We’re stuck in the office on a typical British summer’s day (cloudy with a chance of rain showers) wrestling with photo processing, marketing, boring admin and magazine deadlines. Each of us is waiting for the other to go downstairs and brew a mug of coffee or make that much-needed call to the boiler-repair guy. Who was it said wildlife photography’s a glamorous, well-paid job? At moments like these (and there are many) the mind easily drifts off to past photo opportunities and adventures. Like the time we finally got the chance to photograph that African savannah classic; a cheetah mum with cubs on the top of a termite mound…
Okay so perhaps it’s not cool to want ‘me-too’ pictures of a subject photographed tons of times before. But we’re not too proud to admit that sometimes we do. We can’t help it. Especially when there’s the chance to spend a morning photographing a fantastic feline, and her playful offspring, in good light in a great location – just as we dreamed about doing when we first started out in this game and saw great shots of cheetah by wildlife photographers we aspired to emulate.
The thing is that until that day we’d never had much luck with cheetah cubs. From the Kalahari to Kruger, the Karoo to the Kunene, we’d been fortunate to watch and photograph wild cheetah in some of southern Africa’s most spectacular locations, yet somehow cute little cubs just eluded us. So when our guide told us he was confident of finding us a mother with three quite small youngsters, we snapped to attention.
We were staying at Phinda, the upmarket operator &Beyond’s private game reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. It was three years ago now, at the start of our Project African Rhino photo-journalism campaign. We were there to find out about the important rhino conservation work being carried out on the reserve (today &Beyond is part of a bold initiative to relocate around 100 white rhinos from South Africa, where they’re being hit really hard by poaching, to Botswana, a country with low density rhino populations and a good anti-poaching record).
The opportunity is too good to miss. We’d worked with specialist guide Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Mnguni before, tracking leopards that were part of a long term research project on the reserve, and we knew teaming up with them again would be both fun and rewarding. Our trigger fingers were itching.
Phinda’s always been a great place to see cheetah. On our last visit we’d had a cheetah explode from the trees by our vehicle and hunt down a young impala. Lots of research is carried out on the reserve’s cheetah, making them some of the most intensively monitored cheetah in South Africa. While we were there conservationists were collecting skin samples for DNA testing to gain a clearer picture of the familial relationships between the individual cheetah.
We headed out for the open terrain of marshland in the north of the reserve, where the cubs had been spotted the previous evening. Our search began by patrolling the track along the edge of the floodplain, Bernard on the tracker’s chair up front, scoured the sand for fresh spoor (pawprints).
It was Daryl who spotted her first – the tell-tale, compact, square head of a female cheetah poking out from a clump of grass. You needed a trained eye to pick her out, but there she was keeping on the look out for trouble, and seeming more than a little nervous. We turned off road and nosed the vehicle cautiously to within 20 metres or so. We could see right away why she was so wary: sprawled in the long grass by her side were three cubs, and by her feet, the remains of a fresh kill.
It was tempting to start photographing at that point, but the three were partially obscured by long grass and there was little chance of framing clean compositions. The background was cluttered and we were looking down too much. Daryl, who knows the place like the back of his hand, motioned to a low termite mound nearby and whispered to us that she just might go up there to check everything was safe before settling down for the day. Cheetah often use vantage points like this to scan the terrain, but could we be that lucky? Many of the classic shots of cheetah on termite mounds you see are taken in East Africa and even there you need to be in just the right place at the right time. Picture perfect encounters are not as common as you might think. Could Daryl be right? Did we have a chance at photographing this classic cheetah behaviour we so wanted? And with cubs to ice the cake too?
The youngsters seemed more interested in snoozing than moving position, but we could see their mother was restless. After a few minutes we watched her get to her feet. She stood and looked around for what seemed like an age. Then she walked. She walked straight. Straight to the termite mound. Daryl grinned. I don’t think he could quite believe it either. In no time at all she was atop the mound, posing perfectly, lean and long-legged, fur glowing golden in the warm light of the newly risen sun.
Over the next hour we were treated to the early morning rituals of a young cheetah family. All four were draped over the mound, like a scatter of fur rugs. The adult and two of the youngsters seemed content to rest in the warm sunshine, but one cub had other ideas.
He played with his tail, then mum’s tail; then started pouncing on her head. She was tolerant at first but soon had enough. She quickly pinned him down and gave him a cat’s lick of a wash with her rasping tongue to calm him down. Freed from her grip, he turned his attention to the other two cubs, but they weren’t interested in playing, and eventually he too was comatose. Our fantastic photo session was at an end. To spend so much time in their world had been truly special – but now we had to rejoin our own.
Back at the lodge reserve manager Simon Naylor told us that at that time Phinda’s cheetah had produced more than 100 litters and more than 250 cubs since the first 15 animals were reintroduced from Namibia in 1992-94. ‘It’s been one of the most successful cheetah reintroduction programmes in South Africa. Phinda was the first private reserve in KZN to reintroduce cheetah successfully,’ he told us. ‘It’s one of the best, if not the best place in South Africa to view wild cheetah,’ he added.
Right now we’d give anything to be back there… Now where’s that boiler repair man’s number?