Cheetah Cubs in the Masai Mara

The Masai Mara Cheetahs

Returning to our lodge in the Mara North, we were fortunate to catch sight of one of the Masai Mara’s famous dynasties – the cheetah Kisaru and her three grown cubs…

The Masai Mara is famous for its big cats, including its cheetahs. The BBC have returned to the Mara many times, especially after their success with Big Cat Diaries in 1996. Visitors to this picturesque savannah know the cheetahs of the Masai Mara by name, thanks to this show.

Three cheetah cubs observing the nearby zebras, wildebeests and topi antelopes
Three cheetah cubs observing the nearby zebras, wildebeests and topi antelopes

While on a game drive in Mara North, we encountered the cheetah Kisaru and her grown cubs. There were three of them with her during the sighting. However, the lodge manager at Royal Mara later told us she had raised her entire litter of six cubs successfully into adulthood. The ones we didn’t see had left their family to strike it out on their own. The cubs still with Kisaru participate in hunting alongside her.

cheetah family in the mara, in front of blue skies
The famous cheetah Kisaru and her three cubs, chilling in the golden grasses of the Mara

The Masai Mara Cheetahs: Through the Generations

This family of Masai Mara cheetahs were particularly interesting because Kisaru and her cubs are descendants of the famous cheetah Malaika, who often jumped onto tourist vehicles. Cheetahs do this because the jeep gives them a vantage point from where they can spot predators and prey. Safari goers and guides all throughout Africa have seen these this behaviour. The Masai Mara cheetahs are not the only ones to do it.

a cheetah near our jeep in Masai Mara
One of the cheetahs came next to our jeep

However, Malaika was particularly fond of it, and she passed this preference along to her children. That said, park authorities have told guides and rangers that they should discourage this behaviour, and the current generation of Masai Mara cheetahs are not jeep jumpers.

Mother cheetah, walking alongside the three cubs
Mother cheetah, walking alongside the three cubs

It was late in the afternoon when we found Kisaru and her three cubs. The sun was almost setting, and the air was getting cooler by the minute. When we observed the cheetahs, they were relaxed but active, walking around in a leisurely manner among the long grass.

New Research on Cheetah Hunts

Until recently, we believed that cheetahs hunted exclusively during the sunlit hours. Researchers believe that the black stripes under their eyes prevent glare during the brightest hours of the day. That said, recent research has shown that up to one-third of their hunts happen after dark. The success of these hunts depends partly on the illumination available by the moon. The Netflix documentary, Night on Earth, filmed this behaviour for the first time on the plains of the Masai Mara.

close-up of an adult cheetah showing the stripes around her eyes
Check out the black shadow around her eyes and along her muzzle – these reduce light reflection to prevent glare during the daylight hours

Observing Cheetahs in the Mara North Conservancy

The Masai Mara is famous for its big cats, including its cheetahs. Over the decades, the BBC have returned to film the Masai Mara cheetahs many times, through numerous cheetah generations. Programmes by the BBC featuring the Mara cheetahs are the Big Cat Diary (1996), Planet Earth (2006) and The Hunt (2015).

two grown cheetah cubs walking in the long green grass of the Masai Mara
These two grown cubs were walking restlessly around our jeep

Where to Spot the Masai Mara Cheetahs

Cheetahs have one of the largest ranges for the big cats. That they have an extensive range is unsurprising. After all, they are the animal kingdom’s fastest runners. The average home range for a cheetah can reach up to 2,727 square miles, compared to a lion’s 400 square miles.

two cheetahs walking away from camera on the Masai Mara
Likely annoyed by our jeep, these two are walking away from us

Although cheetahs have such an extensive home range, when prey is plentiful, like in the Masai Mara, they tend to establish stable territories within a small area. This high density of cheetahs means that visitors are very likely to see a cheetah on their safari in the Masai Mara.

Three grown cheetah cubs and their mother
Kisaru, grand-daughter of Malaika, with her three grown cubs

In recent times, there are two famous groups of cheetahs on the Mara. The fast five, a coalition of five brothers, and Malaika’s dynasty. Safari goers often spotted Malaika near Sala’s camp, in the Masai Mara. However, when we visited, we sighted her grand-daughter Kisaru, and her three grown cubs, in the Mara North Conservancy. Nobody has seen Malaika herself since 2018.

How to Photograph the Masai Mara Cheetahs

“If your pictures aren’t good enoughyou aren’t close enough” goes the quote from Robert Capa, the Hungarian-American photojournalist. Luckily for us, we had spotted the cheetahs in the Mara North Conservancy. On the Mara Conservancies, safari-goers are allowed to go off-road to look for and observe a big cat. We recommend staying in a conservancy for this opportunity. Although safari-goers can expect to sight a big cat in the Masai Mara, the cat might not be close enough for a good photograph. So to increase your chances of getting the perfect shot, book a night or two in one of the Mara Conservancies.

Black and white portrait of adult cheetah near the safari vehicle
This cheetah got really close to us here, she was only a couple of feet away from the jeep

However, there are limits within the Conservancies. Going off-road is only possible if you are following a big cat and not any other animal. Also, only five vehicles are allowed at a sighting at any one time. This is for the good of the cheetah as too many jeeps can seriously stress them out.

Malaika’s Dynasty

Malaika was the cheetah featured in BBC’s The Hunt. She was one of the most successful cheetahs ever to grace the Masai Mara, and the locals love to talk about her. The lodge manager of the Royal Mara Safari Lodge, in the Mara North Conservancy, told us that she had raised almost all her litters into adulthood. Her skills were passed down to her daughter and then to her grand-daughter Kisaru, the cheetah we sighted.

