My Travels: The Fast Cats of the Mara

We had just witnessed our first crossing: a few thousand wildebeest pouring over steep dusty riverbanks, splashing through the water and climbing to the north bank of the Talek. We followed them north after the last had crossed.

“There’s a cheetah!” said Onesmus, pointing ahead to another herd of wildebeest.

Marius turned to Ines and I in the back row: “do you watch ‘The Big Cat Diaries’ on BBC?” I did last night, but had not seen an episode before I visited the Mara. “There’s a cheetah that jumps on the roofs of the cars and uses it as a lookout point.”

“Yeah, tell me another one”, I thought to myself.

But there she was, on the canvas roof of an open Landrover. Malaika is a pretty cheetah, sleek and playful. She moved from one side of the roof to the other, and then sat regally surveying the wildebeest before dismounting. At the same time Ines spotted her cub nearby in the long grass. She dismounted from one roof, using the rear wheel as a step, walked to another car closer to the wildebeest, stretched onto the spare tyre and bounded onto the roof. This one was solid with game viewing hatches that were open. The faces on the tourists were too funny!

Malaika game viewing in the Mara

The cub followed her in the grass. “She’s going to hunt” said Marius, as she dismounted again and started stalking. Suddenly she was off, the fastest sprinter on earth; back arching, tail balancing and pelvis splitting to increase her speed. She missed. She came back to find her cub and rested a bit.

“She’s going again!” said Onesmus. He was driving over the veld, following her. She ran along the line of wildebeest as they tried to escape, and then cut through the line and seemed to take a small wildebeest. The mother chased her off. She had missed again.

She came back to find her cub. He was hungry. He had attitude: he was growling.

Malaika’s cub

The next day we found Malaika on a termite mound with her cub, who was chewing on the hind leg of a Thompson’s gazelle. His stomach was low and full, but still he ate. After a while they moved higher up under the shade of a tree. The cub started to play with mom, who was exhausted and all but ignored him.

Two days later we saw her again. This time she had hunted a wildebeest and was suffocating it. The left horn of the wildebeest had been injured in the hunt and the stump was bleeding. Once the animal was dead Malaika moved to the soft skin near the rear to tear her way through to the meat.

The cub put on a display of mock charges and attacking jumps on the lone exposed silky black ear of the best. Once his mother had torn the skin she allowed him to eat first.

Last night on ‘The Big Cat Diaries’ they said there were fifty cheetahs in the Mara. They are very threatened by the dominant lion and hyena, and are probably only fifteen in total. We saw seven of them that week.

Cub playing, mom resting

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