The sadness of much wildlife tourism is that without enough rich foreign visitors, and the dollars they carry, the animals would be more deeply imperiled than they are. The danger, though, is of visitors loving these creatures to death.
The sun had begun to fall when our radio crackled at camp: race to the 4x4. A mother cheetah and her five cubs had been spotted with a fresh kill, five minutes over the horizon.
And so, as the East African dusk descended, and the predators of the Masai Mara awoke and limbered up for the nightly gorefest ahead, we hurtled over the crest of a plain and slowed to a halt 20 feet from one of those sights that halts a wildlife junkie's breath.
To see a cheetah with still-kicking prey is rare; to see one with so many 12-month cubs alive is a once-in-a-lifetime spot even for rangers. This family tore hungrily at the hind legs and belly of the ex-antelope – a juvenile Topi, a rusty, humped beast – and feasted while they could, before bigger predators arrived and stole the carcass.
But mother cheetah was anxious: she abandoned her meal and kept glancing around. Long before her brood were sated she barked for them to vanish into the bush. In the gloom, the shadows of huge, hysterical hyena jack-knifed through the long grass towards us, and within minutes, 30 of nature's garbage recyclers had fought over every juicy fragment of bone.
Had our presence added to the cheetah's unease? When would her next meal come? Would the cubs starve? – because unlike other big cats, cheetahs hunt during day and can be blocked from possible kills or driven from carcasses by eager tourist vans.
Our encounter came in a private conservancy on the edge of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. (It is run by the low-impact Mara Porini Camp, staffed almost entirely by Masai, and consists of tents, solar panels and a few dug toilets – quite different from the rash of lodges springing up ever closer to the action.)
To see a really twisted human-animal encounter head into the Mara reserve itself.
We stumbled across four pouting lionesses, rolling in afternoon sun, ignoring some anxious gazelle. Then a tour bus crammed with Germans arrived. The driver radioed a colleague, and the cats were soon hemmed in by more than 20 mini-buses, the occupants' sunburnt facial features squashed against the windows. Click click click.
Us sweaty, leering tourists help hold back the encroaching Masai and their voracious cattle, as well as poachers. But a traffic jam in wilderness? Unless man finds a solution, nature will, as ever, intervene. No animals, no tourists.Reuse content