3rd Up: Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Location: Moremi Game Reserve
Last night, we slept in a mobile fly camp in the Xakanaxa region of the Moremi Game Reserve. Permanent water and varied vegetation zones support a diversity of species and Xakanaxa is known for consistently awarding its visitors with fantastic wildlife sightings.
We departed camp at 7:30 am for our drive back to the airstrip. Within moments, we were treated with a quintessential cheetah view. It was standing on a termite mound in the golden early morning light. Of all of the world’s big cats, the cheetah is my favorite.
Cheetahs are the fastest land animals on the planet so their bodies are built for speed. With a flexible spine, long, muscular tail and streamlined shape, cheetahs can reach maximum speeds up to 70 miles per hour. The dark tear mark below a cheetah’s eye, like the Eye Black seen on football players, attracts the sunlight and keeps out sun glare.
Once a cheetah is within striking distance, it swipes at the prey’s hind legs with its front paw. Its strong non-retractable claws, an unusual trait among felines, provide extra grip and help to trip the prey, knocking it to the ground. A cheetah’s speed is an incredible heat generator so if it’s not successful in the quest for prey quickly, it has to stop for a rest.
After stretching a few times, our cheetah proceeded to an adjacent field where it hid behind a tall termite mound, surveying the area for prey. A group of impala, about 40 yards in the distance, caught its attention. The cheetah assumed the notorious cat stalk position and started creeping forward. I moved to the edge of my seat in anticipation of the chase.
The cheetah must’ve heard a noise from behind because it turned its head in the opposite direction. Cheetahs are skittish, regularly scanning their surroundings for potential predators. Leopards, lions, and hyenas will steal its kill. By the time the cheetah turned back around, the impala had moved to within 15 yards, but the cheetah’s movement spooked them and they took off running. You could see the cheetah relax in disappointment.
No cheetah chase in this morning’s safari lineup, but we did have front row access to one of the world’s most magnificent felines.
Cheetahs at the Cincinnati Zoo
If you can’t make it all the way to the African savannah to watch a cheetah chase, the Cincinnati Zoo is a closer option. The Zoo’s Cheetah Encounter exhibit features a track 100 yards long where resident cheetahs chase a spring-loaded lure. In September 2009, Sarah, the Cincinnati Zoo’s 8-year-old cheetah, broke a land-speed record for mammals on her first try. Shortly thereafter, she celebrated by breaking her own record in her second run.