When we first saw them, they were two tiny dots, one much smaller than the other, in a sea of a lovely shade of light green.
The Mara had been witnessing rains of a nature that December has rarely seen, and from our vehicle it appeared as if a green carpet has been thrown all over earth’s surface. The wetness from the rain that had just ceased combined with a weak sunlight to throw up a surface that softly sparkled as it swayed to the gentle breeze.
It was a lovely morning.
There was a strange kind of desolation in the way the mother and cub were sitting, heads turning this way and that, occasionally giving out their sharp calls. The gazelles and topis a short distance away, who had first alerted us to the possibility of a predator in the vicinity, were completely ignored.
There was a sad, forlorn air about the two
“ She had two cubs. Where is the second one ?”
That was Antony, who runs the Matira Bush Camp and who was doubling up as our guide.
“ She must have lost one of her cubs. They are crying out for the lost cub”.
It was particularly distressing to hear the cub keep calling out for its missing sibling
Cheetahs are an endangered species. One report says that the current cheetah population in the wild is around 7000 and that this number is expected to decline by more than 50% over the next 15 years !
While we humans have played our usual depressing role in this reduction, even without us, the challenges that face the cheetah are significant.
More than 90% of the cheetah cubs don’t survive beyond the first three months.
Read that again – more than 90% don’t survive.
Female cheetahs are largely solitary animals. Males come together with a female only for the purposes of mating and it’s the female that brings up the cubs.
All on her own.
And, its tough, incredibly tough.
The mother has to leave her cubs, hidden safely while she goes off on a hunt. Often walking long distances to make her kill. Cheetahs also tend to lose a lot of their kills to other predators like hyenas, leopards and lions. If any of these animals appear, they simply walk away, not wanting to risk a fight the conclusion of which is a given. What this means, is simply that the time a mother could be away from her kids could be rather long.
The previous evening, in the middle of a downpour we saw another pregnant cheetah, Amani, being robbed of her kill by a hyena. The way of the wild.
The cubs are in danger all this time. Any predator could stumble upon them.
Quite often, the family might encounter any of the larger predators. In a finely honed routine, the cubs bolt at the slightest indication of danger and the mother tries to confront and distract the predator trying to draw them away from the cubs.
She later comes back to the same spot calling out for her cubs to get reunited.
Anything could have happened to the cubs in the meantime.
The cub was standing a little apart from its mother, looking around disconsolately, crying out occasionally. A lonely, forlorn figure.
It just looked incredibly sad.
Occasionally, the mother would reach out to her cub and give it a reassuring lick. On other occasions, the cub will walk upto its mother for a comforting head bump. The mother had fallen quiet. The cub, still occasionally gave out a sharp cry out for its sibling.
A comforting kiss…
…or a reassuring head bump followed by a quick lick
They stayed where they were. Wet and dejected.
We waited there for a long time. Hoping that soon there will be a return call and we would witness a joyful reunion. Though we knew, that, that was highly unlikely.
When we left them, both of them were lying down, the cub with its head burrowed in the grass.
Sigh. The picture of despondency
We went around, ostensibly looking for other animals to photograph, but also silently looking for any traces of the missing cub. I wasn’t sure what we would do if we saw it but, of course, we didn’t.
There was a researcher who was studying cheetahs and Antony informed her about the missing cub. She had seen both cubs with the mother that very morning. She narrated her sighting, how the mother and cubs came down a slope, entering a bushy area with a lot of trees and out of her sight.
A terrain where both leopards and hyenas had been sighted earlier.
Everyone is extremely sensitive to the risk that cheetahs face and the rangers are always in the vicinity, often stepping in to protect the cubs but of course, they cannot be and maybe, should not be around everywhere.
When we returned to the scene, the mother and cub were huddled together and the mom was giving the cub a thorough cleaning, an act that was possibly equally comforting to both.
A rather thorough cleaning was under way. It possibly comforted both mother and cub
Soon, they were off.
Walking determinedly in the direction of the same dense terrain the researcher had talked about. Potential prey, a pair of jackals appearing to follow them closely…all were ignored. One of them wandered quite close to the cub and the kid barely gave it a glance. Supreme indifference.
They reached the edge of the tree and bush cover and both of them sat down looking in, calling out, as if willing the missing cub to reappear.
It was somewhere in there that they possibly lost the third member of their small family
Many vehicles came and went. There was nothing much happening. We stayed put along with the researcher’s vehicle.
The mother would regularly get up and walk around sniffing and calling out. The cub stayed put. We wondered how tired and hungry it would be. At some point, the mother would need to give up on her search and hunt.
They didn’t enter the woods. Just walked around the edge. Scanning. Calling. Waiting.
