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Tales from the Mara III – The fascination of a hunt

She crouched.

Low. Body tense. Poised for motion. Eyes locked in on a single Thomson’s gazelle calf that was grazing a short distance away.

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Ready to explode into blinding motion !


Minutes earlier she was lying low in the short grass, scouting the herd, trying to identify the right target.

The gazelles were nervous. They sensed danger. They had stopped grazing. The looked around skittishly and took a few uncertain steps away from her.

She exploded into action.

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To catch a cheetah in full flight is simply an awesome sight


Forelegs and hindlegs moving in a naturally smooth and synchronized manner, her lithe body moving swift as an arrow through the grass.

The tiny gazelle rocketed off, eyes wide open in alarm, running for its life.

*****

You could go to any forest. Anywhere. You could see as many of the big cats as possible but what will truly make your trip rank high, is if you see a hunt. Any hunt. And, if it’s a successful hunt…nirvana.

In the Masai Mara, however, things are a little different. Take a mix of open grasslands which give you clear views, an abundance of  prey and predators in reasonably decent number…yes, chances are high that you will see a hunt.

A successful hunt ? Well, that’s another matter. You need to be a tad lucky there.

The lions have a success rate of around 15-25% in their hunts, depending on whether they are hunting solo or as a pride. That’s a pretty sad number.

The leopards fare a little better clocking almost 40% as their strike rate. The cheetah sits on top of the pile with a greater than 50% strike rate! However, nature corrects that relatively high strike rate by ensuring that the cheetahs end up losing most of its prey to other predators after the kill.

Sad, though. Imagine going through all that hassle knowing that there is a high chance that you might still lose your meal after you have caught it.

So, clearly, chances are high that you might see a hunt but the guarantee that it’s a successful hunt ?

Zilch.

To make that already pessimistic picture worse, you need to be a photographer.

Cos, its just not enough to see a hunt, it needs to be a successful hunt of course, but you also need to be able to be close enough to the action to get good pictures. Nah, those pics of the animals feasting after the hunt are no fun. Well, of course, you will still take those shots but there is no great satisfaction there.

But a picture of a cheetah flying after a gazelle, eight legs stretched in flight and chase…a picture of a pride of lions, all muscle and brute force, bringing down a huge buffalo ?

The. Holy. Grail.

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A quarter of the dream image. The prey should be there in the frame. And the cheetah should be in full flight…some day 🙂


You need to be tremendously lucky for that, but before luck kicks in, you need to have a brilliant guide who really understands animal behavior.

After that…pure luck, but your chances improve.

*****

We landed on an airstrip inside Masai Mara and started on a game drive right from the airport. You clearly don’t waste time in the wild 🙂

A few minutes into the drive, we admired our first topi standing on a small grass mound looking steadily ahead. Just a few feet ahead, a solitary elephant morosely eyed us, ears flapping idly. There’s always that little bit of extra excitement in your first drive and you stop to see almost all the animals you come by. Slowly, the excitement settles down, the pulse rate steadies a bit, and you tend to become a bit more selective. Right now, both these animals had our full attention.

“Lioness stalking!”

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Look at that focus !! This lioness was a lone one. Not part of any pride. Had to be an amazing hunter to survive, hunting all alone !


Indeed ! There she was, a solitary lioness, crouching in the short grass and steadily approaching the topi who continued to look ahead totally unmindful of the approaching danger from the rear.

A possibility of a hunt within the first 30 minutes of landing ???

Wow. Insane.

*****

All three cats have widely varying approaches to hunting but equally fascinating.

Lions usually hunt in prides. A couple of lions head straight to the prey, crouching, hiding, taking their own sweet time to approach the prey. A couple of others head in a wide semi circle far away from the prey but in reality, ready to wait in ambush. The lions ( usually lionesses, cos the male usually makes an appearance to take the lion’s share ( Sorry ! J) of the meal ) are constantly making eye contact with each other. At the right moment, they charge at the prey. The prey usually takes flight, and if in the right direction will run straight into the second bunch of lions waiting in ambush. Lions are neither too fast nor can they sustain their pace for a long time, so it has to be the element of surprise and brute strength that wins the game. If the prey runs in the opposite direction to where the second bunch is waiting they escape. If they spied the approaching lions early enough, they will have enough speed and energy to escape.

