Within minutes of driving past the fenced lands of the Maasai and Sekanani gate, we’re in the great Mara. The difference is stark: On one side is people, cattle and fences where until a decade ago there were few.
Giraffes browse on the desert date (mchunju) trees dotted on the golden grass plains of the savannah. The fig tree of the Mara is in flower after the rains but the grasses are turning coarse as the dry spell sets in. The afternoon game drive brings on the coalition of the famous five cheetah dubbed the Fast Five. They are sprawled on the road surrounded by tourist-filled vehicles.
Until the 1980s, cheetahs were thought to be solitary animals. I’m reading an article in Swara magazine, penned by cheetah researcher Dr Elena Chelysheva of the Mara-Meru Cheetah project, where she explains the phenomena.
Cheetah siblings stay together after the mother leaves them. When they reach sexual maturity, the females and males separate. Research now shows that male siblings form a lifelong union called a coalition.
A single cheetah has less chances of survival in an area with many cheetah coalitions. The coalition provides them with benefits like bringing down large prey like wildebeest. They are also better able to defend their territory and take care of each other. An example is of a male cheetah that had a skin irritation. His partner licked the affected area until the cheetah healed in a month. However, no one had ever recorded a coalition of five.
The Fast Five are not all siblings – it’s a brotherhood of strangers. They came to the Maasai Mara from the neighbouring Naboisho Conservancy in 2016 and since then, they have charmed many with their closeness, hunting as a group and looking out for each other.
In 2017, Chelysheva recorded an interesting incident: One of them got separated for the night. Early in the morning, one cheetah began to yelp, his sound carrying two kilometres around. He then went out in search of the missing cheetah and found him, bringing the group together again.
For many people, seeing five cheetahs and so many wild animals might look like their numbers are increasing in the reserve. It’s not the true picture. While animal densities may increase in an area, the actual population may be on the wane.
Cheetahs have been driven out of 91 per cent of their historic range where they once roamed in Africa and Asia. Today Eastern Africa holds the second largest cheetah population in the wild. On the other hand, the Asian population is extinct in the wild, ironic for India, the country that gave the cat its name (‘cheetah’ is derived from the Indian word ‘chitra’ meaning ‘spotted’). The global population today is 7,100 down from 14,000 in 1975.
Driving out through the Talek gate to camp for the night, the plains are alive with the high-pitched laughs and crackling of the hyenas. It’s another interesting clan.
The Mara Hyena project started by Dr Kay Holekamp of Michigan State University in 1988 shows that the satellite town of Talek, with its unplanned buildings, trash, livestock, motorbikes, tourist vehicles and camps — neighbours the most successful clan of hyenas. It is three times larger than the average clan, with 130 hyenas in an area covering 82 square kilometres, extending 12 km into the reserve from Talek.
The research reveals that while numbers of other large carnivores are declining around Talek because of human pressure, the vacuum is being filled by the Talek hyenas. Preying mostly on livestock has not charmed them to the Maasai. In the circle of life, we need the hyenas (and the vultures), for without them the Mara would be littered with rotten, disease-carrying carcasses.