My day with a kalahari cheetah family

It was to be an exciting trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa! It was and still is our favourite South African national park and it had been a full year since our last visit…
We decided to spoil ourselves and booked three nights in a cabin in the Kieliekrankie Wilderness Camp – A real (and much more expensive) treat from the usual camping. We spent the first couple of nights camping at Tweerivieren Rest Camp, after which we drove along the dry Auob riverbed more to the center of the park, towards the middle of the red dunes where Kieliekrankie is situated.
Kieliekrankie Wilderness Camp
One of the benefits of Kieliekrankie is that it is much closer to the more “busy” waterholes and locations further into the park. We got up early the following morning of 30 May 2012 and was looking forward to a typical Kgalagadi day filled with the usual surprises and hopefully some great photographic moments. Although the camp is not fenced, we were only allowed to leave camp at the usual “gate hours”, which was 07:00 for that time of the year.

The morning did however not start with the “bang” that we hoped for. We first drove south along the Auob riverbed, but after a while we turned around and headed north again. After more than 1 1/2 hours since we left camp, we had our first sighting of the family of four cheetahs on the ridge next to the road near Rooibrak waterhole. Little did I realize at the time that the brief sighting that lasted only a couple of minutes on that morning, was only a prelude to the following day, during which I would follow the family around for many hours.
08:34, 20 April 2012
08:37

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08:38
The cheetah family consisted of a female cheetah and three sub-adult cubs that were about one year old. Female cheetahs typically has a litter of three cubs. The cubs will stay with their mom for about 1 1/2 years to 2 years in exceptonal cases. During the first 12 months or so the cubs are totally depended on their mother for hunting and food and spend their time practicing hunting techniques with playful games.
Male cheetah brothers will more often than not form life long coalitions after they have left the comfort of their mother’s care and protection. Female youngsters are not that lucky and will spend the rest of their life as solitary individuals, just catching up with their male counterparts when it is time to mate.
I knew that at least one of the cubs was a male and one was a female. I could not confirm the gender of the third, but suspect it might have been a female as well.
I could not get an image of all four cheetahs together that first morning, as they were all over the place, playing and fooling around… and exploring the dry camel thorn trees next to the road…
08:38

 

08:38

 

08:38
The family disappeared over the ridge next to the road into the vast kalahari desert, as rapid as they first appeared that morning. I did not get any award winning image, but the experience lingered in the back of my mind the rest of that day…
We returned back to Kieliekrankie earlier than we usually would and enjoyed the customary braai (“barbecue”). It was an early bedtime, as I wanted to get up in the early hours of the following morning after the moon had set, to capture some images of the awesome night skies of the kalahari desert.

 

“Kieliekrankie Milky Way” – 04:24, 31 May 2012
You can read more about the story behind the image “Kieliekrankie Milky Way” on this blog by clicking THIS LINK (a different story all together).
During the early hours of that morning, 31 May 2012, I had a lot of time to think about and appreciate the vastness and overpowering silence of the kalahari desert. One thing did however become clear to me – I had to find my cheetah family again later that day!
“Kieliekrankie Dawn” – 05:42
We left the camp that morning as soon as we were allowed to at 07:00. I made it clear to my wife, Lindie, that it was “operation cheetah” that day, whilst knowing pretty well that our chances of seeing the family again was very much dependant on some good old fashioned luck.
Our initial drive to Rooibrak, where we saw them the previous day, did not deliver anything and we drove around for a while. We returned back to Rooibrak after a while, but their was no sight of the family. We drove past Rooibrak and just before the next waterhole, Montrose, we found our cheetahs patrolling the Auob riverbed…
09:37
09:44
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I told you the one cub was a male…!
09:46

 

09:47

… and the one was a female…!

09:47

The cubs were still very much dependant on their mother for food, but already learnt the art of marking their territory from her…

I eventually got my first image of the whole family together! It was evident that they were not really hunting, but every now and then they would stop just to peek ahead – maybe looking for something to play with?!

