Jackie the Mother Cheetah.
On the 18th August 2011, I drove to Athi to get organised for an important visitation of potential beneficiaries to the Athi Kapiti Conservancy. My task was to find some cheetah and sit on them till Paula Kahumbu arrived with the visitors.
This time of year is described as the “dry season”. Tourists in the northern hemisphere plan their holiday just for it arrive in Kenya for what they hope is glorious weather. Film crews too, arrive with high expectations of beautiful blue skies. But to us the dry season is also the period of the year when it is often miserably dark and grey with solid low cloud and not a hint of sunlight. It’s our winter that finds the residents of Nairobi wrapped up and snivelling talking of little but the weather.
I had flown with Gai Cullen in her tiny plane, doors off, filming video with a high quality camera in the hope of portraying the vast wildlife filled plains. However, despite visibility being a good 20km straight ahead I could not pick out Wildebeest, let alone Cheetah 200 ft directly below. The candle power of the sun, even at noon was insufficient to pick out contrasting colours, especially tan browns. I had earlier walked out away from my car and turned back not to see it. In the cold, dark and foreboding atmosphere I would not have been surprised to hear a howl and see the Hound of the Baskerville’s, it was that gloomy.
Given the vastness of these plains, the lack of roads and the highly wary nature of these cheetahs that have no experience of tourist I was beginning to worry. The poor beleaguered cheetahs of our more populous parks, harried every hour of the day by mini vans have suffered as a result. They now alter their hunting time to coincide with the hour that the tourists all careen back to their lodges to eat lunch! But they are as used to people and cameras as are movie stars and they present hardly any challenge in locating. The cheetahs of the Athi plains, although numerous are wild in the true sense. But visitors are often unable to understand that cheetahs may be much easier to see in parks where their density may be very low, yet not see them in wild areas where their density is much higher.
I liaised with Michael Mbithi how has now taken up the cheetah project. Michael lives on a beautiful ranch to the south and he was also busy preparing himself for the arrival of our VIPs and had his scouts out looking for cheetahs too. I opted to cover an area I knew well in which two mothers, Safi (with 3, four month old cubs), and Jackie (with 4, 11 month old cubs) lived.
I stationed myself at a familiar Dam for the night and set up camp with many hyenas calling. That’s not good for Safi and her young cubs. In the morning I was up at dawn and pleased to see the sun. I scanned the area from my roof tent looking for startled antelope, but because of the high density of cattle I soon gave up and went looking elsewhere. I worked hard, the light was good but I drew a blank. I returned to pick up the HDV video camera from Gai’s house and was set on driving a hour or more to see Michael on the far south when I looked at my phone and saw an SMS from Sandy Simpson. He had located some cheetah!
I drove immediately to find him and a flock of teenagers all looking at Jackie and her cubs. Sandy and I play a game in which we try to outdo the other, and I was fairly beaten as I had spent much of the morning looking at precisely the same place, and he had spent 5 minutes!
Jackie had, I was sad to see, only 3 cubs, not 4. It is uncommon for cheetahs to lose young when over 6 months of age, and I had to question whether the numerous snares set in the fence and under trees in their territory did not claim the missing cub.
However the other 3 cubs looked in good shape, and Jackie is a very experienced mother. I stationed myself 300m away from her and sat with the family throughout the day waiting for the VIPs to arrive. She had to get up and move each time a group of cattle came by and their herder. I filmed them walking away with a herder in the background. I later asked the herder how many cheetah he had seen. He replied that he never had in all his years, but had heard that they were around.
Jackie’s cubs are “Sally”, “the Boss” and “Mwoga”, one daughter and two sons. “The Boss” stood out as a cocky little guy when about 3 months old. He was much more confiding and sat boldy while all his family flattened themselves in the grass in an attempt to hide. He is as bold today, although “Sally” his sister was playful. “Mwoga” is a cringing coward, slinking off and snaking through the grass. I have no idea what upset him but he has always been this way.
Paula arrived with her guests and took these photos as they were allowed to approach closer than I. Jackie and her family were most obliging and granting them permission to invade her personal space. Then without disturbing the family we retired.
I watched them till nightfall, when Jackie led them far downwind and onto the short grass plains, perhaps to hunt in tomorrow morning’s early moon light.