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February 18, 2019

The power of total focus

CHEETAH FAMILY: Cheetah mother scanning the plains.
CHEETAH FAMILY: Cheetah mother scanning the plains.

“Very occasionally, if you pay really close attention, life doesn't suck.”

― Joss Whedon

These questions go to those who have been working in the field as wildlife guides, and those who frequent wildlife sanctuaries for either business or leisure. How many times have you seen a kill?

How many times have you seen, say, a cheetah hunt, from the beginning to the end? What goes on in your mind when you watch especially, the start of the hunt, when the predator has seen the prey and the planning starts?

I was with tourists in several vehicles in the Mara and we were watching a cheetah mother with cubs, which was evidently hungry, by the look of its deflated stomach. She was walking slowly, to set the pace for the young cubs to follow.

She stopped time and again to scan the horizon for anything that looked edible. There were many zebras and topis (an antelope species) scattered in the plains but they were not interesting to her.

They were either too large for her to kill, or too fast for her to catch. So she ignored the presence of the grazers and kept walking. Some tourist guides decided to go for breakfast and come later.

I clearly heard some of them telling their clients that the process of the hunt is very boring in the beginning and they should skip that. That after an hour or so, the cheetah mother would find a gazelle and she may hunt.

That would be the right time to come and see the hunt. To them, the sheer speed of a hunting cheetah was the best thing to show the client. I was thinking differently. To me, every moment of a cheetah hunt is as important as the next.

The sighting, the preparation, the choice, the run, the capture or the failure thereof to capture, all are very important and interesting to watch. Indeed, if we were to pay really close attention to life in general, it doesn’t suck at all. Life is good and interesting when you pay attention to it.

As soon as most vehicles drove back to the lodge for tourists to have breakfast, it was as though the cheetah mother was waiting for that to happen. When she found she was surrounded by three vehicles, then only one, my van, she chose that moment to start serious search for food.

She started walking purposely and watching the horizon more keenly. Each time she came across a high ground, be it a termite hill or a large rock, she would give a warning to the cubs to remain on the ground as she climbed the rock or the termite hill.

That was the interesting part most guides missed. The art of communication between the mother cheetah and the cubs. The cubs would obey the commands like a regiment of an army to their commanders.

They would crouch and hide in the grass close to the high ground and watch mama up there looking for a meal for all of them. When mama does not see anything, she would give thumbs up to move on, and the cubs would oblige.

At one point, the mother climbed up a large stone and suddenly froze. She had seen something useful. A soft growl sent the cubs scampering for a hiding place. They knew mum has work to do.

They stayed down even when the mother seemed undecided on the next action. I made sure to look at the face and the body action of the mother at this time. She kept on flexing her muscles, especially of the rear limbs. What didnt change, was her gaze.

One could see that her gaze was fixed. The eyes never wandered for a moment, in any direction. She was looking straight at her choice, and her attention was locked. Focus, focus, and great focus. Life is interesting indeed.

It is when she started running that I noticed she was headed to a large group of wildebeests who were moving together, with juveniles beside the adults. One of the young gnus would find that he had been chosen for lunch. The cheetah mother made the run in less than five seconds.

As she entered the group, she passed other young gnus at a very close range, but she never lost her sight of the one she had chosen. When she finally brought down her choice meal, I was left dumbfounded. Her choice was right in the middle of the group. He never saw it coming. Such is the power of total focus.

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