plus. That’s how much time we spent with these gorgeous but sadly endangered animals.

Ample time to get a lot of pictures. I would have preferred a better background or maybe it was my skills…or maybe simply as Gabriel darkly commented once, I am never satisfied !

But…cheetahs staring at you, cheetahs lying on the ground, cheetahs rolling on the ground, cheetahs stretching and yawning widely….got ‘em !!!


Graceful things, cheetahs…now if this pose had been on a small mound or a fallen tree…sigh 🙂


That’s one cold, stony stare.


That’s one huge yawn…


And if you were not impressed with the earlier one….


“Awwwww !! Cuddly !” – the chorus in the jeep 🙂


They kept moving around a reasonably wide area…sometimes the sun threw some lovely light n shadows


We were not alone. When we counted at one point, there were about 33 other vehicles parked all around them.

Finally the cheetahs decided that they have put up enough of a show and that its time that they figure out how to get their next meal. They walked up, trying to figure out how they could break through the cordon of vehicles around them.


The ‘how do we get out of here’ prowl…pic taken by my son

Four of them squeezed through before the last one realized that he was left behind. He walked around in what we liked to believe was mild panic before scrambling through a tiny gap between two vehicles.


The fifth brother was left behind and scrambled around looking for an opening to join his clan

There were some rather worried souls in the vehicle on whether he will meet up with his brothers but that obviously wasn’t an issue.

It also was nearing the time that we head out of the park and as the convoy of vehicles left we liked to believe that the brothers bid us sad farewell.


Adios, touristos !!!

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