Monday, 27 June 2011

Life and Death in Masai Mara

The above scene is not at all unusual in the great African landscape.  A photographer friend, Martin Grosnick, and I traveled to Kenya in 1994.  It was our second trip over there together.  We were mainly interested in observing and photographing Africa's big cats and there is no better place on the Dark Continent to do that than at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. It was set aside as a wildlife sanctuary in 1948 and covers 583 square miles, with an effective reach that is much larger since it is contiguous with Serengeti National Park on its southern border.

Martin and I camped for nearly two months at the northern end of 'the Mara', as the sanctuary is known locally, near Musiara Swamp. We were there in one of the dry seasons, from February through March, and had perfect weather for photographing. And we had the campsite to ourselves, except for an occasional Maasai tribesman who might wander over to our campfire after dark.

Virtually every morning at sunrise or soon afterwards, driving our own rented 4 wheel drive vehicle,  we were able to locate one of the three species of big cats--lion, leopard and cheetah--and sometimes all three.  Whichever species we located we would stay with for hours, until it became so hot that they bedded down during the heat of the day. We were mainly interested in observing hunting activity and with lions and leopards the hunts occurred invariably in early morning (or during the night when we were back in camp).  Cheetahs, however, can be active all day. They are more heat tolerant. 

During our two months on the Mara we were able to observe cheetahs hunting on nine different occasions. We captured several of those hunts on film.  The most startling one is depicted in the image above.  The mother cheetah had three half-grown cubs.  That's a lot of hungry mouths to feed. But she was not interested in simply feeding the cubs.  She needed also to be training them to hunt so they could eventually survive on their own.  When she spotted a Thomson's gazelle and it's fawn she left her cubs behind and took off in lightning-fast pursuit.  The cheetah, even when running at 60 mph, was outmaneuvered by the adult gazelle who managed to escape. But the gazelle's fawn was left behind and did not do a good enough job of hiding in the short grass. The mother cheetah soon discovered the baby Tommy and we expected to see a bloody and quick finale to the episode. But such was not the case.

The mother cheetah held the Tommy gently in her jaws and waited for her three rambunctious cubs to catch up with her. She then released the fawn and stepped back and what ensued would seem comical if it was not so deadly. The three young cheetahs pawed at the Tommy and chased the fawn around and around, repeatedly getting out of breath and having to take a break. It was obvious that the cubs did not yet know how to kill. The fawn was a toy for them. They did not even try to bite it.  They seemed to only know how to use their paws and not their mouths.  After about twenty minutes of patient observation, the mother cheetah finally stepped back into the scene and delivered the inevitable coup de grace. 

Mark Newman

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