The Precious Few

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After many safaris, cheetahs are still among the most alluring subjects in Africa to me. Unlike lions, who sleep most of the day, cheetahs are daytime hunters. And unlike leopards, they live their lives in the open. Cheetahs are renowned for their ability to go from 0 to 60 mph in a few seconds—perhaps the ultimate challenge for any photographer, even with an autofocus lens. They lead a high-performance, but high-risk, lifestyle. Cheetahs know they’re vulnerable, and they run more often from, than toward, other animals.

When I tracked cheetahs for National Geographic, I learned that males live longer when they band together in coalitions. I became acquainted with a trio of brothers known as Honey’s Boys who ruled a portion of Kenya’s Masai Mara that’s heavily visited by tourists. These boys grew up in public, and have become blasé about vehicles and people. They have been photographed countless times. They act like stars—and they are.

One day I followed Honey’s Boys as they went around marking their territory. When one of them bounded up the trunk of a magnificent fig tree, I maneuvered my vehicle to silhouette the cheetah against the sky for a graphic juxtaposition of cat and tree. The excitement of the moment was tempered by my knowledge of how rare cheetahs actually are. In the entire Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, which covers 10,000 square miles, there are fewer than 300 cheetahs—compared with more than 3,000 lions and well over 1,000 leopards. And in all of Africa there are only 10 places large enough to support a viable population of these extraordinary cats.

Honey’s Boys have given multitudes of safari-goers the thrill of a lifetime, and at the same time, they have passed on their precious genes to a next generation of super cats. How much more can we expect from any one cheetah? And how much are we doing in return?

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.