A plea for cheetahs: Help not hinder!

On the 4th December, it’s World Cheetah Day

And it’s time we all took responsibility…

…for how our actions affect the lives of plains animals. I’m talking about me, other Photographers and Tour Leaders, Tour Operators, Camps and Lodges, and YOU!

Hounded Cheetahs

On the open plains of the Masai Mara and Serengeti, the cheetah is hounded, persistently and aggressively. Why? Because it’s the one ‘big cat’ predator that remains visible during the day and everybody wants a piece. Lions head for dense cover or shade and simply sleep all day. Leopards are hard to find and are typically obscured by bush or take to the shaded crowns of tall trees. Frankly, tourists really don’t care about seeing hyenas – the proverbial pantomime bad guy.

Cheetahs face a wall of noise and steel

Tourist vehicles lined-up to view cheetahs as they feed on prey. Photographed in the Masai Mara, Kenya

The wall of noise and steel

When cheetahs are walking, the standard procedure for vehicles is to drive well ahead of the cheetah, in order to photograph them ‘coming on’ to the cameras – essentially getting ahead of the cheetahs for head-on walking shots. When the cats are stationary, tourist vehicles habitually ring-fence the cheetahs. Especially, when they are resting or sitting on termite mounds, attempting to look for prey and potential threats.

Collectively, vehicles form a barricade of noise and steel, preventing them from being able to see approaching lions or hyenas. It’s unintentional, I’m sure, but it’s there and it happens all the time. Tourist vehicles also drive too close and too aggressively, disturbing cheetah’s hunting and pressuring them whilst feeding. It’s not just the vehicle’s physical proximity, but the accompanying engine noise. It’s practically deafening to a cheetah! Cheetahs have exceptional hearing. Imagine what it’s like to have more than 20 diesel engines roaring around you… Pretty intimidating!

Cheetah coalition followed by tourist vehicles

Cheetah coalition (Acinonyx jubatus) followed by tourist vehicles. Photographed in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

Recent experiences

During my last tour of the Masai Mara (August 2018), the “Fast Five” male coalition was spotted near Fig Tree Camp. At first there were less than 10 vehicles, 4 of which were our group. This kind of situation is easily manageable and does no harm. Every vehicle drove respectfully, keeping their distance and allowing the cheetahs acres of space to roam.

Sadly, within minutes of encountering the cheetahs, mobile phones had brought down a swarm of over 45 vehicles! It wasn’t just the sheer number that was alarming. It was their behaviour. At first, everybody kept their distance, driving well ahead of the cheetahs, allowing them to ‘walk on’ to the vehicles’ position. But then, new arrivals jostled for position, seeking to get closer and closer.

Shamefully, once the cheetahs showed an interest in hunting nearby wildebeest, all decorum went out the window. As soon as the cheetahs began running, engines fired up and vehicles roared all over the place. It was utter bedlam. The cheetah coalition were split up and forced in different directions. In the ensuing chaos, one cheetah managed to pull down a young wildebeest. And here’s the crucial bit. A vehicle then pulled-up right next to the kill site, leaving a gap of under 5m – a car length.

“The current implied rule for drivers is that the first vehicle sets the precedence, regarding distance.

As this driver was right on top of the kill, all the other drivers crammed right in. It was absolutely appalling. As a group, we drove away, leaving more and more vehicles arriving to crush in on the cheetahs. It was disgusting. Akin to metal vultures fighting for carcass scraps. Like myself, our clients were appalled and visibly upset.

Cheetah cub climbing on vehicle

BBC Big Cat Diary crew filming cheetah cubs (Acinonyx jubatus), climbing on their own vehicles in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Endangering cheetahs

Cheetahs, like all cats, are curious animals. Especially when they are young. Cheetah cubs will often play hide’n’seek and games of tag and ambush around, underneath, and on top of tourist vehicles. A cheetah made famous by the BBC’s Big Cat diary learned to use vehicles as mobile vantage points. She would climb up onto the roof to have a better view across the plains. This cheetah’s cubs picked up the habit of climbing vehicles and suddenly there was a generation of cheetahs on vehicle rooftops.

