Tuesday, October 8, 2019

If You Want to See a Cheetah Hunt...

As manager of Dr. Kay Holekamp’s laboratory in Michigan, the Mara is not normally where you find me. Our research assistants (or “RAs”) are the ones in the field and the usual contributors on the blog. Logging hundreds of hours with our hyenas, they collect data that later finds its way to my desk in Michigan. Having never been an RA, it’s been a priority for me to see how ours live and work day-to-day by visiting the Maasai Mara myself – and I was fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to do just that!

“The field” (a catch-all term for anywhere biologists gather their data) doesn't have to be across the world. Depending on the project, a field site might even be the bird feeder in a scientist’s backyard. At the Mara Hyena Project, we’re lucky enough to call the sprawling, scenic grasslands of the Maasai Mara our study site – a place easy to imagine as packed with nonstop action. After all, TV depicts the Mara as a place of constant, thrilling hunts, shot from every angle and in great lighting.

While everyone here has to eat, actually witnessing a hunt isn’t easy as television might make it seem. It’s tough to be a predator, and some of the most popular – cats, like lions and leopards – miss their catch far more often than they succeed. To see a hunt in action, even an unsuccessful one, you have to be in the right place at exactly the right time.

But it’s not all serendipity. There’s a price that every observer, from film crew to researcher, has to pay: Watching gorgeous animals, who could wow you with any number of exciting behaviors, do absolutely nothing but sleep. A lot.

By now you know that we don't study cheetahs, but they do share the Mara with our spotted hyenas. And who passes up the chance to see a cheetah?

The scene is this: We’re on a morning drive, watching a few hyenas at the den. Sacked out in the grass, moms are suckling their cubs. One of our RAs, Jana, is quizzing me on hyena IDs. She takes photos, passes them to me, and I practice recognizing individuals by their spots. It’s shaping up to be a pleasant but routine morning.

We drive on and come across a group of tourist trucks, clustered around something tucked in the grass. It’s a cheetah. There’s no space to squeeze in for a good look, and then an “alien” male – a hyena who isn’t part of our study clans – wanders into view. It’s back to work and we take off after him, following until he’s gone beyond the boundaries of our study groups.

By the time we get back, the cheetah is alone and asleep. Her audience has moved on, searching for a more exciting way to spend their vacation time. We break for a few minutes and hope she’ll do something.

It doesn't look promising. 

We whisper hopeful instructions, encouraging her to notice the nearby antelope or call for a pair of (imaginary) cubs. She gets up and wanders along the roadside, pausing on a mound of dirt. It’s the perfect place to survey the landscape for prey. Is that what she’s doing?

Nope. After this photo she lays back down.

I’m someone who could watch a cheetah sleep all day. When it comes to wildlife viewing, patience is part of the deal – if we wait, who knows what might happen? But we have other work to do. There are no hyenas here now, and we're stalling. A cheetah is still a cat, and she could spend hours napping, relaxing, or just deciding which direction to walk in.

Just a few more minutes, we decide.

Then, there’s the rapid drum of footsteps. I look toward Jana’s window. Outside it, everything is happening at once.


The cheetah swings around the back of the car, kicking up dust across the dirt road. She and her target come into full view. 

An African hare!
I swivel the lens and keep shooting. A sprinting cheetah is so fast, you will miss it if you blink.

It all takes just a few seconds. The cheetah gives up the chase, and the hare disappears into the grass. What might have been a brief moment with a sleeping cheetah turned out to be action-packed after all – especially for the hare.

Authored by Sabrina S. Salome
Photos © Sabrina S. Salome

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