Cheetahs are very mobile and move around a lot in order to follow the gazelle migration. This means it can be a challenge to find them, and the areas where there are lots of them (cheetah hotspots), change from month to month. February and March of this year it was Ndutu. There were cheetahs everywhere. It was both delightful and frustrating to hear reports of tourists seeing twenty eight cheetahs in four days. Delightful because it was great to know there were so many cheetahs around, but frustrating because I was definitely not seeing twenty eight in four days, no matter how hard I tried. I did see quite a few though, including two mothers with small cubs.
Ndutu in the southern reaches of the Serengeti is a wonderful place. It boasts two lakes, two marshes, woodlands, plains, and spectacular views of the Ngorongoro highlands. If the rains are right during the wet season, it also boasts half a million wildebeest giving birth. This year the rains were right and the wildebeest congregated at and around Ndutu. These attractions make the area very popular with the tourists and new lodges and camps have proliferated in the past years. This means more tourists which means more cars. Because off road driving is allowed in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, cars can approach the wildlife no matter where they are. This becomes a problem when there are lots of cars around a cheetah or when drivers go too close.
While most drivers are respectful and professional around wildlife, it only takes a couple of ones going too close before the situation can get troublesome for a cheetah, especially mothers with small cubs. I saw some terrible and some wonderful behaviour by tour drivers in the high season. Some of the terrible behaviour involved MoneyPenny and her two small cubs.
Money Penny was born in 2011 to Xenia Onatopp, and spent her early life around Seronera. However once she reached independence she moved down to the Ndutu area and has been seen fairly regularly ever since. She attempted to raise a littler in 2013 and failed, but was seen in early February of this year with 3 small cubs. She now only has 2 but has safely guided them through the perils of the Ndutu high season which included scads of lions at Big Marsh, and an unprecedented number of tourist cars. One late afternoon I saw a cluster of tour cars and went over to investigate. It was only an hour or so until sunset and MoneyPenny was looking very skinny and hungry. She got up from under the tree and went in search of prey.
Her cubs followed her, and unfortunately so did the 10 tour cars. Jostling to get into good photographic position, they would drive and park in front of her as she walked so she have to turn to find another way to go. Meanwhile one of her cubs was a bit slow and was having trouble keeping up as all the cars were moving and driving around and occasionally coming between the cub and her mother.
MoneyPenny's cub follows her past the nearby cars
Cars completely encircle MoneyPenny and cubs as they try to rest under a tree
While she managed to guide her cubs through the melee, and I saw her on a kill the next day, not all cubs were so lucky. In early February a tour driver showed a bush where a small cheetah cub was lost or abandoned. I didn’t want to get too close and add to its stress and confusion, so I never actually got a glimpse, but other drivers definitely saw it. It was about 2-3 months old and must have somehow gotten separated from its mother. While it is impossible to say what led to it being separated from its family, the general presence and disturbance of cars in the area couldn’t have helped the situation. The fate of lost cubs is almost always death from predation or starvation.
On the brighter side, I also saw drivers being very respectful and professional around cheetahs. Some of the best behaviour I saw involved another mother at Ndutu. Shameka is about 4 years old and is on her second attempt to raise a litter to independence. She is rather shy and for most of February and March she was often seen at Ndutu with 5 little cubs. Having so many tiny cute cubs meant she was very popular with the tourists and often had cars with her all day. As she isn’t totally comfortable around cars, this meant she spent a lot of time being agitated, especially when they came close. We lost track of her for a couple of weeks and then in mid April I saw her in Hidden Valley, this time with only 2 cubs. She had lost 3 cubs and one of the remaining cubs was limping badly and had a problem with its eyes. When I saw her she was extremely skinny and trying to hunt, despite there not being much prey around.
A very skinny Shameka
There were between 5 and 8 cars gathered as she looked for prey but all of them stayed way back, most at least 100m away, but some were close to half a kilometer away. When she spotted three female Grant’s gazelle coming over the horizon, the space allowed her to hunt undisturbed. Only when she had brought down the prey did the cars approach. Since her cubs were so small, they had been left behind as she started to stalk, and after killing the gazelle, Shameka didn’t start eating, instead she started slowly moving in the direction where the cubs were. As is usual, the drivers had pulled up into a semi circle around her and the gazelle, but as they realized that their cars were between her and her cubs, the drivers started backing up and moving so that she had free access in the direction of the cubs. The cubs were at least a kilometer away and it took her a while to find them lead them back to the kill.
Shameka tries to drag her gazelle
Shameka walks past cars to find her cubs and bring them back to the carcass.
Since one cub was often stumbling this was a slow process, and as it became apparent that she wasn’t bringing them directly to the kill, one the drivers got on the radio and asked all the others to back up so she could approach the kill without having lots of cars around it. And much to my gratified surprise, all of the drivers did so. More than an hour after she left the kill, Shameka brought her cubs to gazelle and they started eating. And eating and resting and eating. By the time I left them 7 hours later, Shameka’s midsection had gone from looking like an hour glass (Belly size 3), to looking like she had swallowed a basketball (Belly size 14). To see drivers who are concerned about the animals they are watching and willing to sacrifice a close up shot so that a hungry cheetah can feed herself and her cubs made me very happy. I am not sure how she lost her other cubs or what happened to make the cub limp and have messed up eyes, but raising cubs is a hard job and we should do everything we can to avoid increasing a mother’s difficulties.
One of Shameka's cubs on the kill. Note the wonky eye.