Giving out occasional cries but mostly in silence, they waited
As the sun set, we decided to pack up too and leave, reluctant and quite worried. The area wasn’t very safe for the two cheetahs. We had heard a pair of mating cheetahs and of course, other predators also were around.
The mother and cub stayed there. As we left, one of the last images we had was of the mother giving another reassuring lick to her cub.
And another comforting kiss…my favourite frame of the day
It had been a long, terrible day for the two of them.
But little did either of them know what was in store for them the following day.
The Fast Five.
When these guys move…the famous soundtrack from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly plays in my mind. Total cowboys these guys.
A unique coalition of cheetahs. Not all five of them are brothers – three of them are. No one knows how they came to form the group, but they have been together for quite a few years. They roam around as if they own the entire earth and no territory seems to bound them. They could be in the centre of the Mara one day and in the Conservancy the next day.
But right now they were smack in the centre of the Mara. We had spent most of the day with them. We saw them botch up a hunt of an old topi, waited for them to regain their breath and watched a magnificent hunt.
Now their stomachs were full, but they were still roaming around.
They had feasted on a large kill. Their bulging stomachs tell the tale
Not too far from Selenkei and her surviving cub.
Male lions, when they attack the lions of another pride or when the oust the reigning males of a pride, kill all the cubs. This is to both ensure the dominance of their genetic streak and also to get the lioness in heat so that they can mate with them.
The Fast Five had seen Selenkei.
That moment we realise that Selenkei and her cub have been spotted
She had crouched low in the grass that was fairly abundant thanks to the unseasonal rain, made her cub lie even lower in the grass.
Selenkei slinks low into the grass, her cub snuggling close to her…watching the approaching Five
But she was still seen.
The Fast Five were going to mark their territory at a nearby tree but now they were focused on her. They were making a bee line to Selenkei.
Our hearts sank. What fresh hell awaited Selenkei and her cub ?
Will the Fast Five kill the cub just as male lions do with cubs of another pride ?
The rangers now swung into action.
To us onlookers we couldn’t get a clear sense of what they were doing. First they tried to ward off the Fast Five onto a different direction.
The Fast Five continued relentlessly.
As they reached very close to Selenkei the rangers appeared again. One of them even got out of the vehicle with a gun in his hand.
Meanwhile, in our vehicle, Antony was getting agitated.
Lions do kill the cubs of another pride.
A female cheetah however mates with multiple males and it is never very clear which male would actually be the father.
When a male cheetah meets a female they would be mainly keen to see if the female is in heat. They do this be sniffing her urine. A female cheetah who has cubs will not be in heat and the males usually simply move on, since they also have no clue if the cub is his or not.
All this is science.
But can we depend on it ? Antony was sanguine about the outcome of the interaction.
Antony somehow managed to communicate to the rangers to leave the Fast Five alone and that they will not harm Selenkei and the cubs.
They moved close to the two.
There was a lot of action that was going on. The five males had circled both Selenkei and her cub and we could see a lot of snarling and baring of teeth at the two. The mother would hiss right back but mostly stayed down looking up at the other males.
The standoff. The Fast Five stayed close to her. The cub is sitting bravely while you can see the mother lying on the ground
Often some of the cheetahs will drift away from the mother and cub but still keeping a close eye on them. And then one of them will walk up, sniff the mother’s scent, snarl at the cub. The others will join in and again we will all be back to worrying on what will happen next.
It was during these interactions that we saw that this cub was one plucky one ! It would snarl right back at the males and on a couple of occasions the tiny thing leapt up at the male when it came too close to it !
Despite Antony’s complete nonchalance and conviction about the end result, all of us were worried. Very nervous. It would have taken any of the males just a second to kill the cub
We stayed there for a long time and the same cycle repeated time and again.
There was the obvious point – if the Fast Five wanted to kill the cub, they would have done it rightaway.
Maybe they won’t.
The sun was setting and we got some awesome images. The story hadn’t ended but we had to leave.
The Fast Five didnt leave. They stayed put as the sun set.
When we left, the Fast Five were still around the mother and cub.
The next day we eagerly asked for any news.
As Antony had said, the Fast Five had left the mother and cub and had moved over to the Conservancy.
The mother and cub had lived to fight another day.
Their struggles will continue. Their fight for survival will continue. The lions, the leopards, the hyenas all will continue to be predators and Selenkei will need to use all her wiles to protect her cub from them.
The image of the lil cub bravely jumping at five full grown males will stay with me. I hope it makes it.
I am sure anyone who had spent some time with the mother and cub over the two days would be rooting big time for the plucky lil cub. Like we were.
Cheers to you, kiddo !
Hope you stick around, kiddo !