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Out in the valley of the Maara, Cheetah is ready to rise. Yawns. Turns over belly up. Tucks her paws, cat-like, against the fuselage of her chest. That tail that is the length of her from hip to shoulder curls, and unwinds. And with the weightless grace of all her kind rolls, onto her paws and strolls in to the evening, that is day to her.
Hidden in the tall grass is a termite mound. She knows the place. Has used it before. Looks back. looks again (to be sure no one is watching) and in her long legged stride, climbs the steep sides and sits, head high, unblinking.
In these flat lands height is mountain and redoubt. Vantage point is safety. Line of sight, command. Seeing first determines who will eat today and who will not and whom among the seen… will be eaten. The crocodile at water’s edge pretending to be stone; leopard dropping from an overhanging limb without a sound; lion stalking close and stealthy on the plain, for each and every one the eye is life or death.
With Cheetah? The eye alone is not enough. Like light itself, Cheetah is a thing of speed! Speed is Cheetah’s second sight. Speed in short bursts is her edge, bright and sharp. Her claws wear, dulled and blunted to the stubby nails of a dog. Her jaws are weak, just wide enough for the small things she can run to ground. With Cheetah the chase is everything.
Cheetah owls her head: One side. The other side. Back again, searching. Nothing found she takes her time, stretches as she climbs down (hind legs and tail in the air, her belly low). Blade thin, she slips into the night like paper through the slot.
At a distance her head appears again, a spotted mask of light and dark, her stare as orange as the afterglow, her eyes unwavering.
The land turns black and white.
The grass whispers.
Cheetah is legend. For grace and speed and for beauty. Lithe and light she is lacking in the brute strength of the other great cats. Cheetah has her limits.
Cheetahs can only take small game – what they can both outrun and grab by the throat – and to do that they need a particular set of conditions. First and foremost space, but not just any space. Cheetah needs open space. And open space, thanks to human beings, is – like Cheetah – vanishing.
All around the Maasai Mara the land is being fenced in. Fences mean cattle and cattle are a head-to-head competitor of the worst kind. They take both grass and water from the game and in disproportionate amount – there are few grazing animals more inefficient than a cow, especially the rugged variety of the Maasai. The herders prize their cattle, and though their wrath is generally reserved for lions, they are instinctively wary of the great cats. Cows are wealth to Maasai, not just blood and milk and sometimes meat, but status. Fifty cows will always be better than twenty, one hundred better still. And for those who cannot afford cows there are goats, who chew the grasses right down to the root.
And every day more cattle.
And every day more fences.
Fences do not make good neighbors when Cheetah is your neighbor and that neighbor needs to roam.
Equally deleterious, Maasai are permitted to bring their cattle through the Mara for water during drought. Drought is now most or at least much of the time, and if the herder goes slowly, well, not his fault if the cows nibble along the way. The increasing number of cows, people, and lack of space and especially lack of water leads inevitably to conflict. A small shooting war is burgeoning in Kenya in the Laikipia as herders lash out at people they see as competitors for increasingly sparse resources.
Perhaps Maasai will learn to see their wealth as more broadly based than in cattle alone. But in order for that to happen, other means of wealth (and they do exist in Kenya) will have to be broadly shared.
But ultimately, if any part of the natural world is to survive there will have to be fewer humans.
Including us, including here.
African Wildlife Foundation is one of the premier African-run conservation organizations, whose mission includes local partnerships across Africa in an attempt to find ways that wildlife and people can coexist, each to the benefit of the other. To learn more visit: www.AWF.org
To hear my broadcast of Cat Vanishes, visit Living on Earth. It’s the last segment in the program: www.LOE.org
Eight feet tall…
At the edge of the Polar Ice seals and polar bears find their intersection. The seals are there to bear young. The bears are there to feed. I came to watch the show, above Svalbard, 571 miles from the North Pole .
I spotted Standing Bear lying down, flat out on her belly, as much of her body in contact with the ice as she could manage. Bears do that when overheated, or after over-eating. In this case both. One of those seal/bear convergences had recently taken place.
Resulting in one very well-fed, somewhat overheated sleepy polar bear. And in that the key to my encounter. For a hungry bear everything is business (and there were plenty of all-business bears that day). But Standing Bear had the luxury of all her basic needs well and fully met and as with people, it gave her license for higher order pursuits. Namely, curiosity.
There was still a trace of red on her chin and above her nose. She yawned and showed her teeth and her purple tongue. We were still a kilometer away and she looked briefly, then dozed off again. Clearly, the ship did not interest her. Something she had seen before.
When we were within three hundred meters she rolled over on her side and took notice. She had seen the movement on the decks. As she approached, and by degrees, her eyes grew wide. I am all but certain she had never seen a human being.
Why did she cross the rolling sea ice to meet my eyes and hold them the way she did? To study all of us the way she did? Except for the greater similarity within the difference between us. PolarBearMorphism?
Polar bears are chess players. They can plan their activities (notably hunting) in multiple steps which means they can visual outcomes, a skill we assume animals do not have. But they do. I know this for a fact, and it is what makes polar bears in particular, dangerous. One of their hunting techniques is indifference, not even looking at their intended prey, and when they do, feigning greater interest in something else. Sometimes, they will hunt you, too. But not always. Because with intelligence also comes personality, and variations in attitude. I would go so far as to say that I “trusted” Standing Bear. Not enough to try to touch her, but enough to assume her primary interest in me (as is sometimes the case) was recognition. I have had the great privilege to spend time with almost a hundred polar bears. Standing Bear was and will likely remain my favorite of all time.
The fieldwork for this story took place in Svalbard, with One Ocean Expeditions.
My prose essay, Standing Bear Comes in Peace, can be heard (or read) on PRI’s Living on Earth.
Just off the Antarctic Peninsula at 63°0’58” S 57°40’52” W, I encountered a tabular iceberg [an iceberg that looks like a huge tabletop]. By the position, I believe it to have been a fragment of the Larsen B Ice Shelf that broke up in 2002. But “fragment” doesn’t do justice to what I saw. Picture New York’s Central Park, made of ice, and 120 feet high.
To give you an idea of the scale, the Antarctic Petrels soaring in front of the leading edge of the berg have a wingspan of one meter! In order to take a photo of an entire side, I had to wait until our ship had steamed some miles past. The tabular iceberg that just separated from Larsen C is many orders of magnitude larger than the giant pictured here.
My 20 days of fieldwork in the Antarctic was hosted by One Ocean Expeditions.