Serengeti Playground

Serengeti Playground

Thanks to Sheila Britz of New York for this!
What do the President of Botswana and I have in common? We have both sustained cheetah injuries this year! His to his face. Mine to my car.

The Botswana government confirmed today that President Ian Khama had been scratched by a cheetah and had received several stitches in his face. Not a wild cheetah, but a caged cheetah that the president was obviously observing, and nothing serious enough to announce it until the press asked about it, today.

And it probably wasn’t even intentional. Cheetah differ from other cats in that their claws can’t retract.

Cheetah are interacting with tourists (and presidents) more and more. In each of the last two years I’ve had cheetah jump on our car to the terror and delight of my clients.

Earlier this year as we were approaching the edge of the migration in the Serengeti, we encountered a family of four cheetah: big mama looking somewhat weary at her three terrible teens: three 6½-month old not-quite-cubs-any-longer.

Because cheetah are the most harassed of all the cats in the wild, they love anything that doesn’t try to eat them … like tourists. I suspect, though, that if there were another animal in the wild except man that didn’t bother and pester them, they’d come purring over like a lap cat with affection.

Cheetah eat faster than any other cat, because if they don’t, they’ll have the food taken away … by bigger cats like lion and leopard, by hyaena, even by jackal and big birds. It’s a stressful life.

So when something just comes along to look at them, they’re most accommodating if not presumably relaxed by the notion that a man – the greatest hunter and threat to all living things – wants to be its friend!

After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

Not to mention that a car is pretty high off the flat veld. Jump up on it and you’ll achieve a view far superior to that stumpy little termite mound.

All cats display innate curiosities, particularly as cubs, so when our vehicle stopped at the edge of the migration to watch the antics of the family of four cheetah last March, they were distracted to watch us.

With a head cocked unnaturally to the side of a slithering body that moved sideways around the front of my car, Number One opened his mouth in his pitiful little hiss, stopped, sat down on his haunches and then jumped up on the hood.

Numbers Two and Three meanwhile jumped on the two tires mounted on the backside. And yes, the roof was up and open!

Cheetah began this behavior years ago in all the national parks and reserves where they were protected. As tourism increased driver/guides naturally would try to encourage cheetah onto their car, for the obvious thrill it provides the client.

Rangers and scientists then complained that the growing number of cars around cheetah were disrupting their hunts, and guests should stay well away from them.

This was – at the time, and now – balderdash. I have no doubt that there were hunts disrupted, and we should be extremely mindful of not approaching cheetah on the hunt, but my experience has always been that in the vast majority of situations driver/guides do not disrupt hunts. It’s much more rewarding for a client to see a cheetah hunt than a cheetah tail.

Rather, it was just rangers and scientists pining for the good ole days when everything was pristine and wild. I think that was in the Pleistocene.

In our case, we were the only cars we’d seen the entire morning, and we were in a very, very remote area of the Serengeti. We had four cars, and as soon as the cheetah jumped on mine, the others stayed back.

Number One began admiring himself in my rear view mirror. I could easily have touched him, but everyone – cheetahs and tourists – were having such a grand time I didn’t want to disturb them.

Like cat cubs anywhere, the three of them were suddenly all over the roof, the hood, the tires, tumbling and not quite as sure footed as the mother who had run away and was calling them to no avail.

As Number Two decided to tightrope from the backside under the opened roof to the front, and tottered a bit, there were audible gasps from my clients.

All well and good, until Number Three decided to chew apart the rubber lining we put between the roof and the top edge of the car, to seal the roof when it’s pulled closed. And this was the rainy season and I fully expected the afternoon shower later in the day.

So that did it. I hissed back, and he hissed at me while Number One started to eat our radio antennae. At that point I started shouting and waving my hat and everything else I could find, and finally, reluctantly, the three kids jumped off the car.