Six feet away from me, two hungry cheetahs were ripping apart a carcass, each snarling and snapping in an attempt to get the other to back off. As they growled, I watched their lips curl back in a warning grimace, revealing terrifyingly huge molars. They hissed at each other, trying to be bolder and thus more frightening than their companion. All that separated us was a rinky dink fence made of two-by-ones and thin wire. If the cheetahs decided that we were on the menu, I couldn’t see how we’d be able to stop them.
My guide spoke to us in calm, hushed tones. “They are fighting for position as pack leader,” he told us. “They will carry on like this until one is left with the carcass – that one will be the leader.”
“And the loser?” I asked.
“It will slink off into the bush with part of the meat, if they manage to rip it off. If not, it will feed later.”
Not only was I six feet away from two angry cheetahs, I thought, I’m going to be six feet away from a famished and exceedingly grumpy cheetah to boot.
In all honesty, I had nothing to worry about. These weren’t exactly wild; these cheetahs were part of a conservation project on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. Occupying a large tract of land just a short 42km drive from the city centre, cheetahs were being rehabilitated and studied as part of a conservation project run by the N/a’an ku sê Foundation. The 3200 hectare reserve acts as a safe haven for many rescued wild animals, some who had encroached uncomfortably close to human settlement and others that had been injured or orphaned. Those that could, would be rehabilitated released back into the wild but some would stay on to be cared for by staff.
The Foundation ran a range of programmes for visitors; I’d opted for an afternoon sundowner tour. Piling into a safari truck up at the Lodge, the group been driven into the reserve and down a steep gravelly track. Offloaded into the insubstantial corral, we’d then waited for the cheetahs to be tempted out of the bush for their afternoon feed. As the ranger heaved a large carcass off his shoulder and into the dirt, we’d scoured the landscape. Slowly, the group spotted the first of these elegant creatures slinking down almost unseen through the bush before emerging into the clearing before us.
It was a magnificent specimen. As it padded slowly and deliberately towards us, muscles rippling, I studied its markings. The telltale black line from its eyes down its face marked it as a cheetah. Its amber eyes never left us, fixing us with a steely gaze that left us in no uncertain terms who was the boss. Licking its lips, it approached the carcass. Behind it, two other cheetahs were creeping down towards us, eyes on the prize. I tensed; putting my faith into such a flimsy construction wasn’t easy.
The first of the cheetahs pulled a hunk of meat off the leg bone and made off with it. He was happy to be lower down the pecking order, we were told, settling for a smaller piece of meat in a conciliatory gesture to the stronger pair. The other two had made no such gesture and were going to stick it out.
It became a game of skill and tactics rather than brute force. Each took hold of the opposite end of the leg, first licking and then sinking their powerful jaws into the meat. Steadying themselves with a paw, large yellow claws gripped down to the bone. Gradually they worked their way towards the middle, hissing at each other and baring their teeth to try to warn the other off. It was a war of attrition and though no blood was shed, it was clear these two weren’t friends. Eventually, the attention of one of the cheetahs was diverted, a momentary lapse of concentration that cost him a feed.
He would now have to be satisfied with the scraps. Resting his leg on his opponent’s end of the bone, the victor had already claimed his prize.