For its programme called ‘Big Cat Diaries’ the BBC followed the trials and tribulations of three big cat mothers (a lioness, a female leopard and a female cheetah) bringing up their cubs on the wild savannahs of the Masai Mara Conservancy in Kenya. For an emotional engagement with their viewers, names were given to each of the big cat mothers by the filming crew, the female cheetah being named Honey.
She had four cubs in that litter, one female and three males. However, lions killed the female cub and only the three brothers remained who were around six months old at the time of the filming of that episode. Lions are known to attack and to kill leopards and cheetahs, as also hyenas, if the opportunity arises in order to reduce competition from other predators, it is believed. To set the record straight, the other predators would be equally willing to kill unprotected lion cubs for the same reason.
Sometime after the filming had ended, in 2007 one of the cubs had an injury and the Masai Mara Conservancy authorities, through the vet stationed there, decided to treat it and for that purpose found it desirable to sedate the mother to keep her from attacking them. The cub was treated with the mother lying unconscious out in the sun for several hours. She was in distress even after gaining consciousness and died soon after. The anaesthetic dart, it appears, had damaged her liver, though the park officials never put out any statement on the cause of her death although post mortem was done.
There was a huge public outcry against the very choice of intervention with creatures living in the wild. My personal opinion is that with shrinking wild habitats and numbers, there is a case for a degree of management of wildlife to help in their continued survival. But management is always with certain objectives. Such management will invariably be from the perspective of the welfare of certain individuals or species and may, even if unintentionally, affect other individuals or life forms in that environment in an adverse manner. The very desirability of selective intervention in a landscape that we do not fully understand remains a contentious issue.
Though an official version was never put out in the public domain, the park officials felt that the three remaining cubs had a fair chance of survival on their own and decided to let them remain in the wild instead of removing them to a zoo or a breeding facility. It is believed that occasionally food was also provided to them as a supplement, given their lack of experience in independent hunting being around a year old and several months short of their normal age of dispersal. Against the odds, perhaps, all of these three brothers survived and were given the names of M1, M2 and M3.
Insecure on being deprived prematurely of their mother’s care, the three brothers stuck close to each other and a strong bond developed between them. Female cheetahs in captivity have been known to form coalitions and even share maternal responsibilities; in the wild they mostly lead a solitary existence unlike lionesses. It is instead the male cheetahs that are often seen in a coalition in the wild. They are usually male litter mates but sometimes unrelated males are also accepted into the coalition. Larger numbers give the coalition a capacity to control extensive territories with the consequent enhancement of their breeding success.
By the time we saw them in 2010 the Honey’s Boys were around four years of age and a formidable coalition. Unlike solitary cheetahs hunting mostly the relatively smaller Thomson’s gazelle and impala, these three brothers operating together as a well coordinated unit were successfully bringing down much larger prey including the wildebeest, topi and the occasional zebra. They were also able to terrorise and to keep other male cheetahs out of their territory.
All good stories, as is often the case in the wilderness, usually have a sad ending. Lions killed M2 in 2011 and then M1 in 2013. The last that we heard of them was in December 2013 when the sole survivor M3, after a successful hunt, was seen calling out to his brother to share the meal. Lost track of him after that. The spotlight had moved on, and only the legend remains. We were fortunate to have seen them in their prime.