I’ve been living in Namibia since March of 2014 at the Cheetah Conservation Fund so as you may expect we see lots of cheetahs. In fact of the 35-45 cheetahs that are at the center at any given time we have six females that live in a large enclosure behind our house, another 10 or so that live in large enclosures next to the offices and another four that live down the road which I regularly jog and walk the dog. Suffice to say we get lots of cheetah sightings. However, seeing one in the wild? That’s another story in entirely. I’ve visited Etosha National Park many times, the NamibRand, Botswana’s Chobe, Okavango Delta and Central Kalahari Game Reserve and only seen a total of 1 wild cheetah. In the same time I’ve seen several leopards and boat loads of lions, caracal and african wild cats but the cheetah is really the elusive big cat in this part of Africa.
The last time I visited Etosha in March 2016 I was inundated with stories from fellow safari goers about coalition of males that had been seen around the Namutoni camp on a daily basis. Did I see them? Nope. By the way, a group of males is called a coalition and is usually 2-5 brothers from same litter that bond and stay together for life. Females are solitary except during mating. So, when I set out again last month (August 2016) I of course had goals of seeing cheetahs, but not much hope.
Luck was on my side though as after five days in the park on safari by myself I not only found a cheetah I almost ran into a coalition on the road! It was about 2 hours after sunrise and I had moved away from waterholes and was driving along the pan away from Namutoni camp which is a very stark white sand/gravel road. After several kilometers on the road I had put the windows up and the A/C on as it was already hot and dusty when I went around a turn and right in the middle of the road was a beautiful young male cheetah. I expected to startle him, but he didn’t even look my way so I switched off the car and immediately grabbed my camera.
Over a few minutes the cheetah didn’t even as much as glance at me, instead focusing on a slightly obstructed herd of zebra and springbok. At this point I realized he was stalking them and my heart began to race a bit. The first thoughts were - is my shutter speed set correctly? Should I use a Teleconverter? Is the car in the right spot and can I move it without disturbing the events about to unfold? Of course as I’m fumbling with my camera two more cheetah emerge from the left side of the road and move into a full stalking mode with the first. At this point all three cats begin to stalk the prey through the grass very low and very deliberately. Heart still racing a bit I grab some shots and then decide I have to move the car and quickly move the two ton truck slowly but loudly along the road into better position.
In position, I watched as another spectator joined me - a young black backed jackal was also watching the cats hunt in hopes of scavenging a meal later on. We now both watched as the cats moved through the bush closer and closer. Slowly the cats moved silently through the thicker bush trying to remain undetected by their unsuspecting prey. Two of the cats crouched so low into the grass that I lost track of them for a few minutes.
However, as the cheetahs moved closer several of the very skittish zebra noticed something amiss and alerted the rest of the herd to a danger. I don’t think the zebra actually saw the cats, but they are so quick to even get scared of their own shadow that I think something set them off and that was the end of the hunt. As the zebra began to cluster together and snort and make loud noises in the cheetahs direction the cover was blown. It was a sad conclusion for me, but fortunately the cheetahs decided to hang around the area and I followed them for another hour or so as they moved around in search for a shady resting spot to avoid the unrelenting Namibian sun for the rest of the day. They cats even led me to a spot where they were marking and clawing at a play tree presumably a hot spot of scents for other cheetahs in the area.
As the cheetahs finally moved away into the bush where I could no longer keep track I relaxed into a nice drive back through the park and eventually back to camp. The first thing I did when returning to camp? Back up all the photos to my computer and external drive and text my wife and friends back at CCF about the sighting - it had been a remarkable day and I wanted to make sure everyone knew despite how jealous they would be.