A date with two special ladies

Those of us who are owned by domestic cats, know that our pets display very individual behaviour traits. My two, Milly and Murphy were like chalk and cheese. At the start of a new day, when they were let out of the kitchen, Murphy ran upstairs, jumped on the bed, and demanded much head rubbing with whoever remained in bed. He then rushed back downstairs in order to be fed. Milly meanwhile, walked leisurely to the bottom stair, stretched out with her feet hooked into the carpet, collapsed, and waited expectantly for breakfast to be served. These behaviour patterns existed for most of their lives and if they didn’t exhibit them, we quickly assumed that something was wrong.

I suspect that individual behaviour traits also apply to the big cat species, and my view was reinforced by the behaviour of two cats in 2002. These cats, through their actions, were to become world famous and I was lucky enough to meet both during one Kenyan holiday.

We had travelled to Samburu reserve, one of our favourite parts of Kenya. Known for a variety of arid loving mammals, it is a stronghold of the increasingly rare Grevy’s zebra, Oryx antelope (The possible origin of the unicorn), and the Gerenuk antelope, which is known for its habit of standing on its back legs in order to feed on an intermediate level of foliage.

Lioness, Kamuniak, from Samburu reserve
Kamuniack, Linoness of the Samburu Reserve. Photo copyright Jon Issacs 2021

We were out on an afternoon game drive and came across a solitary lioness. She was called Kamuniak or The Blessed One. Our guide told us that she had appeared earlier in the year and that it was believed her family had been killed. During the next few months, she had stolen, at different times, five baby Oryx from their mothers and adopted them. She licked them, led them to water, and tried to protect them against other predators such as hyena. Why she did this was a matter of great debate, and one of the theories was that she had somehow lost her cubs and was using the Oryx calves as a substitute. The first Oryx calf was killed by a male lion, two died of starvation and the remaining two eventually escaped back to the safety of the herd. The game wardens had never seen behaviour like her's and she soon had television crews from around the world following her. The BBC even managed to get footage of one of the abductions. When we saw her she was alone and her fame was only just growing. She watched us intently, at one stage followed our jeep, and, as I photographed her, I was actually scared by the intensity of her amber eyes fixed on me. It is the only time I have felt really vulnerable when sat in an open jeep, close to a big cat. After a few minutes, she wandered off down the track and was lost to view. Later in the year she disappeared. Whether she joined a new pride or was killed by rival lionesses nobody appears to know, but her behaviour will long be remembered.

Kike the cheetah looking attentively around for prey
Kike, the Maasai Mara Cheetah. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

From Samburu, we moved to the Maasai Mara, famous for the wildebeest migration and the home of the television series Big Cat Diary.

It was in the early years of the series and we didn’t expect to see any of its rising stars the morning we breasted an escarpment and searched the plain below for signs of life. Our driver had spotted that groups of Plains zebra were all facing in the same direction, a sure sign that a predator was hiding in the long grass. Gradually he eased the jeep down the slope following the line of gaze of the zebra. It wasn’t long before we came across a cheetah, hidden in the long grass. Excitedly my wife and I took photos of her, expecting her to depart at any second but she had other ideas. We had betrayed her position so she might as well make use of us. With a single, supple bound she sprang onto the bonnet. Ignoring us she sat comfortably, eyeing up a procession of hartebeest which moved, in the distance, across the front of our vehicle. She stayed there for about twenty minutes, the best time of any safari we have ever experienced. We were so close we could easily have touched her. Endless shots were taken through the windscreen and even through the roof hatch, eyeball to eyeball. At no time did I fear for my safety for she was totally relaxed and appeared extremely gentle. Eventually, her vantage point revealed a potential target and with a bound she was gone, winding her way through the dried grass towards a possible victim.

Kike the cheetah sitting on the bonnet of a jeep in the Maasai Mara
Kike, the Maasai Mara Cheetah. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2021

Kike, for that was her name, was to become famous as the cheetah which used jeeps to hunt. She taught her own cubs to do it, so the behaviour was handed down to the next generation. Infamous for going to the toilet on the presenter Jonathan Scott’s head through the jeep’s hatch, Kike lived to the age of twelve, a good age for a cheetah in the wild. We went back to the Mara in 2005, hoping for another meeting, but learnt that at that time she was hunting with her cubs outside the park boundaries. Although sad not to be reunited, we were grateful for our time with her, a meeting with the most special of ladies that we will forever treasure.

Lion and cheetah are amongst the most popular of big cats. They are also amongst the most difficult to draw. The lion has no markings to use as reference points whilst the cheetah has odd proportions, including a massive chest area that contain the large lungs that help propel it at such amazing speeds. David has, over the years, produced an array of beautiful studies of these two iconic species, many of which are still available as limited editions.