09:50

 

09:52

It seemed as if the cheetahs made a deliberate attempt to spoil my efforts of getting a decent photograph that whole day – During the morning they spent most of their time to the east of the road, forcing me to take images into the morning sun and during the afternoon… well… they spent most of their time to the west of the road!

09:52

 

09:53
They eventually made their way off the road towards the ridge again. I thought that that was once again the end of the sighting and that the previous day’s events were repeating itself…
09:53

 

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09:59
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10:05

… but eventually they all strolled down the ridge and once again marched down the dry Auob riverbed…

10:39

 

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10:42

 

10:44
I suppose the most amazing part of spending time with the family, was to experience and witness the interaction between the cheetahs and especially the cubs. After all, kids will be kids…!

 

11:09

 

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11:15

They eventually made their way to a fallen dry camel thorn tree and stayed hidden from the harsh kalahari sun underneath it for some time…

11:18
After more than an hour, at about 12:40, we decided to return to camp and have lunch, as the family were just… sleeping…
I did not join Lindie for the usual afternoon nap, as the cheetah family was all I could think about. Lindie stayed at camp and I returned to the fallen camel thorn tree at about 14:00. My cheetah family was still there and rather awake!
14:10

 

14:16

I was just in time, as they soon started to make their way to the Montrose waterhole. On the other side of the waterhole was a lone blue wildebeest and a couple of springboks. I immediately positioned myself and the camera to be ready for the action! Was I to witness my second Kgalagadi cheetah kill in so many years?! (You can view the images of the first cheetah kill I photographed on MY WEBSITE)

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It was not to be! The family obviously had a good meal earlier that morning before I found them and thirst was their only concern, although curiosity wanted to kill the cat…
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16:32
After they drank their fill they rather quickly and unsuspectedly made their way straight towards me and my vehicle. I was battling to get a proper exposure against the light, but probably got some of my best images of the entire day during that brief moment.
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16:34

They moved straight past my vehicle, over the road towards the ridge again…

16:41

This time they did not stop and disappeared over the ridge into the red kalahari dunes without much ado…

16:42
It was a day and an experience I will treasure for many years to come! Yes, as a photographer I am always looking for “the shot” and I was disappointed that I did not get it during the better portion of a whole a day (the images above are but a few of the many I took during the day). But at the end I realised that wildlife photography is not always about getting “the shot” – It is as much about being out there and experiencing the magic and wonder of the environment you are in and being able to share it with the subjects you are following and attempting to photograph. After all, many people take the existence of cheetahs for granted…
It took 4 million years of evolution for the cheetah to become the exceptional animal it is today and only 100 years for man to place it on the endangered list. Now the fastest land animal in the world is losing its most important race: the race for survival.  At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 100,000 cheetahs lived throughout Africa and in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. Today there are just 7,500 cheetahs left and South Africa is home to fewer than 1,000 of these majestic cats.” – Cheetah Outreach (http://www.cheetah.co.za/)
Cheetahs are listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (http://www.iucnredlist.org/). This fact is mainly due to the ever decreasing natural habitat of the cheetah and mankind’s ignorance and selfishness. As a photographer, the words of 2013’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year, GREG DU TOIT, echo in my mind:-
     “The conservation value of a wildlife photograph might at first glance be subtle, but remember it is human nature to protect that which we love and appreciate. It is in our DNA, we do not need to be taught this. Every time a special wildlife photo is shared, an appreciation and love for wildlife increases. Eventually it will grow to a point where people will simply refuse to let these animals disappear…”
 
Have a look at the following conservation organisations to read more about these majestic cats and to find out how you can make a difference:-
     Cheetah Outreach – http://www.cheetah.co.za/
     Cheetah Conservation Fund – http://www.cheetah.org/
     Born Free Foundation –https://give.bornfree.org.uk/
     Endangered Wildlife Trust – http://www.ewt.org.za/index.html
     The Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre – http://www.dewildt.co.za/
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