The power of five

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In the thick of the action, the decisions you make affect your final shot, says Lou Coetzer.

Pursuing the opportunity
For most of September the greatest concentration of wildebeest was in the central and southern part of the Greater Mara. We had heard of an unsual coalition of five male cheetahs operating together, knowing they would need to kill every day and would need to focus on larger prey than usual, such as wildebeest or topi calves.

Even with the help of the Cheetah Research Group, we searched for them in vain on a few occasions. Then our luck turned. The five crossed the Talek River, going north. Now they were closer to our base and I planned the best route to get to them early in the morning, before they killed.

Within five minutes of finding them, the hunt started. Three were laying flat behind a termite mount and the other two were out of sight when the trap was set. A large group of very nervous wildebeest slowly moved closer to the three that I could see — and then all hell broke loose.

Wildebeest started running in all directions and I noticed that one of the cheetahs behind the termite mount had gone and the remaining two were anxiously looking in the direction of a chaotic bowl of dust.

Capturing the image
It was time to go. As we rushed over the short grass plains I kept telling my guide to keep us on the side of a glorious early sunrise. With the dust settling in the background, four cheetah struggling to bring the wildebeest calf down and the four CNP photographers with me firing flat out, I made a crucial decision to move the vehicle.

Although our vehicle was well placed, we were shooting too much to the shadow side of the drama unfolding in front of us. It was time to go again. We were now the only vehicle positioned with the early sun behind us and ready to record any detail available in the eyes of the cheetah or the wildebeest calf.

The fifth cheetah now joined the hunt and, to my surprise, they were really struggling to bring the wildebeest calf down. Three of the cheetahs had a powerful grip on the neck and back of the calf and eventually forced it to its knees.

Finally, as pictured above, the brave calf succumbed and four of the five cheetahs could finally relax their grip, while the fifth kept his grip on the calf’s throat.

Many photographers may have stuck with their original location, anxious not to lose any time. But, by deciding to move to a position where the sun was more directly behind us, we were able to capture so much more detail in the cats, particularly in their eyes — and the photographs were greatly improved as a result.

Acclaimed wildlife photographer Lou Coetzer is the founder of CNP Safaris, which operates photographic safaris to Africa’s premier wildlife locations. Lou’s pioneering design of 360º revolving chairs and dedicated boats and vehicles, technical expertise and provision of equipment means CNP’s safaris are suited for anyone interested in taking better photographs, regardless of existing skills. CNP Safaris also operates a mentorship programme to support your photography at home.

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