I’ve seen this sequence time and again in any number of wildlife documentaries: There’s a cheetah. It stalks a gazelle, body slung low, shoulder blades pumping like pistons. It launches forward with astonishing acceleration, head level to the ground, spine flexing dramatically, hips and shoulders swinging out at impossible angles. The cheetah reaches out with a paw, trips the doomed gazelle, and clamps its jaws onto its throat, closing its windpipe and suffocating it. Within a minute, it’s all over. End scene.
Except, it’s often not quite over.
Unlike, say, hyenas or wild dogs that just tear into their prey alive, big cats strangle their victims first. That might seem more merciful, but only when done correctly. Adult cheetahs know how long to hang on before a gazelle gasps its last, but youngsters do not. “Watching them fail is brutal,” says Anne Hilborn, an ecologist who studies wild cheetahs. “There was one time when it went on for around 30 minutes. The poor thing was bleating, and I was just sitting in the car going: Kill it! Just kill it!”
Cheetahs can be clumsy. They take their licks, too. Their slight frames facilitate their epic sprints, but also make them easy targets for more powerful predators like lions and hyenas. Cubs are particularly vulnerable. “Lions and hyenas account for 70 percent of cub mortality. They just get hammered,” says Hilborn. “A lion will find their den and just kill them all. I’ve seen mothers with five cubs and, two months later, there’s just one. And I’ve seen abandoned cheetah cubs, lost and chirping for their mothers. That’s really hard.”