And hence the abysmal strike rate. Tough life.

The leopards, on the other hand are solitary hunters. They are experts at the stealth mode. To see a leopard stalking is a sight. They crouch, keeping themselves very low to the ground, their spotted, tawny colours helping in camouflaging and when they are really close to the prey, they make that decisive leap and the conclusion is swift. The leopard then drags the prey up the tree to eat in peace, their awesome strength in ample display as they effortlessly drag up even heavy kills up a tree.

Cheetahs ? Very different. They have a rather simple approach to hunting. Speed. Speed however, comes into effect only when they are around 100 mts from the prey. They will use the grass or other vegetation as cover to get close and then they just zip. The chase is usually short and absolutely electric. They cannot sustain such high speeds for a long time and that exhaustion at the end of the kill along with comparatively lesser strength combines to make them rather poor defenders of their kills. All this is when they are alone. When they hunt in packs, it’s a completely different story.

By the way, that is the main reason cheetahs hunt during the day. Thats the time the lions and the leopards are not out hunting. Reduces the chances of them being robbed of their kill.

Smart.

*****

The lioness was getting closer to the topi, who was intensely focused on something in the distance, beyond the bushes just in front of it.

Will the topi stay put till the lioness reaches it ? Or will it look around as a rather basic step of self preservation ?

Will the lioness be able to cross that short stretch of reasonably open ground without being noticed ?

Antony, our brilliant guide suggested that we go a little ahead on the other side of the bushes. The lioness will charge, the topi will run and definitely charge out of the bushes right in front and we will be there waiting. And get the best pics.

Sounded perfect. However, best laid plans of men and mice and all that…

We waited. Minutes ticked by.

Finally, Antony said we should go and check what on earth had happened.

And, saw that the hunt was over. The lioness had clearly managed to reach right upto the topi without being seen and the end was rather swift and brutal.

And, yes, I had to be satisfied just with the pics of the lioness with the kill.

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The end must have been really swift. The lioness gave us a passing glance before dragging its meal into the bushes.


*****

We had quite an insane trip.

We saw a lot of hunts. To top that, many successful ones. We saw baboons, hyneas, lions, cheetahs with their kills. We saw most of them during the hunt too. But only in two instances, did we actually see the hunt in its entirety. On three occasions, the culmination of the hunt happened behind the bushes.

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The most common sight. A cat walking upto us with its meal in its mouth.


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For variety, we once saw a baboon walk off with a hapless gazelle. The poor lil thing had innocently wandered off straight into the baboon who was not even hunting !


Now, that can be really frustrating. There we are trying to figure out where the predator is and which is the specific prey it is targeting. We either wait at a place waiting for the action to explode in plain sight or try to go around the bushes to see if we can catch sight of the closing stages of the hunt.

And then. The successful hunter walks up. With the prey. Holding it as a trophy.

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What ? You missed me hunt ? Again ????


Well, more pics of them eating.

Terrible 🙂

*****

The chances of a successful hunt are higher if the predator hunt in groups.

Duh.

But while watching a solitary predator hunt is awesome, it’s the hunt by the groups that so thoroughly intrigues me.

Numerous questions. How do they communicate with each other during the hunt ? How do they decide what strategy they should adopt ? How do they decide which specific prey to go for when there is an abundance of prey right in front of them ? How do they decide who will do what ? When do they decide to change the target ?

If the hunt fails due to someone goofing up, how is that individual treated in the group ? Do they castigate him for the mistake made ? Or do they do the equivalent of shrugging their shoulders and carrying on ? How do the dynamics of a group change if one member is a tad less effective as a hunting machine ? Is he or she kicked out ? Or are they given last chance to eat the meal ?

But, mainly…how on earth do they decide on a strategy ? We saw two successful hunts by two different coalitions of cheetahs.

Completely different. Totally.

We saw a successful hunt and an unsuccessful hunt by the same coaltion.

Again, totally different approaches.

How. Why.

*****

The Fast Five were on the move.

Their lean frames clearly indicated that they hadn’t had a meal for a while. We had just witnessed a failed attempt and we knew that they will hunt again. After they collect their breath. They will need an hour or two to regain their energy and they will definitely move. They have to.

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The old wily topi that got away. Did you notice the Fast Five bunched up in the grass assessing the hunt ?


