There are many glorious sights on the Serengeti, but nothing is as exhilarating as watching a cheetah in pursuit of its prey.
The cheetah’s body is built for aerodynamic speed: light bones, long, thin legs, short neck, enlarged heart, lungs, and nostrils, and more. Clocked as the fastest land animal, they can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph). They can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in three seconds.
Acinonyx jubatus pursue many different kinds of prey, depending on where they live. The cheetahs featured here are residents of the Serengeti, and gazelles are their prey of choice.
In hunting, cheetah use their sense of vision rather than smell. They possess a concentrated band of nerve cells in the center of their eyes, enhancing the visual sharpness, like binoculars. Of all the felids, this visual band is the most concentrated and efficient in the cheetah.
The cat begins stalking within 330 to 980 feet (100-300m) of prey. They prefer some kind of earthly cover–trees or tall grass–giving them a chance to stay hidden and unseen. If there is no cover, they slowly, patiently, and methodically inch closer. Their camouflage in the tall, golden grass is an asset.
When the prey is within reach, the cheetah starts galloping. If the herd has not yet become aware, the cheetah has won an extra moment.
Within seconds, the herd of gazelles bolts and scatters. At this point the cheetah sprints, never faltering, with an individual in its crosshairs.
You might think at this point, that the gazelle is going to lose, because the cheetah’s extraordinary swiftness and prowess are unmatchable.
With that lanky, light body stretched out completely, and limbs of pure muscle, the cheetah achieves moments of being airborne. Ears pressed back, face set in dogged determination…they run like the wind.
But this bodily expenditure is of great cost to a cheetah, and can only be achieved in short bursts.
A gazelle may not have the speed of a cheetah, but they are a swift and nimble creature. The gazelle being chased can turn sharply, running in a zig-zag line…something the cat cannot do at high speed.
If the gazelle can continue to run this jagged path for about a minute, the cat runs out of steam, slows down, and the chase is aborted.
While I love watching the cheetah fly across the landscape in deadly pursuit, I must confess I am always relieved when the gazelle escapes.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander. All in Tanzania.