life in the fast lane
Streamlined and elegant, the cheetah strode purposely down the road in front of us. The late afternoon sun glinted off his eyes, giving them the impression of polished amber; his velvet coat glowing gold in the receding light. His long legs and slight frame hinted at the explosive power that lay beneath them. His eyes, perfectly adapted to diurnal hunting, scanned the bush on either side for his next meal. Driven by the need to find food, and constantly aware of the stronger competition that might take it from him, the cheetah leads one of the harshest lives of Africa's most revered predators. Rarely is he able to finish a meal without the interruption of hyena or lion.
Today he was hungry. His beautiful eyes betrayed the need to eat as they analyzed every inch of the landscape, searching for potential prey. His sharp vision soon picked out a herd of impala casually grazing close to a waterhole. Instantly his demeanor changed. With delicate precision, the cheetah circled his prey. His deliberate approach was borne out of a life of missed opportunities and experience; the ability to see but not be seen essential in his success as a species. Keeping plenty of cover between him and his target, the cheetah finally settled in the lengthening shadows of a knobthorn tree to plan his attack. Between him lay a no-man's-land of short grass, affording him no cover. For some of the larger predators this would be an unassailable obstacle but this would pose no problem for the blistering speed of the cheetah.
Trained to observe for hours and wait for the perfect moment, he watched the movements and actions of the impala. His long thick tail, so important for balance and maneuverability at high speeds, twitched occasionally, the only sign of his growing excitement. Finally, the trap was set. Inching forward, low on his belly, the cheetah positioned himself, ready to strike. Like a coiled spring, toned muscles rippled as they tensed for action. We waited, breath held as we watched for their release. We knew we were about to witness something special. A cheetah in full flight in the wild is not often seen by people, especially in thick savanna vegetation such as where he had now chosen to hunt. They have to develop new hunting strategies to compensate for less room to operate at high speeds. This time the cheetah had worked the opening that nature had designed it for.
Without warning, the attack came. With incredible speed the cheetah exploded from his concealed position with acceleration that defies belief. Faster than some of the top production cars on the planet, the cheetah hit 60km/h inside 2 seconds. He was a bolt of black and gold streaking across the grass, a feat of natural engineering doing what natural selection has chosen it for. The lightweight frame, enlarged nostrils, non-retractable claws for grip all worked in perfect harmony to propel him towards his target. The impala saw him coming and fled, they themselves also aware that danger can come from any side at any moment. For an instant the cheetah looked beaten but then he hit the afterburners… With so little time to get up to speed, the impala stood no chance. Legs pumping like pistons, massive strides eating the ground beneath him, the cheetah singled out one of the ewes and employed the classic ankle tap. His over-sized dew claw clipped the impala's back leg and sent it stumbling into the turf. Like a flash, the cheetah was on top of her, strong jaws clamped down on her neck stifling any cries that would alert other predators and cutting off oxygen to the already exhausted impala.
We watched in awe as the entire event unfolded in front of us in the blink of an eye. However, we were not the only audience to this performance. As the cheetah lay beside his prize, panting heavily, trying to get air back to his oxygen-starved limbs, 3 rhinos now approached the spectacle. With no real enemies to worry them, they approached the scene with apparent curiosity, their poor eyesight unable to resolve the situation to their satisfaction. A sighting is always magnified by having interactions between species. It lends itself to the bigger picture, rather than just witnessing individual characters go about their business. Though out gunned and facing about 2000kgs in body weight, the cheetah stood its ground, ready to defend his kill against these armoured giants. Nose to nose, with only a meter or so separating them, the cheetah stood resolute over his kill, hissing and spitting at the spectators. Seemingly perplexed by this fiery little adversary, the rhinos soon moved on no doubt chuckling at the plucky little cat's defiance.
With the battle won and his prize defended, the cheetah settled down to a well-earned meal. With relish, his sharp teeth opened the soft flesh of the hind quarters and he began to eat, needing to replenish some of the energy expended during the hunt. But this unbelievable sighting was not over for us yet! From the tree line skulked the unmistakable figure of a spotted hyena, the cheetah's arch nemesis. We knew instantly that all the hard work would come to nothing with the arrival of natures' principal scavenger. Although quite capable of hunting for themselves, hyenas are brilliantly adapted to reaping the rewards of others labour. The cheetah knew that his meal was lost. He stood his ground trying to get as much nourishment as possible before the inevitable happened. In the human world we always say that death and taxes are inevitable, but I'm sure in the cheetah world, it's death and hyenas! For a moment, we thought that the two would share the spoils but with a look that could kill, the hyena took one bite and casually dragged his plunder away. The cheetah knew it had met its match and merely watched, before turning away and continuing his unending fight for survival.
Watching this filled me with so many emotions. The excitement of witnessing my first ever kill will live long in my memory but the interactions that followed will make this unforgettable. To see just one of the 3 principle characters in this soap opera would have been special in itself but to see them all was special. Of course we were rooting for the cheetah. It is not often we see this fascinating animal and get to marvel at its abilities, but also to see its weaknesses first hand. To possess such blistering speed means sacrificing strength - a point perfectly highlighted in his decision not even to defend his kill against the more powerful hyena.