Anticipation ripples through the crowd. Fingers tighten around binoculars. Camera lenses snap into focus. No fewer than 11 canopied safari buses, bright with tourists and bristling with long lenses, huddle near a solitary acacia tree in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. For the past half hour a mother cheetah named Etta has been sitting in the shade with her four young cubs, eyeing a herd of Thomson’s gazelles that drifted into view on a nearby rise. Now she’s up and moving, sidling toward the herd with a studied nonchalance that fools no one, least of all the gazelles, which are staring nervously in her direction.
Suddenly one of the guides shouts, as the gazelles break and run and Etta launches into an explosive sprint. The sleek cat is too fast for the eye to follow, blurring through the grass like a bullet. The drama is over in seconds, ending with a puff of dust and a stranglehold on a luckless young gazelle. As Etta drags the carcass back to her cubs, they emerge from the scrub eager to tuck into the feast. The safari buses are only seconds behind, the drivers jockeying to get the best camera angles for their customers.
Cheetahs have come to occupy a curious place in the human imagination. Beautiful and exotic, sports car fast and famously docile, they are as much media stars as denizens of the wild, darlings of filmmakers and advertisers the world over. Tap “cheetah” and “images” into your computer’s search bar, and more than 20 million results pop up—from fashion shoots to flashy car ads to photos of pet cheetahs riding in the backseats of Mercedes convertibles.