It meant, ‘ The Dependable’.
A better name couldn’t be there for a cheetah mom with six cubs.
Siligi had started of with seven cubs, but one of them had died. Seven is an unusually large number to litter. Cheetahs usually have about 2-4 cubs. Seven ? Quite uncommon.
There was a slight twinge of sadness in the air in our group after spending bulk of the previous days with Selenkei searching for her lost cub and then the scare from the Fast Five.
Maybe, a day with six, lively, hyperactive, curious cubs would just be the tonic to lift us up.
Other than the obvious fact that it would always be fun to photograph six cubs along with their mother.
So, Siligi it was.
Siligi’s territory was quite far from our camp. Near the Black Rock Pride’s area.
Which necessarily meant an earlier than usual start. It was a chilly, misty morning when we started and we reached the place that Siligi was supposed to inhabit without too many distractions along the way. The light was still poor even though the sun was up.
A little to the left of the track, on slightly higher ground was where she was known to spend most of her time. It was a very different terrain. There was a fair bit of tree cover. A lot of small bushes. Not open land where you could clearly see what was lying around you. Apparently, not the terrain that you usually find cheetahs in but one that was brilliantly suited for a mother with six cubs. So much cover.
We wondered how she was managing to raise them. As I had written earlier, a mother cheetah has her plate full with risks. Its tough to fend for yourself in the wild, bringing up 2-3 cubs was fraught with danger for the cubs ( it shows in the 90% mortality )…but six cubs !!? That was almost insane.
Look at the difficulties.
That many more to keep an eye on all the time.
That many more mouths to feed. Which automatically means, that many more kills that Siligi will need to make.
As they grow a little older, it would be that much tougher. They would be hungrier, she would need to kill either far more frequently or much larger prey.
Cheetahs, like all predators, naturally have more than their share of failed hunts. And a hunt is possibly most exhausting for a cheetah since they rely on speed to make their kill. Stealth, ambush etc is not their style. Its exhilarating to see a cheetah hunt purely for the speed, skill and the adrenalin rush just watching it brings. But it tires out the cheetah. Totally. They would require an hour or two to recover from the exhaustion.
Now, if a cheetah would need to make more kills to feed more mouths, add to that the number of failed attempts and you can get an idea of how tiring it would be.
Oh, and the challenges don’t stop there.
They also lose a distressingly large percentage of their successful kills. To hyenas, leopards and lions…for more than one reason. Firstly, they are simply too out of breath and tired to put up even a semblance of a fight with any of these. More importantly, they cannot risk a fight. Even a slight injury while protecting her meal might impact her speed and agility and that would put the future at severe risk. Better to recognize the percentages and slink away and hope that the next successful kill and meal aren’t too far away.
The previous evening, we saw a pregnant cheetah leave her kill and walk off. You can see a hyena and a jackal in the background feasting on her efforts
Yeah, add that too to the number of hunts that Siligi would need to make.
We went up the slight incline. A little rocky and a lot bushy.
Two other vehicles were already there. All of us went around the bushes, wanting to see if the family was resting there. Or, if we need to go elsewhere and continue our search. The family would roam around a fair bit, though one never knows when she has to think of six cubs.
And then we saw her. Standing proud. Graceful.
There she was. Siligi. With her brood around her.
In the open. With her cubs around her. We anxiously counted them. Four…five…is there a sixth or …. ?
We counted anxiously…four, five …yes, there was the sixth one too. Phew !
No stress, all six were around. Running around, sticking together and rather close to the mom who looked very alert. Naturally.
“She will hunt” Antony was confident. Her stomach did not seem to be full and well…six cubs to feed. There were a lot of gazelles around. So prey was available.
They remained in the open for a little while before the entire family slowly moved away to the edge of the hill. They stayed there for quite a while but clearly the entire family seemed to be very interested in something on the other side.
There was something interesting down that slope that deserved such attention
On the other side was a small river or a largish stream and something definitely had caught their interest.
Siligi started the descent and we decided to go over to the other side and to get better positions when they cross the stream and possibly better placed to see Siligi hunt.
Cheetah cubs have this really cute mohawk. A very prominent ridge of fur at the back of the neck running down to the rump. There is a theory that this makes them look like the honey badger and is protective in nature. ( Honey badgers are bad news in the wild. No one, I mean, no one messes with them )
That mohawk is definitely a very cute sight on a boisterous cub.
This mohawk stays prominent till the cubs are around three months of age and then slowly starts to disappear but can still be discernible till the cubs are much older.
Siligi’s cubs were around two to two and a half years old so the mohawks were very prominent.
Cheetah moms can sometimes leave the cubs for almost as long as 48 hours when they are much younger so that she can hunt to sustain her lactating state. The moms are also quite practical. If the food supply is scarce, mothers could abandon her cubs. But, she does try her damnest best to ensure that she protects them.
Of course, as they grow older, the cubs try to help her in the hunt. But, they are more of a nuisance initially. Even when they finally leave the mother, the cubs are not yet fully developed as a hunting machine. That is one of the reasons that the siblings tend to stick together across genders for at least 6-7 months. During this period they become better and then the female goes off on her own. The brothers often continue to stick together.
We had lost the family.
We had crossed the river. Siligi too had made her way down to the river.
We along with the other vehicles ( they too had followed us ) roamed around looking for her in the bushes but not a sight.
“ She will definitely hunt this morning. She won’t waste time”
There was an urgency in Antony’s voice. We had a very real possibility to see her hunt.
On a whim, he decided to cross the river again and go back to the side where we had first seen them.
The gazelles are all alert. That’s the best signal in the wild. They were all looking into one direction.
