A tale of two brothers

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.

Injured cheetah searching for his brother.

A closer look at his mouth injury.

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. Continue reading