We first saw her sitting on a mound of earth beneath several trees. The trees shaded her from the searing heat and sun of the Liuwa (lee-u-wah) Plains of western Zambia, and the mound provided a visual advantage to prevent a sneak attack from a predator, as well as a place from which to spot prey.
“She’s fat,” I exclaimed to our guide, named Innocent, who when asked declared he was—indeed—innocent.
I adjusted my binoculars, noticed the tracking collar which means she’s in a research study. I took another look. Her abdomen rose and dropped with her inhales and exhales as she leisurely scanned the land, looking dignified. To my untrained eye, I assumed she was stuffed with wildebeest, maybe a gazelle, or a zebra. I would not have guessed she was pregnant. Later I learned, her three-month gestation period could produce 3-5 cubs, rarely more. Once she gives birth, her offspring are most vulnerable to lions, but vultures, eagles, jackals, even wild dogs will snatch her cubs. Regrettably, a high percentage of newborns suffer a lack of genetic diversity, resulting in weak immune systems and a short life. In spite of her best effort to hide her cubs, statistically, she’s not likely to raise them from birth to adulthood. Depending on who I read, anywhere from 70% to 90% of cheetah cubs do not survive in the wild.
Convinced she would be laying low until closer to sundown, Innocent drove off looking for whatever and whoever was ready to present themselves for our curious eyes. I turned to watch until I could see her no more, knowing I wished only to track her for as long as we could. Drawn to her, I needed to watch her movements, understand her hunting skills. If I could I would crawl inside her head and see the world through her keen black eyes. It bothered me she was alone and pregnant, but that’s the fate of a female. Males form small groups improving their hunting chances. Females hook-up with the opposite sex for mating purposes only. My thoughts remained with “my girl,” as Innocent returned us to the brand-new King Lewanika (Loo-wah-knee-ka) Lodge and breakfast.
Late afternoon we drove off to continue our search, figuring the cheetah would be rested and hungry. Innocent looked for long grasses, and herd animals especially those feeding by themselves at a distance from the main group. Our cheetah was apparently hunting, but we couldn’t see her. With vultures circling above and landing we drove closer to investigate. A baby wildebeest lay in the sparse grasses, most of its’ flesh being digested in the stomach of a predator. We don’t know who was responsible for the initial kill; maybe it was our cheetah, but not likely. White-backed vultures with wingspans as long as I am tall dominate the sky like a squadron of fighter planes. Graceful though ugly, vultures look like they’re wearing fury leggings. Noisy and protective of “their” kill they poke at one another jostling for position, squawking and threatening, doing their best to pluck the remnants of muscle and skin from the bones of the carcass. Competition is stiff for bits of meat and sinew and gets more heated with the arrival of the lappet-faced vultures.
During the return to camp, I was quiet. A surprise encounter with lions in no hurry to hunt distracted my attention long enough to snap a few photos. Quickly I returned to ruminating on a name for my cheetah. For research purposes, maybe it’s better to remain detached by giving a study participant a number. But this cheetah had sparked something inside me. I wanted to give her a name.
Carol, popped into my mind and instantly felt right. By the time we arrived in camp, Innocent and Dennis agreed. Curious, I searched out the meaning of Carol. In Gaelic and American, the meaning of the name is champion. In English, it means manly, strong, song of happiness. A perfect description of my girl, out there somewhere, conscious of danger; hunger and rustling grasses her only nighttime companions. I hope tomorrow will be a better day for hunting, Carol.
The following morning, we grabbed a cup of coffee, binoculars, sunhats, and water, piled into the Range Rover to head out into the cool air and silence of the grasslands. The sun had yet to make a full appearance. Whenever we leave camps, wherever we are on this gigantic continent, I study the treetops. It’s common to see hawks and other birds of prey searching the landscape for food in the early morning. Out here, it seems you’re either food or searching for food. How dramatic are the differences between we humans and our animal origins. I go to the market; I pick up food, I eat. I’m not on constant alert for danger, and I don’t fear for my life. The produce manager may get annoyed with me squeezing the avocados, but he doesn’t set a trap in aisle six and take me down. In the wild, it’s a full-time job to feed oneself. For every effort expended to eat, there is a counter effort not to be eaten. It’s a dance of wills and agility with strength in numbers advantageous to survival.
But, my Carol is solitary and pregnant. I have no clue what it’s like to be either a mom or a cheetah! I don’t try to be rational and distance myself from Carol; I don’t want to. I’m not a wild animal (some might disagree), but I am vigilant, not exactly like Carol, but watchful, nevertheless. It’s hard for me to relax. I’m conscious of every detail, super-sensitive to smells, sounds, touch, voice inflections, facial expression, body language, even medications. I wear my nervous system on the outside of my body.
