IT was drizzling and a cold wind was blowing in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Two naughty cheetah cubs were playing around their mother. They pounced on her and struck her with their paws, then followed a “hit and run” game.
“Their mother, named Malaika, was an iconic “supermom” and she enjoyed their playful fight though she was alert”, said Padmanabhan Narayanan, a wildlife photographer based in Doha, Qatar, who followed the mother and her two male cubs with his camera for a week in November 2017. Malaika was quite a famous cheetah. She had a striking gait, with sparkling eyes and was always calm, composed and alert. Tourists and wildlife photographers would seek her out. The guides had many tales to tell about her daring exploits, her skill in hunting, her shrewdness and the way she protected her cubs, Dogo and Kigumba, from predators such as lions and hyenas.
When Narayanan saw Malaika for the first time, she was just 10 years old and the two male cubs were one year and four months old. Unfortunately, Malaika is no more. The specifics of her death still remain a mystery, but she is believed to have been attacked and eaten by crocodiles in the Olore Orok river in March 2018. Or she may have drowned while crossing the river. Narayanan says he will visit Masai Mara again to observe the cubs. They will be more than three years old now and leading an independent life.
It is a Herculean task for cheetahs to protect their cubs during the first four months. Although the cubs are kept in a secret place, predators often intrude. Cubs may die of diseases too or they may be abandoned by the mother. The cheetah’s coat is in great demand and commands high prices, which encourages poaching.
Cheetah hunts fascinate Narayanan. It is more dramatic than that of other big cats and is overwhelming and thrilling visually, he said. The long slender legs, the long strides and the trim waist transform the cheetah into lightning when it launches itself in an explosive sprint to chase and kill its prey.
Dr George Schaller, the wildlife biologist and an authority on the ecology and behaviour of wild cats, says: “The hunt of the cheetah is one of the most exciting spectacles in Africa; the slow stalk, the tense period of waiting until the prey is inattentive and finally the explosive rush at 60 miles per hour marks the cheetah as the fastest of all land animals.” In one of his celebrated works, A Naturalist and other Beasts , he says that the cheetah “hunts mainly in the open plains…. Any fawn in a herd is immediately pursued. Although cheetahs can attain tremendous speeds, they are unable to keep it up for more than 900 feet. If the prey dodges several times, the cheetah gets exhausted. Then it may have to give up the chase…. The cheetah is a pragmatist, likes better a small meal than none at all.”
Female cheetahs are usually solitary, but male cheetahs may form groups. A spectacle that has captured global attention in Masai Mara now is a group comprising five cheetahs.
The forest records say that Malaika has had eight litters. But she was able to raise successfully only five cubs out of 10. The cubs usually separate from the mother at the age of two and a half years. The cubs follow the mother when it hunts. In fact, the mother grooms them to hunt. Narayanan says he watched a cub as it followed a gazelle, which then sprinted away. But the mother caught it and taught the cubs how to throttle and kill it. On another occasion, a cub caught a hare. But it was reluctant to share it with his brother. The mother interfered and tore the hare so that it could be shared among the brothers.
A wildlife photographer seeks to get as many facial expressions of the cheetah as possible. Narayanan once got a brilliant frame of a cub lying on the grass, his forelegs on his brother’s shoulders in a mark of affection. That shot got selected for the BBCWildlife magazine’s 2019 calendar.
More than 23 African countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Tanzania, have thriving cheetah populations. The Asiatic cheetah is critically endangered and is confined to a few isolated pockets in Iran. Their population is about 60, and efforts are being made for their conservation. Divyabhansinh, a prominent conservationist and former member of the National Board for Wildlife, did considerable studies of the Indian cheetah and came to the conclusion that the major cause of its decline was hunting by royalty. The extinction of the cheetah in India prompted the Government of India to try to import it from Namibia and reintroduce it in India. But the decision remains caught in legal and administrative tangles.
G. Shaheed is the Chief of Legal and Environment
News Bureau, Mathrubhumi, Kochi.