Big Cats of the Mara: Then and Now

Big Cats of the Mara

Part One: Malaika the Cheetah

In November 2014 I spent some time in the Maasai Mara National Reserve staying in two of the private conservancies that border the park. The 35,000 acre Olare Motorogi Conservancy is owned by 277 Maasai landowners in partnership with five tourism operators. It has abundant wildlife and a very low visitor footprint restricted to the five operating camps, including the one I called home for four days, Kicheche Bush Camp. The wonderful thing about staying in the conservancy is that there is far less traffic moving about and even a great sighting will have a significantly lower number of vehicles.

malaika with her cheetah cubs by NJ WightDuring my stay last year I was fortunate to meet Malaika and her 5 cheetah cubs on a day drive to the National Reserve. Malaika, meaning “angel” in KiSwahilli, is the daughter of Kike, a cheetah well known to many who watch the Big Cat Diaries. I was lucky to see Malaika with her 5 very young cubs (her original litter was 6) which were probably about 3-4 months old at the time. I had two sightings with her family and had a great time photographing them as the cubs burned some energy and kicked up some dust.


Wild Cheetah Status

In 1970 the wild cheetah population was estimated at about 15,000. Today, the numbers are half of that, with approximately 7,500 cats living in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and East Africa. In Kenya, cheetahs are now only seen across 23% of their historical geographical range. (For more information visit Mara-Meru Cheetah project) Cheetahs have a very tough life in the wild and Malaika was going to have her work cut out for her keeping these five young cats alive. The mortality rate for cheetah cubs in the wild is estimated between 75%-90%, with half falling victim to predators. While they are formidable hunters that can reach top speeds of  70kmph, they are small cats by comparison averaging about 56kg, and it is not unusual for a solitary female to lose her kills to much larger lion and hyena. Cheetahs are built for speed, not for fighting. The cubs are very vulnerable to attack and she will move them every couple of days to try to keep them safe. So, I knew when I left last year that Malaika would be faced with a great challenge and that the odds of her raising her cubs to adulthood were stacked against her.

Malaika in 2015

When I returned to the Mara this month, photographing Malaika with her cubs was very high on my wish list. To improve my chances with cheetah sightings I stayed inside the reserve for 3 nights at Alex Walker’s Serian Nkorombo camp along the rushing Mara river. Game drives in the reserve can be quite different than in the conservancies with far more traffic roaming the park and greater restrictions on driving off-road. But that did not deter my guide James from getting me up close with Malaika and her family once again.

We spotted her quite far in the distance on our first drive into the reserve. She has 3 cubs with her now, around 15 months old. One cub died and another was recently separated from the family. However, during my visit we heard there had been sightings of the lost cub and the hope is he is managing to take care of himself on his own. Cheetahs will generally stay with their mother for about 15-24 months but will not be mature hunters until around the age of 3. These cubs are definitely learning the ropes from a Mother that is a dominant hunter and has succeeded thus far at keeping her remaining family healthy.


Malika with cubs by NJWight

On my second morning we left camp just before sunrise and we were lucky to spot the family after a short drive, just as the sun was coming up.  The cubs were active, moving around and beginning to welcome the day. A few half-hearted attempts at chasing warthogs served as a warm-up for what lay ahead.


After moving out into the open plain, in the space of 3o minutes they had successfully brought down a baby gazelle, followed by a scrub hare. It is never easy to see any animal die, but it was very encouraging to see these young, endangered animals having great success learning to take care of themselves. The speed and distance they were covering however, made it a challenge to photograph!


Malika's cheetah cubs huntingIt was quite interesting to observe that after catching the young animal they did not immediately kill it, but rather, they sat with it for several minutes possibly catching their breath. Only moments after they had finished with this kill, they walked through a small patch of tall grass surprising a scrub hare. As it darted off, two of the cheetahs were very quick to pursue. Within moments, a second, much smaller meal was secured.

cheetah cubs hunting by NJWight

cheetah hunting a hare by NJ Wight

And after a good meal it was time to for a little grooming.

cheetah cubs grooming by njwight

I feel very blessed to have been able to see these cats on two separate trips a year apart and to learn more of their story to know their story. Hopefully they will stay healthy and will continue to thrive in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Perhaps one day we shall meet again…


Malaika's cubs in 2014   Maliaka and her cheetah family ©njwight


Available now! NJ Wight’s WIld! Life 2016 calendar: The Young Ones

For more on cheetah’s take a look at When Cheetah’s Kill: Through a Photographers Eyes

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Hornbills Make Me Happy!

The Real Zazu


Zazu, the majordomo to Mafusa and Simba in The Lion King, was a diginified but jittery red-billed hornbill. I cannot think of a more inspiring bird to base an animated character on–so elaborate and unusual-bursting with personality! Hornbills are one of my very favourite feathered subjects to photograph in Africa. During my travels to the southern and eastern parts of the continent, the distinctive schnozollas of the yellow billed, red billed, gray billed, ground hornbill, crowned hornbill(above) and the Von der Decken hornbill have all found thier way into my viewfinder. I never tire of watching them and look forward to making more images with these flying African icons.