We waited. Finally, they had rested enough and they limbered up. Stretching. Getting ready.

Watching this coalition of five cheetahs is such a completely different experience. They walk as if they own the earth. Total badass. Whenever I see them, the famous tune of ‘ The Good, the Bad, the Ugly’ plays in my mind. They strut. They swagger.

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They strut. They swagger. They own the earth.


And, right now the Five mean business.

Spread in front of them, is open land. Vast open land. Not a single bush. No tall grass. Hardly any cover for them to hide behind before their frenzied burst. Nope.

The land in front of them sparkled with a variety of offerings. Zebras, gazelles, impallas, topis, elands. All of them grazing and keeping a sharp lookout around them.

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Zebras. Gazelles. Topis. Elands. You can pick what you want. The cheetahs have been seen. They are not bothered.


And the Five just walked in. No attempt to hide themselves, no attempt at camouflage. Nothing. Did I say, badass ?

The five had split up. Two of them walked away and soon could be seen on the horizon, circling the animals one of which would be their target.

The animals in the middle are nervous. They can smell danger. They can see danger. They just don’t know from which side its going to come.

We are busy trying to keep tabs on the five cheetahs. Two of them are far away patrolling the horizon. One of them has now broken away and is coming inside, towards us. There are two of them walking nonchalantly straight into the centre of the sprawling land.

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Look at the cheetah walking so coolly into the middle. No stealth. No cover. Total boss.


Where on earth is the fifth cheetah ??? Is he encircling the animals from this side ? Antony has got us into the perfect position. We can see everything. For the dream shots, however, the hunted needs to run in our direction.

Some of the zebras run off for a short distance. But which direction to run ?

The tails of the tiny Thomson gazelles are twitching rapidly as if trying to quieten its own rising nervousness. The impalas have stopped grazing and looking around. Anxiety is high.

Under the benignly warm sun, in the middle of a lovely picturesque grassland a bitter battle for survival is about to play out.

Suddenly, the scene explodes into action.

Its utter mayhem and chaos. The cheetahs are in full flight. All of them. The animals are running everywhere. You are clicking away madly. You hear the shutters go batshit crazy around you. You don’t really know what is happening.

And then, just as suddenly, peace descends. Its all over. In minutes.

It’s a successful hunt.

*****

You so badly want to take those stunning pictures of a hunt. Sadly, it ain’t so easy.

The first time, I took my heavy 600mm lens to catch the action. Bloody cumbersome to follow the action especially considering the speed with which it happens. Elementary mistake.

Here, I faced another different and curious problem. There were five cheetahs in play. Multiple potential prey. All of them spread wide across the open grassland in front.

On which cheetah do I focus on ???!!!

Yes, the cheetah I was closely watching as it charged was not the one that hunted the impala.

Actually when I saw my pictures later, I realized that I had picked up the worst cheetah of the lot at least as far as this hunt was concerned. Seriously !

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There’s a hunt happening. A successful hunt. And the one cheetah I am focusing on, gets chased by an angry mother eland. Come on….!!!


But we got some good pictures of them feasting 🙂

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The five are busy. The solitary horn indicates that the meal was an impala.


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Is any other predator coming to rob them off their meal ? Cheetahs keep a constant vigil while eating


*****

Apparently, it is a standard strategy with the Fast Five. They just spread themselves and walk into the party. The animals are thoroughly confused as to where the danger will be coming from and the cheetahs with their ferocious speed and agility easily take advantage of this confusion and make their kill.

Simple. Efficient.

But so different from what we saw just the next day.

*****

Rosseta wanted her cubs to learn how to hunt.

Two males and a female. Sub adults. Around 17-18 months of age. Almost on the verge of going off on their own. They had better learn how to hunt well.

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The cubs would be off on their own in a matter of months. They need to learn to hunt independently.


Cheetah sub adults when they move off on their own are still not efficient hunters. As a result, the siblings tend to stay together to increase their chances of getting food. When they become experts, the female leaves the brothers and stays on her own.

Right now, however, they were all one large family and the kids needed to be taught.

And they were muffing up. Two attempts, both of which ended in abject failure. Not that the failures bothered them much. They still frolicked after the futile attempts.

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Hunt screwed up ? Big deal…mom’s there ! Lets play !


Guess, they had faith in the mother.

But the family needed to eat.

