The last week’s news coverage was unusual. The faces that dominated the newsprint were not those of politicians or movie stars, but of the new celebrities in India—eight cheetahs! The beautiful face and body of this graceful animal captivated our attention. The vital statistics of the new arrivals from Namibia were shared and analysed, compared and contrasted with that of the other Big Cats.
Indeed the cheetah is a beautiful creature. With its narrow lightweight body, the cheetah is quite different from all other cats, and is the only member of its genus, Acinonyx. The cheetah’s unique form and structure—flexible spine, long slender legs, and long muscular tail that acts as a counterbalance to its body weight, allowing it to attain the high speeds for which it is famous as the fastest animal on land.
Unlike other cats, the cheetah’s foot pads are hard and less rounded. The hard pads function like tire treads providing them with increased traction in fast, sharp turns. The short blunt claws, are closer to that of a dog than of other cats. The semi-retractable claws work like the cleats of a track shoe to grip the ground for traction when running to help increase speed.
While these characteristics are studied by zoologists, these have equally been noted by the indigenous peoples who have traditionally lived in proximity to these animals. And these have found a place in their imagination and folk lore. The Bushmen of southern Africa have a charming story about the cheetah’s speed and special paws.
How Cheetah Got Its Speed
Long long ago, the Creator designated certain special qualities to the different animals that he had created. When it came to deciding which one had the greatest gift of speed, he decided that there should be a race. He shortlisted the cheetah and the tsessebe antelope to run the final race. The race was to start from the giant Baobab tree and the two contestants were to run across the plains to a hill on the far side. The cheetah was a fast runner over short distances, but it realised that its soft paws would not be able to take the rigour of a long run. So it borrowed the sturdier set of paws from a wild dog.
The Creator himself flagged them off. The tsessebe sprang off and was away, soon leaving the cheetah far behind. But alas! Suddenly it stumbled on a stone and fell, and broke its leg.
When the cheetah caught up, it found its rival lying on the ground, in pain. All the cheetah had to do was to run ahead and win the race. Instead it stopped to help its opponent.
The Creator, on seeing this was so pleased with the cheetah’s unselfish act that he bestowed on the cheetah the permanent gift of great speed, and the title of the fastest animal on land. He also allowed it to keep the paws of the wild dog.
Along with its streamlined form, the cheetah is also distinguished by its markings of solid black spots, and especially by the distinctive black stripes that run from the eyes to the mouth. These stripes resemble the track of tears and needless to say, this feature must have led to a lot of stories told around the fireplace in the days when the desert people in South Africa lived in close harmony with their natural surroundings.
Here is a Zulu story that tells one of these tales.
Why the Cheetah’s Cheeks are Stained with Tears
Long long ago a hunter was idly sitting under a tree. While most hunters were out all day in pursuit of food, this one was different. He was lazy, and always looking for an easier way of doing things. As he lolled under an acacia tree, he saw a herd of springbok (antelopes) grazing on the grassy veldt. The hunter was daydreaming about how wonderful it would be if he could get their meat without having to chase them. Just then he noticed a movement, and saw that that there was a female cheetah close by. He noted how the cheetah was silently advancing, keeping downwind of the herd, so that they could not sense her presence. As she stalked noiselessly, the cheetah identified a springbok that had strayed from the rest. In the blink of an eye the cheetah gathered her long legs under her and hurtled forward with the speed of lightning. Even as the rest of the herd sensed danger and fled, the lone springbok did not have a chance. The cheetah’s hunt was over.
The hunter, still unmoving, observed how the mother cheetah dragged her prize to the edge of the clearing. In the undergrowth he saw that there were three cubs waiting to be fed. The hunter thought: how nice to be given a meal without having to toil for it; these cubs are lucky. The second thought that struck him was: Imagine if I had a hunter who would do the hunting for me! And further, a wicked idea dawned. If he stole one of the cubs and trained it to hunt for him, his desire would be fulfilled.
The lazy daydreamer continued to lie there as he plotted and planned how to do this. At sunset when the mother cheetah went to the waterhole, leaving the cubs concealed in a bush, he took his chance. The cubs were too young to know what was happening, nor to protect themselves. He first picked up one cub, but then got greedy and stole all three, thinking that he was getting a triple bonus! And away he went before the mother returned.
When the mother cheetah came back and found her cubs missing, she was heartbroken. She cried and cried all night. By morning her tears had left dark stains as they flowed down her cheeks. An old hunter who was passing by heard her loud crying. This wise old hunter knew the ways of the animals. When he found out what the lazy hunter had done, he was very angry. Stealing the cubs from their mother was not only wicked, it was also against the traditions of the tribe which decreed that every hunter must use only his own strength and skill in hunting. Any other way of obtaining prey was a dishonour to the whole tribe.
The old hunter returned to the village and told the elders what had happened. The villagers became angry. They found the lazy hunter and drove him away from the village. The old man took the three cheetah cubs back to their mother. But the long weeping of the mother cheetah stained her face forever.
And so the Zulu believe that even today the tear-stained cheeks of the cheetah are a reminder to the tribesmen that it is not acceptable to hunt in any way other than that what the ancestors had decreed as wise and honourable.
As we in India welcome these unique animals, let us also welcome the ancient lore and wisdom from the days when humans and animals were closely linked in more ways than one.