It was a clear November morning on the Maasai Mara. The afternoon storm clouds had not yet arrived, but the grass and trees were lush and green from the previous day’s rain. Wild animals roamed freely along the banks of the Mara River and through the savanna – herds of impala, giraffe and zebra, plus large numbers of wildebeest remaining from the recent ‘great migration’. This being Enonkishu Conservancy rather than the true national park, there were also occasional mud brick villages, schools and churches. Maasai herders, some wearing distinctive red shuka robes, watched herds of cattle or drove down the dirt roads on motorbikes.
We were travelling in an open-sided safari jeep. Our diver and guide, Moses, was also a local Maasai. Having grown up in the area, he knew all the animals well. He pointed out a small group of antelope with one antlered male and five females. “You see how one of the females is trying to run away,” he said. “But the male won’t let her. He wants to keep his harem together. And he knows how dangerous it is for an antelope to be on its own.”
As we crested a rise, Moses noticed that a herd of gazelles looking in the same direction nervously, indicating that a predator was near. He scanned the valley with his binoculars, then drove in the direction they were looking. On the other side of the valley, we found what had been causing the disturbance – a female cheetah on a small grassy hillock, looking out for prey. It was a good spot, overlooking a wide valley. Beyond it, the savanna turned to woodland, with blue hills outlined on the horizon. Behind the cheetah, herons probed the swampy ground speculatively.
Moses knew this particular cheetah well. “Her name is Kisaru, which is the Maasai word for ‘rescue’,” he told us. “She came from Mara North Conservancy, which is nearby. She had a very successful litter recently and raised six cubs. They all survived, which is unusual. Now they are old enough to hunt for themselves and Kisaru is pregnant again. She’s come back to this area because she knows it’s a good place to have cubs.”
Moses thought it was unlikely that we would see any action but suggested that we wait and watch. “She’s eaten recently, so I don’t think she’s hungry, but cheetahs are opportunistic. If she sees something, she may go for it. Let’s wait and see.”
We waited with Kisaru for about 20 minutes. Then suddenly, she tensed up. “Look, she’s spotted an impala,” Moses said, pointing to a lone female animal grazing on its own. “It’s on swampy ground. If she can get close, she may be able to catch it.” Kisaru started moving, creeping through the long grass with her shoulders up and back down, looking for all the world like a domestic cat stalking a bird in the garden. “It’s on!” Moses exclaimed.
Kisaru crept closer, moving between the antelope and the rest of the herd. She hid in a patch of reeds a few metres away from the animal and waited. The antelope, which at first was oblivious to Kisaru’s presence, was now starting to look around nervously. “She’s noticed the behaviour of the rest of the herd,” Moses explained, as we heard nearby Wildebeest snorting. “They’re trying to warn her. She knows there’s a predator around now, but she doesn’t know where. It was a huge mistake for her to go off on her own.”
We were about to see one of the classic examples of an evolutionary arms race. Cheetahs and impala have co-evolved together on the African savannah over millions of years, each one getting faster in order to either catch or escape the other. It’s a positive feedback loop: by eating slower impala, cheetahs ensure that only the fastest survive and breed. Fast impala in turn put pressure on cheetahs to speed up, which puts pressure on impala once again.
The cheetah has evolved for fast sprinting over short distances, making it the fastest living land animal. It can run as fast as a car, reaching speeds of up to 130 km/hour. Through a series of adaptations, the cheetah has sacrificed the strength of the leopard for a slender form with a deep chest, long thin legs and a long tail. It has an enlarged heart and lungs, as well as semi-retractable claws that give it good traction on the ground. The cheetah’s tail, meanwhile, acts like a rudder and enables it to make sharp turns in order to outflank impala, which often change direction as they run.
Back in the Maasai Mara, the impala finally made a decision. Not knowing where the cheetah was, she decided to make a run for it back to the herd. But this took her directly towards Kisaru’s hiding place. At the last moment, she saw the cheetah, and used her long legs to leap high in the air, passing over her head. Kisaru leapt in turn, shooting upwards and trying to catch the antelope with her claws. She missed but spun around in the air and landed on her paws, springing after it.
Within a few paces, Kisuru caught the impala, grabbing its back legs to trip it over, almost like a rugby tackle, and then seizing its neck in her jaws. We drove closer to see the kill. Kisaru held the antelope in a deadly embrace, keeping a chokehold on its neck and slowly suffocating it. The animal’s eyes bulged and its tongue stuck out as it fought for breath. At one point, Kisaru changed her grip and the impala let out a desperate bleat, kicking out a back leg, but otherwise the kill proceeded in silence until after a few minutes, Kisaru released her hold on the now lifeless animal.
One of the benefits of being in the Maasai Mara during the COVID-19 pandemic was that there were very few tourists. The few that we met were, like us, residents of nearby Nairobi. In previous years, the sighting of a cheetah kill would have attracted dozens of jeeps and cars, each driver trying to position their car for the best view. This time, we were alone in the valley throughout the whole experience.
I had been expecting Kisaru to start eating the antelope immediately, but instead she sat for a while breathing deeply. “She used up a lot of energy on the chase and needs time to recover,” Moses explained. “She can see that there are no other predators around, so she can afford to take her time.”
After a while, Kisaru stood up and looked around. There was a lone tree about a hundred metres away with eagles perched high in its branches, watching and waiting like vultures for their chance to feast on the remains. “Cheetahs can drag an animal for a short distance,” Moses said. “She may try to get it into the shade of that tree.”
Sure enough, Kisaru picked up the impala with its neck in her jaws and started dragging it – but not towards the tree. Rather, having decided that we were not a threat, she was heading towards the one closer piece of shade – beside our safari car. I knew she wasn’t coming for us, but it was still alarming to be a few metres away from a wild cheetah that was moving towards us, especially with my excitable 3 and 5-year-old children in the car. So it was a relief when Moses started the engine and slowly backed away.
Kisaru tried coming towards the car again, and Moses backed off again, after which she gave up. Settling down, she turned her attention to the antelope and finally began to eat, tearing open the fatty hind legs at the thigh and starting to feast. There was an unpleasant sound of tearing flesh and the cheetah’s snout quickly became red with blood and gore.
This seemed like a good point to leave, before things became too gruesome for our kids. On our way back, we passed the same family of antelopes we had seen out the way out, but now there were only four females. “Was the impala Kisaru caught the same one we saw trying to run away on the way out?” I asked Moses. “I think so,” he replied.
The whole experience was exhilarating, like watching an extended sequence of a David Attenborough documentary, but in real life. In fact, Moses told us that the Lion episode of Attenborough’s “Dynasties” was also film in Enonkishu Conservancy, and that one of his friends had driven the British TV legend around. The trip also had a big impact on our oldest child, Zefi, who for months afterwards asked me to tell him bedtime stories about the Maasai Mara, in which Kisaru and Moses were lead characters, joined by a random selection of Octonauts and Paw Patrol pups.
“Today was an amazing day,” Moses said, when we got back to our lodge. “When you go out in the African plain, every day and activity is different. What we saw today, the cheetah hunt, you don’t get to see very often. My last Cheetah kill was in March. So I was excited because it’s something very special.”
In the second part of this blog, I’ll tell you more about visiting the Maasai Mara during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Moses’s back story.