How do cheetahs learn to hunt? Welcome to Cheetah School!

It’s November and I’m Kenya’s world-famous Masai Mara National Reserve. As we enter the Short Rains, equatorial heat and morning sunshine repeatedly give way to torrential afternoon downpours and steely grey skies. The herds are dwindling as herds of The Great Migration head south, following the rains and fresh pastures. Accompanying the herds, nomadic cheetahs prey on fawns and calves within the migrating masses.

Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsoni)
Gazelles standing on horizon with blue storm cloud. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₅₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

It can be easy pickings for these astonishing predators. Although wildebeest calve together in the Southern Serengeti in February, the gazelles give birth throughout the migration and cheetahs can often be found nearby the scattered groups of nursing Thomson’s gazelles. New and expecting gazelle mothers loosely dot areas of short grass, grazing and keeping watch for lurking predators.

Thomson's Gazelle (Gazella thomsoni)
Female Thomson’s gazelle (Gazella thomsoni), pulling placenta off newborn fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and EF600 mm ƒ/4L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

Newborn fawns are tiny and their only real defence is that they are practically odourless – remaining perfectly still, curled-up in tufts of grass. We spotted a fawn dithering and stumbling across the grass. Perhaps this particular fawn’s mother had been killed and it was hungry, but for some reason it decided to trot across an area of very short grass – cropped to the root by the migrating herds. A fawn exposing itself out on these plains is a death sentence.

Caution: Some viewers may find these images distressing
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Cheetah mother (Acinonyx jubatus) and juvenile male at rest on termite mound in pouring rain. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Nearby, a cheetah with her grown cub were resting on a termite mound. Through my 600mm lens, it was clear that the cub had an issue with its left eye. Whether it was an injury or infection, it was doubtful the young cheetah could see properly, but it certainly seemed well fed. Both cheetahs were alert and staring straight at the hapless fawn with deadly intent.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Juvenile male cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), carrying infant Tommy fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR at ¹⁄₄₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

In a matter of seconds, the adult female cheetah bounded over and nonchalantly grabbed the fawn by the neck and throttled it, but did not kill it. I thought it would be dispatched and scoffed like a Scooby-snack, but the cheetah simply held on to it. Apparently, she had other ideas. Quite playfully, the cheetah cub trotted over to inspect the meal and seemed a bit bemused why dinner was still kicking.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Juvenile male cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), learning to hunt, tripping infant Tommy fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

It was the first day of Cheetah School. The mother cheetah released the fawn and it sprang away. Out of pure instinct, the cub gave chase and flattened the fawn in a fumbled attempt at ‘the trip.’ He held up the kicking and bleating Tommy by the head and carried it back to his mother like a happy dog returning its owners ball.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Juvenile male cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), carrying infant Tommy fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR lens at ¹⁄₁₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

The mother cheetah let it run again… and again… and again. The pursuit was not difficult. A rapid cat chasing an exhausted and battered fawn. It was a short contest. In spite of its efforts, the cub could not fathom out how to deliver the death bite. It would mouth and drool over the fawn, but when the cubs attention was diverted, the fawn sprang away. You could almost sense the cat’s frustration.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 200

Eventually, the fawn succumbed to a death bite delivered by mother cheetah. She too seemed rather fed-up with her cub’s lack of competence. Cheetah School is hard. Hardest most on the fawns as they are nothing but running targets. This is nature in the raw and the reason we were in the Masai Mara – to see, to witness, to photograph.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Adult female mother and juvenile male cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) licking a freshly killed Tommy fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR lens at ¹⁄₃₂₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Although I have seen photographers rejoice and high-fiving over scenes like these, I am never ‘happy’ to see this kind of sighting play out, nor do I revel and rejoice in the photographic potential.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Juvenile male cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), learning to hunt a Tommy fawn, but playing with it instead. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 200

I think it is only human to feel for the fawns (or maybe that’s just the sentimental westerner speaking). However, emotional sentiment is equally tempered by the knowledge that the cheetahs also have to feed and this is the only way a young cheetah can learn. To our Western sentiments, life on the plains can seem utterly ruthless and savage for all.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Juvenile male cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), learning to hunt, leaping on infant Tommy fawn. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Masai Mara, Kenya with NIKON D3S and Nikkor AF-S 600mm ƒ/4 VR lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Over the next couple of days, the cheetah and her cub remained nearby, following the Tommy crèche, picking off the fawns that stood up alone and unaware. With each fawn, came more lessons in pursuit, tripping, and finally killing. The lack of a functioning eye was not impeding this young cheetah in the slightest. More a lack of urgency or finality when it came to the final death bite.