Text and photography by Teri Franzen
Life in the African bush is hard for prey animals and apex predators (those at the top of the food chain) alike. Ungulates (hooved animals) such as zebras, gazelles and wildebeest are constantly wary and keeping watch to ensure they don’t fall victim as food for one of the countless predators that share their territory. Predators fight among themselves over that same territory. Lions will fight to take control of existing prides. They will also fight to drive off other predators, like cheetahs, sharing the same space. Very often these battles have grim results for the victims.
During my recent trip to Ndutu in northern Tanzania (eastern Africa) we saw many cheetah families living in the Makao plains. Among them were two bachelor brothers that we had hoped to encounter during our journeys. With a top speed approaching 70 miles per hour, cheetahs are the fastest land animals in the world. They can maintain this speed for approximately 500 yards. As a singular animal a cheetah is capable of chasing down and capturing smaller prey, a favorite being a Thomson’s gazelle. Adult male cheetahs often form coalitions with siblings. When teamed up they are capable of bringing down much larger prey, like wildebeest. We wanted to see this two-male coalition in action.
On January 31, during our morning game drive we happened upon a lone cheetah that had climbed onto a fallen tree. It started calling and before we identified the gender we suspected a female calling for her young. As we looked more closely we realized it was a male and that it was injured. His mouth was wounded and his elbows rubbed raw. This was one of the brothers, only his sibling was nowhere in sight. Our best guess was that the two cheetahs had been victims of a lion attack during the night. Either the second male had been killed or severely injured, or he escaped and ran in another direction.
The wounded cheetah wandered from tree to tree, sniffing for signs of his brother and then sending a stream of his own urine toward the tree. Like all cats, cheetahs have a keen sense of smell and can identify an individual by its unique scent. During this time he called continuously with a forlorn cry, presumably with the hope of vocally contacting his sibling. Occasionally he would leap onto a fallen tree to search and call from a higher vantage point. Allowing enough distance to avoid interference we followed the lone male for over an hour. During that time his pace was constant, his conviction never faltered.
Here’s a short video of the lone cheetah calling for his brother. Viewing in HD is recommended.
The next day while driving through the plains we once again encountered this injured male. He was alone and still searching. He had not given up hope but mine started to weaken. I began bracing myself for the inevitable. I thought certain that this cheetah would no longer have a hunting partner. He would be alone in the wilds of Ndutu.
But sometimes in the African bush country, stories of tragedy also end in triumph. Later that evening, one of the photographers from our group excitedly reported that the brothers had been reunited! While out in the plains during the evening drive they had found both brothers together. The one that had been missing was limping badly and they were concerned about his ability to hunt. Relying heavily on its top speed of pursuit, a cheetah with even a small injury can fall to starvation. For now the two were together and resting from their ordeal. We high-fived and toasted while shedding tears of joy and relief. A few of us vowed to seek them out the next day.
The following morning we set out on our drive with the hopes of finding the brothers. Luck was on our side and we came upon the two boys fairly early and just as they had begun to hunt. Remarkably, both looked strong and agile. Almost immediately the two cheetahs burst forth at top speed toward a group of zebras and wildebeest.
As we drove to get closer to the scene the cheetahs launched at a lone wildebeest, making quick work of bringing it down. Cheetahs eat only fresh meat and will eat immediately after the kill. Once they are satisfied they leave the remains for scavengers and never return to the kill site. We watched for a long time while the two brothers filled up on the wildebeest.
Once finished eating, we expected these boys to find the nearest shade tree and clean each other’s faces. They don’t want the scent of blood to attract predators or scavengers. Hoping to witness this behavior we waited until the cheetahs were finished. As soon as they were done they located the nearest tree and began to walk in that direction under the watchful eyes of a group of wildebeest.
Upon arrival, rather than resting, the two cheetahs became unsettled. They immediately began sniffing the tree. Both boys appeared to be very interested in one spot and sniffed for a long time. It seemed there was no time for face cleaning. Instead they began walking away from the tree and calling. They had sensed a female in heat. The next chapter of their saga was about to begin.
The following morning we encountered one of the cheetah brothers one last time. He was lying near a fallen tree with a female. A male will lay with a female for two days during mating. He must wait for her to begin estrus before they can mate. Once mating is finished he will often stay until her cycle is finished to ensure no other males mate with her. In a few weeks’ time there would be new cheetahs entering the Makao Plains. This cheetah brother’s legacy would live on.
Teri Franzen is a software engineer and nature photographer living in Endicott, New York. Franzen was recruited into wildlife photography by the wildlife itself. In 2012 she accidentally entered what a Goshawk considered its personal space while visiting Greenwood State Park in Broom County, New York. Enraged, the Goshawk dove from its’ nest and attacked her twice; her fascination with wildlife began. “Yes, I know many people would run screaming. I didn’t. Instead I kept remembering the feeling of her warm body on my head as she briefly made contact. I can still remember how that felt. I was in awe of how fiercely she protected her brood and wanted to learn more about it. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I found the cuts from her talons. But that was my fault, not hers. Nature is just so cool!” You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, or visit her website at www.terifranzenphotography.com. Most of the photos here were taken with a Canon 1D X, a Canon EF 500mm IS II lens, and a Canon Extender EF 1.4x III teleconverter. The last photo above was taken with a Canon 1D X II and a Canon EF 100-400mm IS II lens zoomed to 114mm.