*****

She had been trying for the last few hours. Using the bushes as cover. But the gazelles were alert. She couldn’t even get the opportunity to charge at them.

Finally, after more than an hour of trying, she gave up. She moved away from the bushes into the open grasslands.

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Hours of stealth have gone waste. Her lean belly indicates that its been a while since the last meal. She moves away from the bushes


The sub adult cubs followed her. They were all hungry. Rosetta had to make a kill. Mostly by herself. She really could not rely on her cubs beyond a limited extent.

We waited. There were two male impalas sparring with each other for the right of the females. They frequently broke off to look into the direction of the cheetahs. Finally, they moved further away. Taking with them the chance of an attack while they were preoccupied.

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Do we fight for the harem ? Or do we flee ?


Another hour ticked by.

The fighting males had now managed to again come closer to us and the approaching cheetahs.

How can she come close enough to her prey without being seen ? Close enough for her to launch her final lightning attack. Was the grass tall enough ? How will she rope in her cubs ? What strategy will she adopt ?

Or will she do it all on her own ?

Antony had again positioned us well. The cheetahs were coming in our direction from a distance. But, who will they target ? The spread of the land around us was vast.

What followed was simply mesmerizing. Mind blowing in its speed, tenacity and the duration of the chase.

Rosetta had her prey in her sights. It looked as if she was just fixing her prey in her sights. And then she launched, in plain sight, without any of the textbook crouching, into a full fledged attack.

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She takes off. Like a bullet. The prey flees for dear life. ( Now if only we had been so much more closer !!! )


She took off after the male impala at a blistering speed. We could see the impala running for dear life and how Rosetta stayed at its heels all through. Rosetta was not giving up. The chase already seemed to be long. But she seemed to have a plan. Maybe, she stayed slightly to the left of the impala and that made the impala keep turning to its right.

Curving.

Without its knowledge, mind intent only on saving itself, its path was tracing a circle. The impala was headed almost straight back to where the chase started.

Where three hungry cheetahs were waiting.

Rosetta slowed down. The cubs took over. The impala took one sharp turn. Then another.

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Dodging. Swerving. But with a cheetah hot on its heels….as an aside, what I would give to be in that jeep there !!


But three of them were there.

Before we knew it, he was cornered. The three cheetahs hung on like limpets. One had the impala by the neck from under. Another had climbed up its back. The third one had focused on the hind quarters of the impala. Holding on.

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The exhausted mother now approached her cubs, panting heavily. And just when it appeared as if the game was finally over for the impala, the cub that had the impala from under his neck, presumably got exhausted and dropped to the ground ! All of a sudden the impala moved a little ahead and the other two cubs also, surprised, dropped off.

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The cheetah holding the impala by the neck tires and drops off. For some reason, the one clinging on to the back also is lax…


The impala was free ! It had bolted !!!

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The impala had bolted !!! I was intrigued by the lack of bite marks on its neck and back…the cubs were hanging on there for quite a while!!


Rosetta, already exhausted after a chase much longer than a cheetah usually attempts, wasn’t about to lose her prey as easily as that. Her legs might have been exhausted, her lungs might have been collapsing but that primeval drive for food was stronger than everything else, and she sped after the impala and with the efficiency born out sheer experience brought it down and killed it. Swift. Merciless.

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It over in seconds. Swift. Efficient. That’s experience.


What followed was even more fascinating. The cub that had let go of the neck first, which allowed the impala to almost get away, walked away from the rest of the family. As if, ashamed to face them. Two cubs and the mother surrounded the kill, kept a sharp eye around for any approaching predator and started eating. This cub went far away and returned much later.

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Successful. The cheetahs catch their breath. The one guilty of having almost muffed up the hunt has slunk away


Was it feeling ashamed ? Was it afraid to face the mother ? The siblings for almost robbing the entire family of its meal ?

What goes on in the minds of families ?

Will we ever know ?

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The third cub returns. The slightly pale one in the centre. The days work is done. 


*****

No, I didn’t get any pictures of a cheetah flying in the air in hot pursuit of its prey. The few images I got were when they were far away. But maybe I figured what to do and how to do it for the next hunt. When I return.

Till then it will be the memories of two utterly fascinating hunts. Two completely different and totally pulsating hunts.

Leaving me with a lot of unanswered questions.

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