Welcome to Cheetah School. Where cheetahs learn to hunt!

It’s November and I’m Kenya’s world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve. As we enter the Short Rains, equatorial heat and morning sunshine repeatedly give way to steely grey skies and torrential downpours. The herds are dwindling as The Great Migration heads south, following the rains and fresh pastures. Accompanying the herds, nomadic cheetahs prey on fawns and calves within the migrating masses.

It can be easy pickings for these astonishing predators. Although wildebeests calve together in the Southern Serengeti in February, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles give birth throughout the migration. Cheetahs can often be found nearby the scattered groups of nursing gazelles. New and expecting gazelle mothers loosely dot areas of short grass, grazing and keeping watch for lurking predators.

Newborn fawns are tiny and their only real defence is that they are practically odourless – remaining perfectly still, curled-up in tufts of grass. We spotted a fawn dithering and stumbling across the grass. Perhaps this particular fawn’s mother had been killed and it was hungry, but for some reason it decided to trot across an area of very short grass – cropped to the root by the migrating herds. A fawn exposing itself out on these plains is suicidal. There are just too many hungry eyes searching for the vulnerable.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Parent cheetah with cub, annoyed by emerging termites. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with NIKON D3S and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Nearby, a cheetah with her grown cub were resting on a termite mound. Through my 600mm lens, it was clear that the cub had an issue with its left eye. Whether it was an injury or infection, it was doubtful the young cheetah could see properly, but it certainly seemed well fed. Although termites were emerging all around them, both cheetahs were alert and staring straight at the hapless fawn with deadly intent.

In a matter of seconds, the adult female cheetah bounded over and nonchalantly grabbed the fawn by the neck and throttled it, but did not kill it. I thought it would be dispatched and scoffed like a Scooby-snack, but the cheetah simply held on to it. Apparently, she had other ideas. Quite playfully, her cub trotted over to inspect the meal and seemed a bit bemused… Why was dinner still kicking?

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

Cheetah cub carrying Tommy gazelle fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with NIKON D3S and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

We had happened upon the first day of Cheetah School. The mother cheetah released the fawn and it sprang away. Out of pure instinct, the cub gave chase and flattened the fawn in a fumbled attempt at ‘the trip.’ He held up the kicking and bleating Tommy by the head and carried it back to his mother like a happy dog returning its owner’s ball.

The mother cheetah let it run again… and again… and again. The pursuit was not difficult. A rapid cat chasing an exhausted and battered fawn. It was a short contest. In spite of its efforts, the cub could not fathom out how to deliver the death bite. It would mouth and drool over the fawn, but when the cubs attention was diverted, the fawn sprang away. You could almost sense the cat’s frustration. It was a rather pitiful sight.

Eventually, the fawn succumbed to a death bite delivered by the mother cheetah. She too seemed rather fed-up with her cub’s lack of killing competence. Cheetah School is hard. Hardest most on the fawns, as they are nothing but running targets, with zero chance of escape. This is nature in the raw and the reason we were in the Masai Mara – to see, to witness, to photograph. Although I have seen photographers rejoice and high-fiving over scenes like these, I am never ‘happy’ to see this kind of sighting play out, nor do I revel and rejoice in the photographic potential.

I think it’s only human to feel for the fawns (or maybe that’s just the sentimental westerner speaking). However, emotional sentiment is equally tempered by the knowledge that cheetahs are in desperate trouble as a species. They need to hunt and to feed and this is the only way a young cheetah can learn. To our Western sentiments, life on the plains can seem utterly ruthless and savage for all.

Over the next couple of days, the cheetah and her cub remained nearby, following the Tommy crèche, picking off the fawns that stood up alone and unaware. With each fawn, came more lessons in pursuit, tripping, and finally killing. The lack of a functioning eye was not impeding this young cheetah in the slightest. More a lack of urgency or finality when it came to the final death bite.

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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