The sheen of the rising sun spreads over the long grasses of the great savannah plains.
In a few weeks the great migration of the wildebeest and the zebra will begin and by the time the herbivores leave the Maasai Mara to return to the Serengeti, the grass will have bowed to their stampede.
A male Jackson’s widowbird in full breeding plumage of a long black tail and a scarlet chest hops above the grass stalks while the yellow wattle stands out on the beak of a wattle plover a few feet from our car. With me are the Maliks, who are are enjoying the last day of their safari in Kenya and their first visit to Africa.
They have seen a cheetah on previous game drives and, speaking of beginner’s luck, the family watched a leopard hunt down an impala from start to finish — a hunt few are lucky to see. Suddenly, the grass levels to the ground and Joseph Gichuki, a driver-guide at the Mara Intrepids Camp, points to a cheetah couple.
“It’s Malaika and her cub,” he whispers, excited. I have met Malaika before on several visits and she is a real survivor — and a famous star in BBC’s Big Cat Diary — with a penchant for climbing on top of cars. Jonathan Scott, the host of the wildlife documentary, estimates her to be around six to eight years old.
“A cheetah that lives to be 10 years in the wild, is old,” Jonathan and Angie Scott tell me. The husband-and-wife team has spent more than three decades documenting the cats of the Mara in their trilogy of Big Cat Diary books featuring lions, leopards, and cheetahs accompanying the long-running BBC TV series Big Cat Diary and the collection of their best African wildlife images in Mara-Serengeti: A Photographer’s Paradise and Jonathan Scott’s Safari Guides to East African Animals and Birds.
Sprint for the kill
Scanning the horizon, the spotted feline and her cub, named Lucky Boy, look healthy. Suddenly alert, she rises on her forelegs and her cub imitates her every move.
Our gaze moves to where she is staring and we see a herd of Thomson gazelle with their foals. The mother-and-cub duo makes for the tall grass, where they are perfectly camouflaged. The aim is to get as close as possibly to the quarry, then sprint for the kill.
“She looks too well-fed to hunt,” remarks Gichuki, a little puzzled. The cheetahs stealthily close in and a few seconds later bring down a tiny foal as the rest of the herd runs for safety.
With heaving chests, the cats lie down by their kill, then suddenly “the kill” jumps up and makes a dash for its life. We jump up too at the unexpected sequence. It is Lucky Boy who chases after the foal this time and trips it. We think the foal has had it this time.
But no — Lucky Boy is more interested in “playing” with his new toy. Every few seconds the foal lets out a plaintiff cry while Lucky Boy plays cat-and-mouse with it. His mother, Malaika, watches calmly.
“She’s teaching him to hunt,” reveals Gichuki. A martial eagle glides over them, but not interested in the small prey, moves on. An hour later the cat-and-mouse game is still on.
“Lions and hyenas are a major threat to cheetah cubs,” say Jonathan and Angie. “Too many of them in a place poses a threat to cheetah numbers. In the old days, before the concept of wildlife conservancies was introduced, areas outside the Mara Reserve were often good for cheetahs with cubs because Maasai warriors kept lion and hyena numbers in check.
“The other major impact on cheetahs is the change in habitat. Cheetah mothers need safe hiding places for young cubs — clumps of tall grass or patches of bush. The Mara has become much more open in recent years — the trees and acacia thickets within the reserve are disappearing and some open plains areas now resemble the Serengeti Plains, where cheetah cub survival has been shown to be very poor as it is easier for lions and hyenas to spot a cheetah with cubs and to steal their food and kill their cubs.”
The Mara is one of the last strongholds of the cheetah, but nobody knows the number of the current population.
However, global cheetah population in the wild is estimated to be less than 10,000. A new project called The Mara Ecosystem Cheetah Project, in collaboration with Oxford WildCRU, aims to find the current status of cheetahs in the greater Mara ecosystem and identify the major threats that could be causing decline in their population.