Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 28 April 2012

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Laikipia, Kenya

Darkness was closing in and one of the sheep was lost. A search party formed. On my Kenya farm big cats, African wild dogs and hyenas abound. Livestock left out overnight are almost sure to be devoured by morning. I’ve had a blind cow grazing in the safety of the garden croquet lawn pounced upon by eight lions and turned to a pool of gore between the peg and the hoops. From dusk to dawn we protect our cattle and sheep in a boma, or night enclosure. The lions go upwind and pee to spook cattle into a stampede from a thorn boma, but ours are made from sturdy Welsh-style dry-stone walls that will prevent any sort of break-out.

In the gloaming we spread out into the grasslands. When I saw movement I assumed my eyes were playing tricks with me and then I saw it was a cheetah. My heart sang, to speak the truth. I would have left it to its kill but the herders gave a great whoop and advanced at a run. The cheetah, a male with its head soaked in blood, scampered off into the ocean of grass and was lost in the last of the day. The sheep’s carcass lay in the grass. ‘Rejoice with me,’ I murmured, ‘for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ But Apurra, the shepherd whose flock it was to care for, laid the half-consumed dead animal on his shoulders angrily and walked away down the hill.

We slung down the sheep carcass on the ground outside the kitchen and my children, Eve and Rider, came to look at it. I raised the animal’s head and showed them the puncture marks on its throat, four holes — but there was no other sign of a violent death. The cheetah had run down the ewe, a plump, slow and easy target compared with the gazelles on the high country. He must have caught up with almost no effort and suffocated the prey by clamping his jaws around the creature’s windpipe. The major limb bones were hardly touched. The cheetah had consumed most of the hindquarters and succulent innards by almost gently sucking the meat out from under the hide.

‘At least the cheetah got to eat half the animal,’ I said thinking out loud. I reckoned it must have consumed more than 25 kilos of meat single-handed, which was not bad, given how relaxed his pursuit must have been. Apurra looked at me open-mouthed. ‘Oh, I suppose that’s a good thing, is it, guv’nor?’ He was especially incredulous because this was the third sheep killed by probably the same cheetah since Christmas. He grumbled, ‘And if the vermin kills the rest of the flock one by one you won’t be minding that, will you?’ ‘There are perhaps fewer than 11,000 cheetah in the whole wide world,’ I reasoned. ‘Think of that — a number that’s smaller than a small town in Kenya.’

Humans have squeezed cheetah from the open lands they need to survive; they’ve hunted and poisoned them to the brink of vanishing. But Apurra said, ‘That’s plenty — and too many cheetah to my mind.’ The other men laughed at what he said, and they were also laughing at my contradictory and nonsensical behaviour.

This month when an elephant knocked down a fever tree in my garden out of pure ebullience — as they do — I lost my temper. I like elephants but I may just love trees a bit more. If rustlers steal our cattle I’ll pursue them to the ends of the earth to get our livestock back however many guns they have. But when I thought of that male cheetah on the dark plains above, sleeping off his stolen meal of our sheep, it gave me joy without comparison.

Half the sheep remained. Rigor mortis had yet to set in and I was amazed at how limp the body was, as if it had died without the fear that always seizes an animal when we cut its throat before butchering it. Then we must hang a carcass for a couple of days in the kitchen or it will be as hard as a safari boot to chew. The men looked at me expectantly. I nodded. ‘We’ll have a shoulder and you have the rest.’ Apurra sulked off to one side as a much happier youth produced a knife from his belt and squatted down to divide up the blood-soaked mutton.

My son Rider asked, ‘What are we going to do with it?’ ‘We’re going to eat it for supper,’ I said. ‘Err, that’s ’sgusting,’ said my daughter Eve. When we sat down for dinner together later we found the meat was perfectly tender, though it had been preyed upon less than two hours earlier. In a letter to a friend Rider correctly explained this was because ‘the sheep was not frightened when it died. The cheetah suffocates it kindly...’