A Close Encounter with Cheetah Cubs
Before we got to Kwara, we heard that there had been a mother cheetah (with four cubs!!!) in the area. We spent all our game drives channeling our happy cat thoughts in hopes of spotting her. We were on our last game drive and about to give up when out tracker, AT, called from his perch on the hood of the car, “Cheetah!” Our guide Tom veered of the track toward a small termite mound with a furry head poking through the bushes on top of it. It was the mumma cheetah and her cubs sitting in the early morning sunshine! There were only three of the cubs on the termite mound, the fourth missing. They were as small as a house cat, with fluffy silver tufts of fur on their backs. I could have died, they were so stinking cute.
Now, watching impala and buffalo and and other animals is pretty cool, but there is something about baby animals that makes me feel protective, especially cats. Their high, tight bellies showed that they were hungry and you could see the mumma scanning for food. When a hyena showed itself in the long grasses, we held our breath. Hyena’s are known to steal prey from cheetahs and even eat their cubs, and I didn’t think I could handle the trauma of watching one of those cubs become food. I would probably have a mental breakdown. It is good the the hyena did not come any closer after the mother cheetah growled at it, because I had resolved that if it tried to come any closer, I would get out of the car and bash it with a stick. I later learned that even our guide was distressed at the thought of something happening to those cute cubs.
One threat scared away, mother cheetah headed toward the area where other groups had seen a pack of wild dogs! I wished I could speak cat and tell her not to go that way! Luckily, she veered away into a strand of trees where we could see a herd of impala. Worried by the calls of leopard and baboons, that would jump at the chance for some cub snacks, we crossed our fingers as mumma parked her cubs with a series of growls and chirping noises (I imagined her saying, “Stay. Here. I’m gonna go get some meat, okay?” And the cubs replying, “Sure mom, but do we have to?”) We kept our distance to avoid drawing the attention of the impalas, and waited. And waited, and waited. The impala moved away, then came back. Birds gave their alarm call and we told them to shut up. Finally, the impala all perked their ears and started to dash away. Tom turned on the car and roared into the clearing. There were a few moments of confusion as we struggled to locate the cheetah. We saw her cubs, but where was she? At last, we found her in a stand of bushes, sides heaving, jaws clamped around the neck of a springbok! Hooray!
The poor springbok jerked and moaned and took a long time to die, but eventually lay still. Then the mom made a soft chirping meow to call her cubs. They came just as their lunch gave its final breath, and crawled all over it, pulling at joints, trying to figure out how to get it open. They were at the age when they had just started to eat meat, but they weren’t quite sure what to do to get inside. Mumma lay in the shade, panting and recovering her strength, but eventually she joined her cubs, who had managed, with quite a bit of pulling and tugging and teamwork, to open an area on the springboks’ hindquarters. They all had bright red mustaches and were licking their lips with satisfaction. After watching and taking pictures, cooing, and trying to ignore our bladders, we left them at it and headed back to camp, content. It was an amazing sighting, with all elements of drama, cuteness, suspense, waiting, hunting, and eating fulfilled. We were ecstatic that we had found them, and on our last game drive too.