Recently I felt validated reading a book by Dr. Elaine Aaron, who has been studying people like me for twenty years. I am what’s called a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), as described in Dr. Aaron’s book by the same name. By the end of the first paragraph, I knew I was reading my life story. Oh, how I’ve tried to rearrange myself, tried to fit in. As Dr. Aaron implies, with only 15% of the population being exquisitely sensitive those with the trait can or are made to feel different and not necessarily in a good way. Preston Ni, wrote in Psychology Today, “Highly sensitive people often feel too much and too deep.” There’s an upside to being highly sensitive, however. HSP’s tend to be thinkers and planners, philosophers, empathic listeners, and often creative.
Carol sticks in my mind the way super-glue clings to whatever it touches. In her I see a being who moves, eats, drinks, reproduces, and sleeps, exactly as she is designed. She doesn’t have the dubious mental capability to think or desire to be anyone other than who she is. She doesn’t have to rearrange herself to feel accepted or normal. Here, on the vast plains, in the mountains, under the equatorial sun, beneath the night sky of sparkling splendor, around muddy waterholes, in the trees and rivers, this land has grabbed me like the gentle, firm grip of a mama lion’s mouth
disciplining her babies. I felt directed by Spirit to move here. I’m glad I listened, equally gratified Dennis was an eager and willing partner in this adventure. Africa has provided the context for teaching me a thing or two about my thinking, the way I am as a human being rather than a human doing. My consciousness has been expanded, the raw truth of my life revealed.
We settled in to watch Carol on this morning. Her movements so stealthy the grasses did not move as she approached several springboks and multiple wildebeests. Each time something went haywire, and her efforts were thrwarted. Tension filled the air as we held onto hope the springbok would stop sniffing the air and return to grazing, and the wildebeest would cease his constant alarm snorting. Shut-up, you big, black, hulking piece of biltong (a dried meat delicacy for Africans). Carol failed time and time again. Still, she persisted.
Primed for a success, we watched helplessly and hopefully as she made one more attempt to snag a baby wildebeest. The mother and another adult cow stood nearby, grazing. It is possible Carol could split the cows and bring down the baby, who is less likely to keep up with the running adults, and no match for a swift-footed cheetah. Innocent who has watched this far more often than we, thinks this effort looks more promising than previous attempts. He’s optimistic. Maybe this time.
We all sat on the edge of our seats, binoculars pressed to our eyes, watching as she hunkered even lower to the ground, and moved like a furry snake toward her prey. Seamlessly camouflaged by the dry yellow grasses, she knows to approach downwind, so her potential meal is unaware of her smell. Once close enough, she’ll explode with speed to startle her prey. In spite of cheetahs being the fastest land animals, they make a kill only one time in ten attempts.
The wind flipped the long, thin manes of the wildebeest every-which-way. Before the wildebeest sensed what was happening, Carol burst from her cover picking up speed at a breathtaking rate. In a matter of seconds, she was beside the mother and another female, who had sheltered the baby between them. Everyone kicked-up dust as they ran for their lives. From a distance, it appeared Carol could cut-in and make a kill. I don’t eat wildebeest, but I could taste it for her. The collective gasp from Innocent, Dennis, myself, and our spotter, Kwalela (Qua-lay-la) was probably heard back at the lodge.
“What happened?” I cried out in disbelief.
Because we have to keep our distance so as not to interfere, we had a hard time determining the sequence of events. Fortunately, Innocent videoed the chase with my phone. After many reviews and intense discussion, we concluded the mother had kicked Carol pushing her out of the way. One baby wildebeest lived to see another day, while the mother stood bellowing, scolding her calf’s attacker. Meanwhile, Carol turned away, panting. Her pregnant condition was not helping, slowing her down. If ever there was a time she needed food, it was now. Reluctantly we gave up the tracking, along with Carol, who retired to the shade for a rest. We never saw her eat. Our time on the Liuwa Plains would be over the next morning.
In mid-December, earlier than Innocent had predicted, Carol birthed her cubs. Dennis and I high-fived like we were celebrating the birth of a four-legged grandchild. If I had bubble-gum cigars, I’d have handed them to everyone I met that day. The delicate management of Carol’s young had begun. Cheetah moms stash their cubs in what they think is a safe place, and can be gone for 24 hours or more, hunting. Defenseless, the cubs wait for their mother to return. At the six to eight-week period, when the cubs can see better, are stronger, they begin to follow their mom for short distances. Innocent has reported seeing Carol hunt and make kills. Winter rains have deluged the area where her youngsters were born thirteen weeks ago. No one has a clue how many cubs she birthed, or if a single one has survived.