By Chris Phillips and Dave Cottam
As we sat by the shady bar, whiling away the midday hours, a small herd of zebra trouped in to drink at the small waterhole. With them was a small foal, only a couple of months old. Having finished drinking they set off single file across the dry floodplain towards the lagoon.
Two hours, and several beers later, we set off for our evening drive with our guide, Kanawe, and decided to try the lagoon area first.
We were enjoying a relaxing drive when Kanawe stamped on the brakes and reversed back. From past experience this meant something good .I tried to hold my excitement but with Kanawe looking at the ground and staring into the distance I couldn’t hold it anymore,” What is it?”, I said trying to see where he was looking, “The cheetah boys have crossed here not long ago, they’ll be lying up close “ he added.
We turned off and headed in the tracks direction, scouring the bush with our eyes, but of course he had seen them already; to him 3 cheetahs, to us 3 shadows under a low bush two hundred metres away.
We pulled up alongside them for a close look and then backed off to the shade of a tree where with the engine off we admired the beauty of these cats.
“What do you want to do guys, shall we stay with them or move on?” asked Kanawe. It took us a second to decide especially as the cats were very hollow and likely to hunt that evening. “Stay! “ two little voices cried out. I had heard of the hunting ability of these guys before as they were well known to the guides and totally cool with the vehicle. If I was ever going to see a cheetah chase and get some photos this was my best chance.
The hours passed, with another vehicle coming then going, and the boys stayed asleep. I thought our luck was out as a group of warthogs walked right past them hardly causing a stir. As the heat started to subside they started to stir, a yawn, a stretch then as if someone had flicked a switch they were up and moving .In single file they slowly headed down towards the lagoon, occasionally stopping to stare around the open plain. Of course they had seen the zebra before us and were slowly edging towards them. ”Would they go for zebra? “ I asked. "They’re after the foal, but there’s no cover between them so they will wait till the zebra enter the long grass “ relied our guru.
Minutes passed with the cheetahs motionless and the zebras grazing unaware, and then off they started to run ……in the opposite direction!!
We quickly swung the land cruiser around and tried to catch them, as you can imagine not easy task, but as they accelerated we saw their target…another cheetah. They quickly crossed the floodplain and entered the forest where we had no hope of following at their speed so we pulled up to decide what to do.
I was thrilled at seeing their speed but gutted at losing them and not one photo taken, still that’s the way it goes. As we pondered on our next move two of the boys reappeared out of the trees and lay down panting not far from our vehicle. It looked as if they had failed to catch the intruder, which if it was a male could have been severely beaten or a female gang raped. Still, can’t complain as we had two beautiful cats and a lovely sunset to look at, then the third boy appears panting heavily and joins his brothers.
Several minutes pass and although we had forgotten the job in hand they hadn’t for they had seen the zebras again leaving the plain to enter the forest a couple of hundred metres behind us. Two of the boys trotted purposely into the trees at an angle to intercept the small herd whilst the third patrolled the tree line with us in close attendance. This time they were serious for our boy was staring and listening intently in the direction his brothers had gone, and so were we. He was obviously left to cut of any escape back to the open plain and I have not heard of cheetahs hunting so cleverly never mind seen it.
Suddenly the silence was shattered by alarm calls of zebras and the distress calls of one of them, our boy shot into the trees with us in hot pursuit but needless to say we couldn’t keep up and soon lost him. With Kanawe straining his ears and eyes we located the zebras…minus a foal…. And followed their gaze. Something was moving ahead but not a cheetah, it was a hyena alerted by the cries. By now it was dark so we slowly followed the hyena in our headlamps and she led us straight to the kill. The foal was dead and while two boys tucked in the third kept the hyena at bay .We stayed for a fascinating half hour watching them feed and keep the growing band of hyenas at bay and then headed back to camp exhausted but ecstatic for supper and a toast.
The final twist occurred during diner when the camp manager spotted something at the waterhole in the dark and his spotlight illuminated three fat cheetahs drinking where several hours previously we had watched a zebra foal drink !!!!!!!!!
(Selinda concession, northern Botswana, November 2003)