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Encounters of the furred kind: tracking cheetahs in Kenya’s Laikipia county

The sun-bleached plains of central Kenya are a dramatic backdrop for conservationists following the movements of one of Africa’s most elusive predators.

According to Jacob, cheetahs are the most challenging and elusive animals.

Photograph by Bronwyn Townsend
By Bronwyn Townsend
Published 27 Apr 2022, 06:15 BST

White-knuckled, I grip the barrel of my camera lens with my left hand. My right braces me, clutching the side of the jeep while I’m jostled about. My eyes water as cool morning air whips my face. I can feel the excitement brewing; like thousands of tiny ants crawling across my body, the adrenaline has taken hold. We’re fighting time and I hope we’re going to win.

A phone rings, breaking the stillness of dawn. Jacob, my guide, slows to answer. “Jambo,” he says, greeting the caller on the other end, but my limited Swahili leaves me lost after this. I sense the change in Jacob’s tone: his pace increases, I’m sure he’s asking questions, ear pressed to his phone as the engine of the Land Cruiser idles. Turning to me, Jacob announces there’s been a cheetah sighting.

“We haven’t seen him for around nine weeks,” he says. “But he’s just been spotted about 14km [nine miles] away. Hold on!” We shift into gear, picking up the pace, hitting every bump in the road carved by tyres and seasonal rains. A plume of copper-tinged dust kicks up behind us as we rejoin one of the main paths cleaving through Mugie Conservancy in Kenya’s Laikipia County. A flock of starlings launch from nearby branches, startled by the sudden commotion. 

According to Jacob, cheetahs are the most challenging and elusive animals. There’s only one collared cheetah here at Mugie — Zuri — and with only a few others in the region, sightings of the big cats across the almost 200sq mile expanse are rare. The conservancy plays a vital role in capturing information for the Cheetah Conservation Initiative, an Africa-wide programme that aims to coordinate the conservation of species such as cheetahs and African wild dogs. Zuri’s movements and behaviour provide a valuable insight into how animals use the region’s wildlife corridors.

Here on the eastern side of the conservancy, low-lying vegetation is sparse, spindly and bleached from the dry conditions. We pass herds of elephant and Thomson’s gazelle on their morning journey to the dam, sunlight crawling over acacia trees stripped bare by the tongues of giraffes. Just north of the Equator, sunrise is a swift — but beautiful — affair here. For less than two minutes, the fiery orange sun hangs above the horizon, soaking everything in shades of saffron and gold. 

As we hurtle across the plains, the dark face of a spotted hyena flickers between the shrubbery. Slowing down, we watch as more emerge from the foliage: two curious pups and three shy adults bathed in the early morning light. Heads low, their hunched bodies scuttle back into the bush. A pup, giving us one last piercing glance, dives into the den while mum keeps watch above ground. 

We reach the road running between the towns Rumuruti and Maralal, which separates the two sides of the conservancy. A weathered elephant skull greets us as we pass beneath a wooden arch into the western side, where the landscape transforms into a swathe of dense olive forests dotted with acacias. Wildlife sightings require more precision here, among the trees, although a herd of dainty, doe-eyed dik-dik — the smallest of the antelopes — catches our attention as they spring to the safety of thicker bush as we pass.

Suddenly, the landscape shifts again, the silver-green olive groves dissipating into a flat, treeless plain. Jacob slows down. We’re not far off now. “This is where they saw Zuri,” he says. “Keep your eyes peeled.”

We crawl along the dirt trail, our gaze laser-focused on the grass. Then, on our left, a small, delicate face peers out from behind a termite mound. Fur tinged by the sun frames his face like a halo. Edging slowly around the mound, a spotted, elongated body stretches out. 

I lock eyes with Zuri. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” I whisper to Jacob. Flicking his tail, the cheetah luxuriates in the warm morning air. He whips up from his perch, his beady brown eyes fixed on a target in the distance. It’s a warthog emerging from the shivering grass. Zuri is only a few hundred feet from her — she’s in easy range for the world’s fastest land animal. He toys with the idea, but decides against it, flopping back to his resting place. 

As we hurtle across the plains, the dark face of a spotted hyena flickers between the shrubbery.

Photograph by Bronwyn Townsend

We spend almost an hour in Zuri’s company, minutes passing like seconds. Jacob explains Zuri’s behaviour: the way he uses the termite mound as a vantage point over the flat plain and his tendency to pursue a semi-nomadic life as a lone male. Eventually, Jacob asks if I’m ready to make a move — a bush breakfast awaits. My stomach rumbling, I know the answer. But I’m so comfortable here; Zuri’s presence is calming

As we pull away, Zuri rises — paws stretched in front, back arched — before slinking off, his spotted body camouflaged against the rapidly shrinking shadows of the morning. I watch on, but he never glances back.

How to do it: As part of its Alfred& collection, Kuoni offers a 10-day Governors' Grand Safari from £4,895 per person, based on two people sharing, including one night in Nairobi, B&B; two nights at Lake Naivasha, full-board; three nights in the Maasai Mara and three nights at Governors' Camps Collection's newest property, Mugie House in Laikipia, all B&B; and all flights and transfers. 

Bronwyn was the winner of the Travel Writing Competition 2021. If you think you’ve got it what it takes to impress our editors – and be in with a chance of winning a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Greenland – read more on entering this year’s competition here.

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