Adult cheetah and three cubs looking around at their environment
A very successful mother and her grown cubs, all attentive to their environment

When we saw Kisaru, she was with three grown cubs. However, the locals told us she’d raised the entire litter of six into adulthood – a rarity for cheetahs. Usually, only one or two cubs of the whole littler would survive to be fully grown. Undoubtedly, cheetahs learn valuable skills from their parents, and good cheetah parents are more likely to raise successful cubs.

The Masai Mara Cheetah Who Jumped on Cars

Malaika was famous for jumping on cars. Guides and safari-goers all over Africa have observed cheetahs doing this, but Malaika was very fond of it. She used the jeeps as a vantage point to spot prey and predators. Cheetahs are the smallest of the big cats on the Masai Mara, and they are sometimes smaller than hyenas. Because of this, they need to be wary of other predators. Jeeps are plentiful on the Mara and provide excellent lookout points; this was likely the reason why she liked jumping on them.

Two cheetahs walking away from safari vehicle
Two cheetahs walking away from the jeep – these did not jump on our vehicle

Her children copied this behaviour, and safari-goers loved it when a cheetah jumped on their car. However, this behaviour, understandably, worried the park authorities as it placed humans in very close proximity with a dangerous wild animal. No harm ever came to any safari-goer from a Masai Mara cheetah, but the Kenyan authorities asked guides and drivers to discourage this behaviour. When we visited, our guide, Joseph Mbotte, told us the cheetahs no longer did this.

Cheetah Behaviour

When we spotted Kisaru and her three cubs, it was late in the afternoon, around 5 P.M. We were returning to the Mara North Conservancy from a game drive in the Masa Mara when our guide spotted another jeep at a standstill, far in the distance. On closer inspection, he saw they were observing a family of cheetahs. We drove to meet the animals. Although it took some time to get to them, they were still in the area when we arrived.

two adult cheetahs on the prowl
Kisaru and one of her cubs walking side by side in the tall green grass

When Are Cheetahs Active?

Although cheetahs are diurnal (they are active during daylight hours), they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours. This timing is similar to other top predators in the Masai Mara – lions, leopards, and hyenas. When we met Kisaru and her cubs, they were quite relaxed, although they got up and walked around in the long grass quite often. In contrast, the cheetahs we saw in Amboseli at mid-afternoon were resting in the shade and did not move. Like us, cheetahs don’t like to do much when it gets too hot.

Three cheetahs investigating the grassy Mara plains
These cheetahs were fairly active in the evening, walking around the plains and casually investigating their environment

Do Cheetahs Overheat During the Hunt?

There’s a common belief that cheetahs do not hunt at high noon because of the heat. However, this has been disproven. Despite the enormous speed and acceleration undertaken by the cheetah, the increase in internal temperature when hunting is negligible. However, their temperatures increase significantly in the next 40 minutes if they have caught prey. This increase in temperature is a stress response, as the noises of the hunt might attract other predators like lions and hyenas, who will attack the cheetah for its prize. To prevent their food from being stolen, cheetahs either have to start eating immediately or drag their kill to a more secluded spot. Cheetahs usually opt for the latter 65% of the time. 

A group of 4 cheetahs, walking through the green grass
Kisaru’s cheetah family, meandering slowly through the yellow-green grasses that surrounded our jeep

What Do Cheetahs Eat?

The dietary requirements of cheetahs are a fascinating area of research. Unlike lions and leopards, cheetahs cannot eat carrion. They can only eat freshly killed animals. Furthermore, they do not like to eat livestock. Research has shown that cheetahs in captivity have health problems related to eating domesticated animals due to the high-fat content in these animals.

Two restless cheetahs waking in the savannah of the Masai Mara
Where are these two going? Maybe it’s almost dinner time…

Out in the wild, cheetahs hunt and eat small to medium-sized game animals. In the Masai Mara, these can be hares, small antelopes, gazelles, impalas and wildebeest calves.

Cheetah Families

Our sighting of Kisaru and her cubs was an excellent example of how cheetahs organise themselves socially. Female cheetahs are mostly solitary, except when they have cubs. It is not uncommon for a mother cheetah to live with her female children for some time after they are fully grown. Hunting in a pack is more likely to bring success than hunting alone. Grown male cheetahs are chased away or abandoned by their mother when she comes into heat – this is to prevent inbreeding.

four cheetahs together in the masai mara
These grown cubs are still hanging out and hunting with their mother. Cheetahs have more success when they hunt in a group

As we understand it, Kisaru’s cubs were grown but still young. We were unable to identify the sex of those with her, but they were likely females. The mother was behaving slightly protectively around them, watching them, and us, carefully. 

The cubs stayed close to each other, often sitting together and brushing across each other. At one point, the three cubs got tired of the attention from us, and slowly took their leave from the scene. Their mother lingered for a few moments longer. At one point, she came towards the vehicle, brushed her body against the side, and “marked her territory” on the back wheel before moving off to join her cubs.

Cheetah looking straight at camera
I wonder what she’s thinking here…

FAQs for the Masai Mara Cheetahs

How many cheetahs are in the Masai Mara?

There are around 123 adult cheetahs in the Masai Mara. This number was arrived at by identifying individuals from 25,000 images.

Who are the famous Masai Mara cheetahs?

The famous ones are The Fast Five (still alive) – a coalition of five males, Malaika (not seen since 2018), a very successful cheetah featured in BBC’s The Hunt, and Honey and Toto (passed away), featured in Big Cat Diary.

Who was the Masai Mara cheetah that jumped on cars?

The Masai Mara cheetah who liked jumping on cars was Malaika. Cheetahs no longer jump on jeeps in the Masai Mara since authorities started discouraging this behaviour.

How do we identify cheetahs?

Cheetahs are identified by unique patterns among their spots.