Article by Arthur Edward Ahrens
A student photographer since September 2018, I regularly visit the Rietvlei Nature Reserve in Pretoria to take photos. Although it’s not a recognised SAN Parks Reserve, it’s well known for having a variety of wildlife, among them cheetahs: An adult female cheetah (and later a male) was introduced to the reserve. Later, four cheetah cubs were born and raised to a point where they could hunt for themselves.
On 21 February 2019, I headed out to the reserve once more. It was a typical Gauteng summers afternoon with high humidity and threatening thunderstorms. As I arrived, several visitors were fleeing from the heavy rain.
After a 2 km or so drive, I found the four young cheetahs sheltering under a nearby tree. They were wet and huddled together for warmth. Occasionally, they licked each other and tried shaking off excess rainwater.
I myself struggled to keep dry and resorted to covering my lens with a plastic sleeve and opening my car window only slightly. The rain eventually stopped and the young cheetahs stood up, yawned, stretched some and began to move around. They made little effort at concealing themselves from the wildebeest, blesbuck and zebras on the high ground behind them.
I made a U-turn and went up a side road catching only glimpses of one cheetah. At a long distance, I could only watch a young cheetah stalk and chase a blesbuck, but the cheetah was unsuccessful. A few minutes later, three cheetahs moved back towards the location where I found them first. I immediately drove back and managed to take photos of them before settling down in the long grass. I kept wondering where the fourth cheetah was? I kept my camera ready and rechecked my ISO settings (since the light kept changing due to overhanging clouds) and reviewed my previous photos.
I was scanning the grass when I felt the adrenaline kick in so to speak. Moving towards me at high speed was a large male blesbuck and, about 30 m behind it, the lone cheetah! And they were moving directly towards the three young cheetahs lying in the grass. I lifted my camera and began to shoot in Continuous High (Ch) mode. With blood rushing through my veins I tried remembering what my photographer mentor had taught about fast-moving objects.
The cheetah closed in and struck the blesbuck from behind but a clean takedown didn’t immediately result, which presented a very real danger for the cheetah. The cheetah then moved towards the neck area, but the buck managed to stand up. The cheetah then jumped and landed between the buck’s horns and this time, bit into its neck. A second cheetah came from the rear and jumped onto the buck’s rump area, then a third joined the attack also biting into the buck’s neck.
Eventually, the buck collapsed and the leading cheetah grasped the bucks throat area. A while later the buck lied motionless. The fourth cheetah wasn’t as active in the takedown. All of the cheetahs were visibly out of breath and appeared to rest for a short while before commencing to eat. The cheetahs would feed a little, then move a short distance away and return later to feed some more. I just kept hoping that I was freezing the action as best I could and that my camera would do the rest.
And it did – my Nikon D7000 performed well as did my Tamron 150-600mm lens, proving that its autofocus (AF) was quick enough to capture these photos. This entire sequence of photos took close to three and a half hours to capture, and I experienced some muscle cramp in my left arm as the lens was rather heavy. I probably needed some stabilising equipment although, in hindsight, I’m not sure that it would’ve resulted in better shots. Growing tired, I made a few errors like resting my lens on a bean bag and inadvertently losing my Continuous AF mode. Still, I used Aperture Priority Mode with some settings saved in U2 and was able to capture these animals in action. I used Photoshop to edit a few of the best photos.
My photos are the last of two successful recorded cheetah kills in 2019, since the Rietvlei Nature Reserve no longer keep any cheetahs in the reserve.