To photograph a King Cheetah...
As we descended from the airbus onto the tarmac at Jo’burg International Airport, the warm air of an African Spring morning enveloped us. I allowed myself a grin. My wife and myself were back in Africa and the new quest to see and photograph a King Cheetah was truly underway.
We arrived an hour and a half later, up a dusty track at the foot of the Magaliesberg mountains. In front of us lay beautiful gardens and an extended farmhouse, the Cheetah Lodge. Warmly greeted by the assistant manager and Sebastian, the blue and brown-eyed dalmation, we were given a conducted tour of our accommodation. The lounge walls were filled with prints and originals of the big cats, whilst on the coffee table lay a selection of mammal and bird books. Meanwhile, the highly polished parquet floor was covered with rugs depicting cheetah and other cats. The whole place was my idea of heaven. The quest was getting better all the time.
The next morning dawned brightly, with not a cloud in the cobalt blue sky and the sound of Africa all around us. Having had breakfast, my wife and myself were picked up at 7.45 a.m. by our guide Erika, an ecologist who had lectured at Pretoria University. She transferred us to the Cheetah centre, ready to witness the cheetah runs which were conducted in the cool of the early morning. I needn’t have worried about the problem of too many tourists as there were only about fifteen others, and after an introduction to the work of the centre, we made our way to the sloping meadow which contained the course where the lure of feathers and fur would travel, hopefully with a cheetah in hot pursuit. We stationed ourselves behind a wicker fence, the majority of the tourists close to where the three cheetah would start their run, the three of us with digital slrs spaced equally, further down the course, where we hoped to get our action shots. The tension mounted as we were informed that the first cheetah to run would be Shaka, a King cheetah who was the slowest of the three and would allow us to get used to trying to photograph a speeding cheetah.
Shaka cautiously emerged from the back of the land cruiser and, with the leash off, we waited for action. The lure hurtled off down the track and Shaka ambled after it. With me shooting at high speed he trotted past and then cut the route so he was ahead of the lure on its return up the slope. Deciding that he would at least get some exercise, he suddenly looked interested and moved into second gear to complete the run. His handler said she was really embarrassed by his performance and that he was sulking because she’d only returned that morning from holiday. Either way, I had witnessed and successfully photographed my first King Cheetah. Two ordinary spotted cheetah followed. The first was a small female who rapidly went up through the gears, obviously loving every second of the exercise. The final cheetah, Graca, was the star of the show. With the cruiser now turned end on we were told to expect an explosion, and that’s what we got. The cheetah charged out of the back of the vehicle and reached sixty miles per hour in less than three seconds, even faster initial acceleration than an F1 racing car. The lure was in danger of being caught and destroyed. Hurtling around the course, Graca used non-retractable claws, specially designed pads, and its lengthy tail to stay upright. Trying to keep up with it in the viewfinder was nearly impossible and I ended up with pin-sharp shots of the end of its tail as it thundered back up the track, finely powdered soil flying in all directions. Having completed its run Graca sank onto the ground, temperature off the scale and craving oxygen. It really was breathtaking and the crowd fell silent in appreciation.
To conclude our tour we were privileged to be amongst the first that season to be allowed to drive quietly down Lovers Lane, the area of smaller enclosures where the females are mated and raise their young. Stopping, we could see a small bundle of fluff at the rear of one of the enclosures. Using my longest telephoto I could just see the dark-bodied youngster staring nervously at me. It was a young king, the first born that season. Then it was on to see another female adult king who chose to ignore us, turning her back on us as she ate. However, even this was useful as it allowed me to get shots of the triple line pattern on her back, which is so characteristic of King Cheetah.
At the end of the tour Erika asked us if we wanted to see anything else. I decided immediately that it had to be another meeting with Shaka and I enjoyed a happy ten minutes, photographing one of the rarest and most beautiful cats in the world.
Cheetah with a caught lure, Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2021
This quest happened in 2012. Since then my wife and myself have been proud to adopt two King cheetahs, firstly Jongozi, a large breeding male, and latterly, Joules a sweet female who is an ambassador for the breed and is taken into schools to educate children.