Siligi has to be there. Behind one of the bushes. Hunting.
There she was.
Under a small tree. Panting.
A Thomson’s gazelle’s inert body lay next to her.
She had made her kill.
Sigli had made her kill. Hidden from all prying eyes.
What followed was any wildlife lover’s dream. Well, maybe it would have made even a total city slicker fall in love with wildlife.
Siligi was catching her breath. While keeping a sharp eye out for any other predators.
Satisfied that the coast was safe, she started crying out for her cubs.
We kept our eyes focused in the direction where Antony said her cubs were last seen. I had lost total sense of direction in all the circles we had made looking for the family !
And then they came. One fur ball followed another. Racing down the dew topped, green slope.
Super cute. Bundles of fur racing down to their mom !
Scampering to their mother. And food. Running on their short little legs, giving out sharp cries every now and then.
The cubs made it straight for the dead gazelle. All of them crowded around the morning’s meal. It was taking them quite a while to get through the skin. Siligi didn’t help. Maybe it was time her cubs learnt to do this on their own. And then we saw that the breach had been made.
The cubs took quite some time to cut through the skin.
The mother stayed away for most of the time. It was a tiny meal and definitely not enough for the kids and her. She would need to hunt again. For herself. This meal was for her kids.
Sigli…keeping a sharp eye for any danger
For now, she kept a sharp eye out.
The cubs had a real go at the food. You could hear the noises clearly as they enjoyed their meal. Teeth against bones. Mews. Irritated noises when one sibling edged out another.
For a long time you could just see one large bundle of fur. All cubs totally focused on their meal.
Maybe the cubs were really ravenous or maybe like kids they don’t know when to stop when a juicy meal is in front of them.
This lil’ one broke off and sized us up carefully. He looked kinda cute, like any baby with its meal all over its face.
Towards the end, Siligi also joined her brood to get a few bites in.
Siligi decides to join in. Looking around to see if its safe for her to focus on the food !
Tummies full, the kids were ready to play. And what a boisterous bunch they were !
First it was a rough game of tag cum ‘let-me-knock-you-down”. A bone of the gazelle became a stick they could play with. The skin of the unfortunate gazelle became a prized possession worth fighting for.
Catch me if you can !! A limb of the poor gazelle has become a plaything !
Ownership battles !! That rag is the skin of the gazelle…well…
They were having a blast and often one of us , eyes firmly glued to the happy scenes in front of us through the camera, would break into a loud chuckle watching them play.
And what is this game called ?
Occasionally, one of the cubs would wander upto Siligi who was resting contentedly and get a thorough cleaning. Or Siligi would walk upto another cub and give that one a fussing over. And when a cub, returns the favour to the mother….total Awww moment for everyone !!
Aww mom !!! That hurts !!!! A cub gets a thorough cleaning up.
“Your eyes are dirty !”
” Thank you, mom !”….seriously heartwarming to see them !
The morning was picture perfect. Warm sun. Green grass. Blue skies. A happy contented family out on a picnic on the meadows.
Incredible scenes. Just incredible.
I mean…how often can one witness such lovely scenes !?!
Once again, for the nth time, I thanked my good fortune that I could witness such a morning.
But, as has often been the case this trip, the morning’s tale doesn’t end there.
Siligi still needed to eat. She had to hunt.
After a nice, lazy time with her kids, she finally got up. Alert. With intent.
Hark ! Who goes there !?
And, suddenly vanished.
We raced after her. Where had she gone !?
And, just like that she reappeared. With another kill.
Boy, this cheetah is incredibly efficient.
Another hunt. Another kill. As simple as that !
The events of the morning played all over again. Siligi cried out to her cubs. And, after a few long worrying minutes, the cubs appeared, one by one, running upto her. They fussed over her, naturally not too interested in the kill after the feast they just had.
Then, something changed. You just got the feeling that there was some tension in the air. The cubs were all alert. All of them looking through the bushes into the distance. When I say alert, I mean really, really alert. The way a 100 meter sprinter is at the racing blocks when the starter has his gun raised.
Suddenly, the cubs were off. They bolted. Madly. Running for their lives. Something had spooked them.
Spooked. They really bolted. They were scared. Very scared.
Siligi was crouching. Watching the same gap her cubs had been staring at just a few seconds ago.
“ A lioness”
Oh boy. Would we be seeing another depressing scene unfold in front of us !
Siligi too had gone off, away from where her cubs had disappeared, presumably to distract the lioness from her cubs.
A vehicle roared into life. It was the rangers. They sped off into the gap. We couldn’t see the action, but apparently one of the rangers got off the jeep. The lioness took the hint and vanished.
After a long, interminable few minutes, Siligi reappeared a little further away, going in search of her cubs. Her food can wait.
Danger averted. For the moment.
That’s how it is in the wild. You never know from where the next danger to your life will spring up. One moment you can be having the time of your life. The next, death will be staring at you.
As we drove away, leaving the family to calm themselves down, one couldn’t help once again marvel at the cheetah mom and her struggles to keep her family alive. Against such unbelievable odds.
SuperMom. Without a doubt.
A few days back got an update.
Siligi and her cubs were not seen for almost ten days. Then they reappeared.
With four cubs.
Two more of the six had died.
Sad, while the news was, maybe it was for the better. Siligi would find it easier to protect four cubs than six. She would find it easier to hunt and kill for four mouths than for six.
Siligi’s fight, and her family’s fight, for their lives will continue to play out in that hilly, densely covered slope she has as her home.
Hopefully, the four cubs make it. The world definitely could do with a few more cheetahs.
Four kids are easier to manage. Hope they make it.