As usual, we left the campsite as early as possible, 5:30 AM in this case. Ostriches, wildebeest, springbok, and secretary birds greeted us first. Then we noted cat tracks on the sand road. We had seen other cat tracks on the road on days 1 and 2, but these were bigger, and there was more than one set.
Not much farther along, we saw vehicles stacked up along the left side of the road.
Mike located the scene first. “Lion kill,” he guessed, noting cat shapes and having just seen multiple sets of tracks on the road.
As we slowed and Mike searched for a spot with a view, I got a better look, “Those aren’t lions; I see spots.”
Not just one, but three cheetahs, red-faced, already with protruding bellies, gnawing and tugging on springbok remains.
This was a big hole on my African-animals-I-want-to-see list. We searched hard for them in our two previous trips, to no avail. That was fine with me: I like a challenge, and it gave us another reason to come back. But it also makes this sighting all the more special and exciting. We’ve been waiting and hoping, and here, at last, they are.
In fact, our Botswana friends, Ali and Mark, recommended the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as a good place to see the big cats, which is what spawned this visit. Ali was instrumental in booking our Botswana campsites, taking care of it for us with a phone call to the park office in Gabarone, since we can’t do it online. Thanks, Ali!
Now, what I know of cheetahs—from books, of course—is that they are mostly solitary, except for moms with cubs, but we had just read that some adults form coalitions of up to six cats. What? That was the first I had heard of it. So was this a mom with two adolescent cubs or some trio of hunting pals? I don’t know. I was so engaged watching and wondering other things that I made no effort to figure it out, and I can’t tell from the photos. It was a three-cheetah team, sharing nicely with each other.
One thing I did notice was how wary these cats are compared to the lions we’ve seen eating. The cheetahs frequently stopped eating to look up and around. In fact, it often seemed as though one was a designated guard, watching while the other two ate.
The fact is, cheetahs aren’t at the top of the food chain. Bigger cats—lions or leopards—could move in and steal the kill if they wanted—or, worse, hurt or kill the cheetahs. Even a group of hyenas could steal a kill. So it behooves the cheetahs to keep an eye out for larger predators. Although, being a group of three, they might be able to deter or even fend off some would-be thieves. Would they actually fight a single larger predator? Or a pair? Beats me.
Their MO is to eat as much as they can, then abandon the kill. They don’t generally stash it and come back to it as leopards and lions do because they can’t readily defend it.
Look at those bulging stomachs. Remember the curve from convex chest to concave belly on the previous post’s cheetah? These cheetahs are doing a good job packing the food away.
As yet, no larger predators or more aggressive groups have shown up to force the cheetahs off the kill, but the team’s jackal mascot waits patiently at a distance.
Or, it does until a second jackal shows up, threatening to move in on what jackal #1 has waited so politely for. She’s more bold, circling the cheetahs. “You about done?” she asks.
Whitebacked vultures alight in nearby trees where they can watch the action and await an opening. The second and third stringers are eager to get in the game.
A couple of the cheetahs seem full, taking longer breaks from eating, but not ready to give up the carcass. One laid down in the classic, head-up cheetah pose. The chest sunk down as it laid on its side, but then the stomach swelled up before dropping down above the narrow hips. It looked a bit like a snake after a big meal, a giant lump mid-way down.
The patient waiters grow less patient.
A cheetah dragged the carcass a few feet farther into the shifting shade, leaving behind some entrails.
Jackal #1 dashed in to claim them, but so did jackal #2. Whitebacked vultures congregated on the ground around the canines. The jackals wanted the tissue of the stomach and/or intestines, but not the contents, so they’d rip off a piece of the mass, shake out the digesting greenery, and gulp the tissue down. They tugged on the tissue between them, and jackal #2 won most of it. Vultures snatched bits and pieces.
At one point, a cheetah decided the scavengers were being too pushy, and she chased them off, threatening to make them dessert. They backed off . . . briefly.
Take a look here, or over on YouTube. (0:30) The cheetahs are eating in the shade; the jackals are getting what they can from the entrails; and two vultures are getting impatient.
How do you feel when other diners are breathing down your neck or the wait staff is eyeing you?
Eventually, one cheetah began to wander away. She didn’t stop and lie down a short distance away, but rather kept going. She looked back a couple of times, then moved on. Maybe she vocalized, but I didn’t hear anything. Somehow, the other two understood she was done, and they followed, perhaps reluctantly.
Now we had to watch the exiting cheetahs and the chaos that broke out on the carcass. It’s hard to watch two things at once. Poor us!
Jackal #2 was on the carcass in a flash. Jackal #1 just wasn’t as aggressive. Whitebacked vultures surrounded jackal #2, stealing bits from between the ribs and off the leg bones as they could. Jackal #2 gnawed off and snarfed down what she could in between chasing off the boldest vultures, but more and more vultures arrived, including two larger lappetfaced vultures, and the jackal was greatly outnumbered. She’d chase off vultures 1–4, but while she was doing that, vultures 5–9 tore at the diminishing remains.
After waiting patiently for an hour plus, the poor mascot jackal (jackal #1) had but a few bites of entrails. Jackal #2 didn’t fare much better, stealing some entrails, then a few harried minutes with the carcass before she was overwhelmed by the horde of vultures. She gave it up to the rabble.
Now it was a scrum. A cartoonist might draw the scene as a cloud of dust and feathers.
But the class warfare wasn’t over yet. The two larger lappetfaced vultures made their move. They pecked and flapped and trampled the many-more whitebacked vultures, effectively fighting them off and earning a brief shot at the remaining spoils, which weren’t much at all.
Maybe they got as many minutes as jackal #2, maybe not. More whitebacked vultures arrived, and eventually they were too numerous for the lappetfaced vultures. The larger vultures relinquished the remains which now appeared to be spikes of stripped bone.
I wish I had paid attention to the time we spent watching, but I didn’t. It sure didn’t feel like a long time. Even though I’d watched part of the disappearing process, it was hard to believe that a short while ago a springbok occupied those bones. Now that springbok was part of three cheetahs, two jackals, two lappetfaced vultures, and who-knows-how-many whitebacked vultures.
I’ve heard of donating one’s dead body to science. Can I donate my dead body to wildlife instead?
Through binoculars, we could still see the three cheetahs resting and digesting in the shade, but we would not have spotted them if we were just driving by now.
What a scene! Not bad for a first cheetah sighting, eh?