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Bad Day to be A Topi

By Corinne Kendall
June 6, 2011
File under: Animal Sightings, Wildlife

Photo Credit: Corinne Kendall

I’ve reached the point where I really know the Mara. Everyday we drive through different areas and I look for the elephant herd with the little calf or the warthog family with the six piglets that have somehow made it through the last two months.

Each geographical entity – each river crossing, fig tree, and termite mound – has significance – that was where I saw the cheetah kill a few weeks ago or there is the tree where I trapped my first Lappet-faced vulture (I couldn’t stop smiling as I held the soft, feathery beast). I know all the landmarks and the hiding places of each little herd or creature.

As we drive I look ahead, able to guess what we will see next as we round each bend. I know which dirt mound is likely to have a topi standing on it. These strange patchwork antelope with their twisted horns really seem to enjoy moving to higher ground for a better view.

Then we pass the tree with the African white-backed vulture nest and I dutifully check for the bird – one of the first to start nesting this year, she has been on the nest each time we pass. Then I look carefully in the branches below the towering pile of sticks that make up the vulture nest for the Verraux’s Eagle Owl – a beautiful tufted ear bird with pink eyelids. Not there today, but perhaps this afternoon they will return.

We drive through the smelliest river crossing and I listen for that unusual and enchanting sound – the murmur of slumbering hippos. I recount the time we saw the hippos mating here last year and Wilson nods in acknowledgement. As we continue onward I search for the group of tourist vehicles that will indicate that the cheetah boys are still near the hill. And on our drive home, I look in the concrete tubes that line an unfinished drainage area to the side of the road. “Is she there today?” I ask and Wilson slows so we can look through the tubes, like the lens of a camera, for the injured lioness.

She seems to enjoy the shade and safety of these areas as her pride abandons her, with her wounded foot she isn’t able to keep up. “There she is,” Wilson motions and like the lion in the MGM symbol before a movie, the head pops up framed in the round cement tube.

Sometimes I think I know what to expect, but nature has a way of tricking you and offering new discoveries. What I thought was another tunnel-web spider hole turned out to the domain of some large cricket-like insect. As I fished inside the hole with a blade of grass the strong mandibles clamped down on the green instrument and pulled. The force surprised me as did the dark mass that began to emerge.

At first I almost worried that it was a snake, but then I could just make out the antennae. The little creature came out just past its first set of legs – enough for me to see and be amazed, but not enough for any identification. Perhaps there are still things to be learned about the Mara afterall.

When we arrived they were already attached. All three of them, the brothers were back in action. I couldn’t believe it at first, how could cheetahs be hunting topi. You have to understand a topi is a large animal – similar size to a wildebeest or a small horse – it is the kind of animal I would expect a lion pride or hyena clan to bring down, but not cheetahs.

Yet there I was watching it for real. Each cheetah had grabbed a leg and they were doing everything they could to bring down the topi. The cheetahs gnawed and clawed as they fought to stay attached. I wasn’t sure how they were going to actually kill the animal. Cheetahs generally have to strangle their prey. On a small gazelle that isn’t so complicated, but none of these boys were even near the windpipe.

Then one went for it. With a lunge it wrapped itself around the neck and grabbed on. Horns near its delicate limbs, the cheetah scrambled to twist the topi and finally toppled it over. After the fall, the two brothers moved their chewing from the legs up to the soft belly. They were starting to eat before the animal had even expired. They had made a nice whole in the topi’s belly, just above the hind limbs as the topi gave its last spasms of life. Its head came up in one last attempt at an escape, but it was no use. As the cheetah tightened its grip around the throat, the topi finally died. Then all three cheetahs sat momentarily in exhaustion, blood dripping from their furry lips.

As the cheetahs used their sharp teeth to further the incision into the carcass, a group of African white-backed vultures began to form. Nearly fifty as its peak, the birds sat eagerly along side their fellow scavengers the jackal and Marabou stork and waited patiently.

Since it was already late afternoon, we decided to join them. Would the vultures really get to feed at this predator kill? When a hyena approached, I thought the vultures might have a chance. Rather than attack the rather defenseless cheetahs, the hyena decided to take a nap near by (and a few hours later after ran off and made a kill of its own with some fellow clan members).

I guess three versus one isn’t great odds even when you are matching some of the strongest carnivore jaws (those of the hyena) with some of the weakest. As the sun sunk in the sky, it was time to go. The cheetahs had eaten nearly two-thirds of the topi and lay exhausted with bellies the size of basketballs. The vultures, whose numbers had dwindled throughout the afternoon, sat hungry – all their waiting for nothing.

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