The Cheetah: Offspring of the wind

This is my last post from our Halsey Street house: today we move to a much smaller flat, close to a wonderful overgrown Victorian cemetery, where I have hopes of finding some wildlife in due course. For now, though, I am not yet done with Kenya!

The Maasai Mara has a relatively high density of cheetahs, but there are still only 1.28 cheetahs per 100* The grasslands stretch for miles, and the grass is very high in April, so they are hard to see.


After a day and half of searching, we stopped on a rise for a better view, and to use the binoculars. Then, in the far distance Lemeria saw one, helpfully reclining on top of a rock, with a full belly, having a good groom:



That wide-bridged nose, above,  contains extra-large nasal passages for their bursts of speed. They can only sustain a sprint for 30 seconds before having to rest to catch their breath, but they reach up to 70 mph.

They have an impressive-looking set of teeth, below, but in fact their teeth are not nearly as large and powerful as a lion’s, and they can only kill their prey by biting the neck to suffocate the animal. You can see the carnassial teeth, which are modified molars or premolars which are adapted to allow for the shearing (rather than tearing) of flesh to permit the more efficient consumption of meat.


After a while, the cheetah got up:


And wandered slowly towards some distant trees in search of a shady spot for a nap. He strolled past a herd of elephants, then off into the golden grass.



* The density estimate is based on recent work by Femke Broekhuis, of Oxford University’s Mara Cheetah project.

Postscript: I couldn’t  resist including this extract, from which my title is stolen:

“The poets and eloquent ones have excelled in their descriptions of cheetahs, both in poetry and prose. For example, this hunting epistle by Abu Ishaq al-Sabı:

“We had with us cheetahs darting like lightning, faster than arrows loosed at a deserter, more intelligent than lions, more cunning than foxes, stealthier than scorpions, lank-hipped and empty-bellied, dappled of frame. Red-cornered slits for eyes, open mouths, broad brows and wide necks, baring teeth like spear heads. The cheetah spies the gazelle at great distance, knows its sounds, tracks its droppings and resting places, scents its musk.”

“Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Siraj described it thus:

Snarling mouth and paw possess
Cutting swords and slender spears
Night and day both claim a share of it
Cloaked in its pebble-printed garment
And the sun, ever since they nicknamed it the gazelle
Has risen over this watcher with dread.

“Ibn al-Muʿtazz said:

It hunts but with a single bound
Flying on four outsized legs
Of all the wind’s offspring, it is the resplendent one
Trailing its tail on the ground

It clings to the neck of its prey

Like the embrace of a spurned lover
When its enemy sees it chasing behind
Its conscience whispers words of perdition into its ear

From The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri; edited and translated by Elias Muhanna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation, abridgement, introduction, and notes copyright © 2016 by Elias Muhanna.

Translated from the Arabic by Elias Muhanna.

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