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Blood Moon Over Montreal

I am not a night sky photographer but I thought it would be fun to try to photograph last night’s spectacular lunar eclipse.  There was quite a bit of light pollution where I was, including a street light off to the side of my balcony, but the skies were clear and the view of the blood moon over Montreal was spectacular. I had the Canon 100-400 F4-5.6 L ll with the 1.4x extender on the 5D Mlll. When it started to get a little darker I took the extender off to gather more light. By the final shots I was shooting at f5.6, 1/30 and ISO 3200. So, lots of noise. I did not want to risk any slower shutter speeds as the moon is moving and I felt I was risking some motion blur. Manual focus became more challenging as the shadow crossed the surface. It was lots of fun and worth the effort–can’t wait for the next one.

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Happy World Rhino Day!

A Memorable Moment to Celebrate World Rhino Day

During a 2013 visit to South Africa I was blessed with several remarkable opportunities to photograph white rhinos. Given their solitary and secretive nature, they are not easily found, at times requiring some serious off-road searching. So that is just what we did at both Kirkmans Kamp and the award-winning Leadwood Lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve–a brilliant destination for Africa’s Big 5! The efforts paid off and over a five day period I photographed rhinos five different times. However, one sighting was uniquely memorable and serves as the celebratory subject for this World Rhino Day post.


Little Shrek in the Sabi Sands

It was on a very dull and damp afternoon game drive, sitting huddled, hands nestled in my armpits while stealing glimpses through the dense forest, that I thought I spotted a mother and baby rhino. They were across the river and their distinct gray forms stood out against the light sand. My ranger pulled up quickly, and, confirming my suspicions threw the truck into reverse looking for the nearest spot to pull a u-turn. We veered off-road and headed straight down a steep bank and into the river, water inches from my foot propped up on the doorjam. When we reached the sandy flats on the other side we pulled up just meters away from a four month old white rhinoceros who was doing his very best to nap in the sand. With Mom grazing closeby, the little guy was intent on catching a few winks…and might have succeeded if not for a persistent oxpecker searching out some tasty parasitic snacks. When the red-beaked bird started digging around in the little guy’s ear, he finally lifted his chin and gave his head a little shake. Those giant ears stood at attention–unusually tall, pointed, and slightly fringed around the edge–they quickly earned him the nickname Little Shrek! This was absolutely one of the most endearing little wild creatures I had ever seen and the 20 minutes I spent with him were pure joy.


Luckily for me, Little Shrek didn’t have much of a horn protruding forward. The light was low and I was looking to capture his entire body in focus, so depth of field could not be sacrificed. Shutter speeds had to be quite slow, so I was very glad this little guy was a little sleepy and slow. I was left pushing the ISO on the 5D Mlll to 2500, which ended up being quite workable with some noise filtering.

Young white rhino napping

Wanting to capture a different perspective and to get as low an angle as possible on his little prehistoric face, I wedged myself between the seats and stretched out on the floor, steadying the 400 F4 DO on the doorless opening of the Land Rover. Little Shrek, still new to the concept of a symbiotic relationship, endured the bouncing and digging oxpecker for about four more minutes before rousing himself to shake it off for good. Provoked from his nap he made his way back towards Mom to graze. Gaining confidence in her presence, he gave us a courageous mock charge–which was more like a delightful little happy dance–and then he had himself a little dinner.


The Happy Dance!

After spending 20 minutes or so with the two of them, the light was almost gone and they were grazing towards the thickets, so we headed back to camp very happy to have seen this healthy youngster. To this day, it stands out as one of the most magical sightings I have had travelling in Africa. I am so grateful to have seen such a rare animal in such a relaxed moment and to have been able to sit quietly with him for such a long time. I often wonder if he is still alive and wandering the Sabi Sands. He would be almost two and a half years old now and just starting to live on his own.

Sadly, his chances of survival are not very good. The rhino numbers continue to plummet in South Africa, where almost 80% of the rhino population lives. 2014 was a record breaking year for poaching, with 1215 rhinos slaughtered. 2015 is not fairing much better and as of the end of August the death toll is at 749. (Save the Rhino)


I cannot imagine a world without these iconic creatures. And yet, this could happen–in my lifetime. The white rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal in the world–it is a symbol of wild Africa–and it is disappearing. If a safari is something you long to experience one day, I urge you not to wait. Go now. Go while elephants and rhinos still wander the plains.

Go…before it is too late.

To find out more about rhinos and how you can help keep them safe, visit the following organizations:

Save The Rhino

World Wildife Federation

African Wildlife Federation

For more of my rhino photography adventures, please read: World Rhino Day:Tales from a Photographer


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