Cheetah Locked on Impala Prey
at the Start of Sprinting Charge
Thika Highlands, Kenya

Some of my happiest moments are spent in anticipation of real-world wildlife dramas, sometimes waited for and other times stumbled into. In returning annually to Nairobi National Park, I have made a reasonably good safari guide for friends who want to make their first trip into a manageable-sized and convenient game park. As an early afternoon rain was beginning, and most tourists had packed up and left, we had driven out in a "game drive" and spotted a lioness (just lazing away the afternoon with a full belly) and a black rhino, prizes for most who seek to go after a "Big Five List". We had already seen herds of Cape Buffalo (another indisputable member of the Big Five) and a large variety of birds and other mammal species when we turned off road into the savannah and stopped. I smelled cat. We followed upwind carefully until we came upon an amazing scene. Five adult cheetah were getting up, stretching like pre-race elite athletes, smacking their lips and yawning, literally tasting the air downwind from an impala herd. In the herd were a dozen breeding ewes, and the ram, a very busy boy keeping his harem in line and fending off intruders. At some distance was a bachelor herd of about twenty rams, enough to give the herd ram ulcers and about which the ewes in his herd could care less, at least for now. One ewe had gone out beyond the impala "midden", a site where they congregate for latrine function, and was browsing carelessly back, under the eyes of both the bachelor herd and the herd ram of the breeding group.

But, those were not the only eyes on her, not counting ours as well. Five sets of very sharp eyes had noticed her coquettish flirtation with the bachelor herd, and the herd ram's distraction. With infinite patience, each cheetah got into the slip stream from that impala and smacked lips and sniffed the air again to check the distance. They repeated all their stretching exercises one more time in series, as one or more would still remain fixed in binocular gaze at the impala, as the others would look away, almost nonchalant. But when they returned, they would look at each other, almost certainly communicating among themselves a division of labor. One would slink off in a flanking direction, but not far enough to put himself in a scentable position if the wind shifted. The others slouched into single file and in slow motion, crouched forward through the grass. They would occasionally stop and sit upright like a series of fire hydrants to give themselves unobstructed view over the grass, and then slouch forward again. It was a very slow and deliberate process happening all around me as they ignored me completely as I was shooting and switching film. It was very slow, then it was so fast, it was all over. Like a good soccer coach, the sequence of setting up the play is more important than the shot on goal, which will come if you are careful and pay attention to details. Yes, I have pictures of the flying hooves, the desperate dash, the graceful bounding leaps of the rest of the pack for whom today is not their day, and the one thrashing under the panting cheetah who got there first.

The cheetah is graceful, but not strong; it is the fastest land animal, the only cat with non-retractable claws. It probably could not kill a standing antelope its own size, but the blinding speed and startling effect it has in its sprint, put the prey into a panic that has them bolting headlong, with their own speed supplying the killing or bone breaking force in their fall that the cheetah could not generate all by itself without the contribution of the panicked prey. So the orchestration of this sprint is all important, and here you see it being warmed up to by elite animal athletes, and you can even see the play action communication among them preparatory to the dash from their pre-programmed starting line.

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