Photos of South Africa / Western Cape / Wildlife Encounters

Really Close – A Cheetah Approach

Updated Wednesday, 26 December 2018

“Just remember they are wild animals”, a warning from Rudi, our game ranger, as we disembark our game vehicle. We’d been tracking two male Cheetah near the Northern Gate of Sanbona Wildlife Reserve for about an hour and had finally spotted them (no pun intended), laying in the brush about 30 metres from the road.

“Stay close,” a reminder. “They’ll let us know once we’re close enough.”

And I’m thinking, how exactly are they going to do that? And with that we’re off, walking in single file, in a zig-zag pattern towards them and talking loudly, so they know we’re coming – in  Rudi’s opinion the safest way to approach them. Humans are the super-predator in the wild (at least by day), so the zig-zagging lets them know we’re just passing by … a beeline for them would signal intent: that’s how predators stalk their prey.

“We may get closer than you feel comfortable with,” he says, “just let me know if you want to stop.”

I’m thinking, maybe 20 metres away. By ten metres I feel a nervous laugh building up and squish it pronto. Eight metres away and the larger Cheetah lays his head down on the floor, like he’s bored with watching our approach and would rather sleep. We stop at around five metres. I’m obsessively thinking about the fact that I’m the shortest of the three of us and the most likely target, should they decide it’s lunch time.

These two males are absolutely huge and in pristine condition. Not the mangy, scrawny looking cheetah I’ve seen in documentaries on National Geographic. Sanbona is home to eleven Cheetah – one female with two cubs, another female with five cubs and these two males, who hunt together, and very successfully, by the look of them.

I understand the warning about them being wild animals, it’s easy to forget how dangerous they are, as you watch them licking each other, curled up on the sun-warmed earth.

“Is it safe to take some pictures?”
“Absolutely,” says Rudi, “I’m going to go a little closer and take some too.”

As I snap away, he edges closer, and closer still, and with just another three steps – the “signal” that we’d come too close: one of the males jumps up and circles away from us, with his brother fast on his heels. They don’t seem too concerned, just fed up with our intrusion, as they slink off in search of a more peaceful spot.

“You see the prominent white tip on their tails, that’s how you can tell they’re males from a distance. Only way to tell unless you’re really close.”

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