This quirk of behaviour generated keen interest from photographers and tourists, all wanting the same close-up view on their roof. Drivers were finding their pockets filled with US$ and their vehicles filled with enthralled and grateful tourists. It spurred on the demand and the behaviour. Tourists only wanted to see ‘those vehicle riding cheetahs’.

However, it wasn’t long before the first ‘accident’ – a cheetah slipping off the car bonnet and getting caught-up in the bull bars. Broken legs are a death sentence for all animals out on the plains. Then reports of cheetahs falling through the roof hatches and clawing at the passengers inside.

Thankfully, this practice has been stamped out. The generation that climbed vehicles has passed. It should be banned outright. But you find that certain drivers have a disregard for guidelines and rules and care more about US$ tips. If a cheetah looks like it will climb the vehicle, the tour leaders and drivers (with the cheetah’s welfare at heart) will start the engine, to deter this behaviour. As it should be.

The tragedy of ring-fencing

There has now been several incidents where cheetah mothers (with cubs) have been ring-fenced by vehicles, with tragic consequence. In one incident, in Ndutu, the barricade was so complete, the female cheetah wasn’t able to see or hear an approaching lioness. She escaped, just. Her cubs were killed. It is sickening. What a price to pay for a picture!? The lions, hyenas, or baboons aren’t to blame. We are.

Cheetahs followed by tourist vehicles

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) followed by tourist vehicles in the Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

An endangered species

Cheetahs are now endangered. Since the year 1900, cheetah numbers have declined by 93%!!! There are an estimated 6,700 cheetahs left in the wild. In most cases, cheetahs are persecuted by man in response to cheetahs hunting goats and cattle. Compounding the issue, cheetahs have lost a considerable percentage of their natural habitat over the last 100 years, thanks to human encroachment. Over the last 3 cheetah generations alone, the cheetah’s geographic range has declined by 29%. In total, the cheetah now only survives in just 9% of its previous historical range. The Mara-Serengeti Eco-system remains a stronghold for the cheetah.

Crucially, as a species, cheetahs can no longer withstand the added pressure of ignorant tourism, along with poaching, habitat loss, disease, and cheetah cub abduction for the illegal pet trade (can you f***ing believe it?!). So, I implore you, to act responsibly and with consideration. Life is tough enough for cheetahs. They are in desperate trouble as a species. Do not just sit in the back of Land Cruiser and allow his horror show to unfold, passing off responsibility to the driver alone.

The power to make a difference

You have the power to make a difference. When there are so many vehicles, take the ethical high-ground and drive away. At the very least, insist that your driver doesn’t get too close! Tourism can be a valuable asset in the fight against wildlife crime and protecting valuable habitat. We all want to see cheetahs in the wild. If you would like to help the conservation of the cheetah, or even just learn more about this astonishing animal, please visit the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project operated by Dr. Elena Chelysheva.

I had the great pleasure in meeting Elena at Entim Mara in August (2018). Her talk was fascinating. Educational, enlightening, and hopeful. Like me, Elena believe tourism has enormous power and a profound role to play in the conservation of multiple species and habitats across the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem. Elena tells us that the cheetah is high adaptable and still manages to hunt, despite tourist vehicles. Occasionally, cheetahs have even used the vehicles to blindside prey, using the vehicles to hide behind as they stalk. However, the intolerable pressure on cheetahs, the sheer-number of vehicles, especially ring-fencing mothers with cubs needs addressing. Urgently.

“So, next time you’re on safari, please remember the cheetahs. Remember that they are fighting for survival. They need your help and respect. Give them room to walk. Give them the space and time to hunt. Never encircle them. You’re just as responsible as the driver.”

Useful links:

International Cheetah Day

Cheetah Conservation Fund

Mara-Meru Cheetah Project

An excellent cheetah article by Dr. Elena Chelysheva (PDF)

EndThank you for reading

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Photographic career began in 2002, freelancing as a commercial photographer. In 2005, I turned full-time 'wildlife pro', winning my first award and gaining agency contracts. Since then, I've travelled the world, photographing in the greatest wildlife hotspots.

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