Experiences With Chetahs
Excerpt from African Nature Notes and Reminiscences
by Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917)
Frederick Courteney Selous
We had just commenced to skin the wild dog I had shot when, on looking round, I caught the eye of one of the other two that was lying dead, as we had thought, at the foot of the tree, and instantly saw that it was alive. It must have been shamming dead all the time in order to recover its strength, as immediately it caught my eye it sprang to its feet and dashed off. Two shots were fired at it as it ran, but it got clean away, apparently none the worse for the worrying it had endured. The other one which had been caught by our dogs was not quite full-grown, and as it had been held by the throat by one of our'most powerful hounds, was quite dead.
I can offer no explanation as to why we were able to overtake this pack of wild dogs so easily, after chasing them for less than a mile, but the facts are as I have stated them. It is possible, I suppose, that we disturbed these wild dogs soon after they had killed some large antelope, and just after they had made a heavy meal. I cannot say, but I remember that the one I galloped over had its tongue lolling from its jaws, and showed every sign of distress.
I have, however, had two somewhat similar experiences with chetahs, which are generally credited with being the swiftest of all four-footed animals; yet upon two separate occasions, once in company with the Boer hunter Cornelis van Rooyen, and again with three English friends, I have galloped after and overtaken a large male chetah. On each occasion the chetahs squatted suddenly when the horses were close upon them, and lay flat on the ground, in which position they were both shot.
As I think that these somewhat remarkable experiences ought to be put on record, I will briefly relate the circumstances under which they took place.
One day during September 1885, when hunting in company with Cornelis van Rooyen near the Umfuli river, in Mashunaland, I rode out of a belt of forest-covered country into a broad open valley, from half a mile to a thousand yards in breadth, and bounded on the farther side again with a tract of open forest. Down the centre of this open valley ran a small watercourse, which was, however, no longer running, though several deep pools were still full of water.
My friend and I had only ridden out a short distance into the open when three chetahs, a big male and two smaller animals which were no doubt females, emerged from the creek, and after trotting a short distance away from us across the open ground, turned round and stood looking at us.
Van Rooyen and I at once rode towards them. They let us come close to the creek before running off, but when they did so, they broke into a light springing gallop and got over the ground at a great pace. The long summer grass had all been burnt off in this district, and the ground in the open valley, being firm and hard and quite free from holes, was in excellent condition for galloping.
When we commenced to race after the chetahs they had a start of at least fifty yards—I think considerably more—and the edge of the forest for which they were making could not have been more than five hundred yards distant.
Both our horses were pretty fast and in good hard condition, and we raced neck and neck as hard as we could go behind the chetahs. Whether these latter were running at their utmost speed I cannot say, but, at any rate, we slowly but steadily gained on them, and were only a few yards behind them when they reached the edge of the forest, which was very open and free from underbush. Suddenly the two female chetahs, which were a little behind the male, came to a halt, and we galloped past within a few yards of them, as we wanted to kill the largest of the three. These two female chetahs did not crouch down, but stood looking at us as we shot past them. We chased the big male another fifty yards through the open forest, and were quite close up to him, when he suddenly stopped and crouched, all in one motion as it were, and lay with his long thin body pressed flat to the ground. Van Rooyen and I were so near him that, going at the pace we were, we could not pull in our horses until we were thirty or forty yards beyond where he lay. The chetah, however, never moved again, but lay perfectly still watching us, and we dismounted and shot him where he lay. We never saw anything more of the two females, which must have run off as soon as we had passed them.
Two years later, in October 1887, I was riding one day with three English gentlemen (Messrs. J. A. Jameson, Frank Cooper, and A. Fountaine, all of whom are alive to-day and will be able to corroborate my story) through the country lying between the vipper waters of the Sebakwe and Umniati rivers in Mashunaland. The ground was not quite open, as i: was covered here and there with a growth of small trees, but as these grew very sparsely there was nothing to stop one from riding at full gallop in every direction. As we rode along I was on the left of our party. Suddenly my horse turned his he; d and snorted. I at once pulled him in, calling to my companions to stop, as I thought my horse mt.st have smelt a lion lying somewhere near us.
I had scarcely spoken when up jumped a very laige male chetah within twenty yards of my horse ar.d bounded away across the open ground, holding hb long, thick, furry tail straight out behind him.
This chetah did not get much of a start, as we gj-lloped after him as soon as ever we could get our horses started. The chase may have lasted for a mile, though I think certainly not farther, and the chetah never seemed to be able to get away from us, and if he was capable of going at a greater pace, I cannot understand why he did not do so. At the end of a mile, however, Jameson, who was the light-weight of our party, and who was, moreover, mounted on a very fast Basuto pony, was close up to the chetah, and the rest of us were perhaps thirty yards behind him. Suddenly the hunted animal squatted flat on the ground, and Jameson's pony was then so close to it that it jumped clean over it The action of this chetah was exactly the same as in the case of the one that Van Rooyen and I had chased and overtaken in 1885, and in both cases it was very remarkable how the hunted animals suddenly stopped when going at a great pace and lay flat on the ground in a single movement, as it seemed. This second chetah was shot by Jameson from his horse's back as soon as he could pull in, and it never moved again after first crouching down.
Now when we read of the wonderful speed of the tamed chetahs kept for hunting purposes in India, it certainly seems very remarkable that in South Africa these animals can be overtaken in a short distance by ordinary shooting horses.
In Jerdon's Mammals of India a very interesting description is given of hunting with trained chetahs, and I think there can be no doubt that in that country these animals are able to overtake in a fair course antelopes and gazelles which cannot be ridden down, and whose speed surpasses even that of greyhounds.
Whether the African chetah has lost the great speed of his Asiatic progenitors, and if so why, are questions which I cannot answer, but the two animals which were galloped after and overtaken by my friends and myself were both fine specimens of their kind, in good condition and apparently in the prime of life, and why they did not run away from our horses and so save their skins, if they were able to do so, is more than I can understand.
Personally, I know very little as to the lifehistory of chetahs, and I doubt if any one else does, as they are very rarely encountered. I once saw six of these animals together near the town of Salisbury, in Mashunaland. The teeth of the chetah are very small and weak compared with those of the leopard, hyaena, or wild dog, and its semiretractile claws not very sharp, so I should imagine that its chief prey would be the smaller species of antelopes.
When the pioneer expedition to Mashunaland was crossing the high plateau near the source of the Sabi river, in 1890, one of the troopers of the British South Africa Police Force, who was riding along parallel with and not far from the line of waggons, came on three chetah cubs lying in the grass, and brought them to me. They could only have been a few days old, as their eyes were not yet open. I do not know what became of those chetah cubs, as my duties as guide and chief intelligence officer of the pioneer force made it impossible for me to attend to them; but I believe they were suckled by a bitch and lived for some time.