Long ago a wicked and lazy hunter was sitting under a tree. He was thinking that it was too hot to be bothered with the arduous task of stalking prey through the bushes. Below him in the clearing on the grassy veld there were fat springbok grazing. But this hunter couldn’t be bothered, so lazy was he! He gazed at the herd, wishing that he could have the meat without the work, when suddenly he noticed a movement off to the left of the buck. It was a female cheetah seeking food. Keeping downwind of the herd, she moved closer and closer to them. She singled out a springbok who had foolishly wandered away from the rest. Suddenly she gathered her long legs under her and sprang forward. With great speed she came upon the springbok and brought it down. Startled, the rest of the herd raced away as the cheetah quickly killed her prey.
The hunter watched as the cheetah dragged her prize to some shade on the edge of the clearing. There three beautiful cheetah cubs were waiting for her. The lazy hunter was filled with envy for the cubs and wished that he could have such a good hunter provide for him.
Imagine dining on delicious meat every day without having to do the actual hunting! Then he had a wicked idea. He decided that he would steal one of the cheetah cubs and train it to hunt for him. He decided to wait until the mother cheetah went to the waterhole late in the afternoon to make his move. He smiled to himself.
When the sun began to set, the cheetah left her cubs concealed in a bush and set off to the waterhole. Quickly the hunter grabbed his spear and trotted down to the bushes where the cubs were hidden. There he found the three cubs, still too young to be frightened of him or to run away. He first chose one, then decided upon another, and then changed his mind again. Finally he stole them all, thinking to himself that three cheetahs would undoubtedly be better than one.
When their mother returned half-an-hour later and found her babies gone, she was broken-hearted. The poor mother cheetah cried and cried until her tears made dark stains down her cheeks. She wept all night and into the next day. She cried so loudly that she was heard by an old man who came to see what the noise was all about.
Now this old man was wise and knew the ways of the animals. When he discovered what the wicked hunter had done, he became very angry. The lazy hunter was not only a thief, he had broken the traditions of the tribe. Everyone knew that a hunter must use only his own strength and skill. Any other way of hunting was surely a dishonour.
The old man 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 grateful mother. But the long weeping of the mother cheetah stained her face forever. Today the cheetah wears the tear stains on its face as a reminder to the hunters that it is not honourable to hunt in any other way than that which is traditional.
“Hello mate. You don’t know me. I have heard about you and would love to take a portrait of you.” In my experience the direct route is often the best as a photographer. The Zimbabwe evening had cooled and I was now regretting my light shirt. “Why would you want to shoot a portrait of me?” The voice shot back through the darkness from the silhouetted vehicle. “Could you have dinner with me tomorrow night at the lodge? I could take you through my idea there.” “Let me see what I can do.” He drove off into the darkness rather too quickly for me to get my hopes up.
I settled down into my seat and enjoyed what was left of Africa’s evening splendour. Kim Wolhuter drifted out of mind as I focused on some Nyala crossing the road up ahead.
Harry Wolhuter was Kruger National Park’s first game ranger. He lived and worked in a time in Africa that many have forgotten or some are trying to forget. An era when men smelt like men and a gun was par for the course. There was no racial segregation at this time in South Africa and conservation was a notion not a science. Harry Wolhuter’s now famous book “Memoirs of a Game Ranger” details the much maligned time when lions were culled, wild dogs were vermin and big game hunting was a pastime to be respected. This doesn’t mean he didn’t love the natural world as much as any conservationist today. His writings are overtly loving and caring of the African earth and her fauna. He devoted his life to her.
Perhaps the most famous Harry story is his encounter with two male lions whilst on horseback in Kruger in 1903. The first lion knocked him off his horse whilst the second mauled his arm and shoulder. Harry tells the story, that as he played dead so the lion would stop worrying him, he slipped his knife from its sheath and slowly felt for the lion’s chest and throat. In quick succession and with little fuss he stabbed the lion three times. The huge cat immediately dropped him and walked off.
Now harry, was no fool you see, and knew that the second lion after chasing his horse would return to follow up on him. He climbed the nearest tree and in great pain prepared himself to wait out the night.
The second lion returned with Harry’s dog in tow. For hours Harry set the dog on the lion each time it attempted to climb the tree to get at the badly injured ranger. The next morning some scouts had set out to find Harry and were surprised to find him despite having lost a lot of blood clinging to a branch of the fig tree that had been his hideaway for the last ten hours.
Harry Wolhuter lived on to a fine age on 86 and passed away in 1963, 6 months before his son died of bilharzia and emphysema. Wolhuter had followed in his father’s footsteps and had also become a game ranger in the Kruger National Park. The African bush and its protection had become a natural partner in the Wolhuter’s life. Despite this family narrative I would be surprised if Harry could have foreseen where Kim Wolhuter would end up. 50 years later I am in south east Zimbabwe and I find my self attempting to talk the ‘the man who hunts with cheetah’ to sit for a portrait with me.
“I am not sure anybody would be interested in a portrait of me? I mean where would it go? Why would they be interested?” Kim looked at me. His honest eyes searching without a hint of duplicity for some indication from me that his life would or could be relevant to anybody else.
He is 53 but looks 43. His olive skin is barely lined and his dark eyebrows frame his grey eyes that stare implacably at me looking for an answer to a question that is clearly troubling him. “I am not sure that I belong in front of the camera. Wouldn’t it be better to just take a portrait of them? I mean that’s what people should be interested in, saving their lives not mine. I don’t need saving” As we walk his bare feet move through the veldt barely making a noise. All of sudden I am acutely aware of how lean and whippet like he is. I feel bulky and ungainly next to this man. He moves through the bush soundlessly and without fuss. “Mate, without people like you there is no them. You live with these animals. Not because you have to but because you want to.” All the Shangaans in the area were fascinated with this white man who lived with cheetah. A man who had become accepted by them. A man who spent every day and many nights gaining their trust as to better understand them and document their behaviour. In a world where most of us are self serving day to day he stood for me as a one of those rare men and women who held the line, that waivering and vital line between man and beast. These people are fascinating people. They are the custodians of our natural world and their own different ways. They ask, beg, force us to care about the world around us and take responsibility on their too few shoulders to slow the ebbing tide.
“Why do you do it?” I ask. We are driving along in a car that only be described as post apocalyptic. “Why do I do what?” he replies, leaning over the steering wheel underneath his bush hat as he points the 25 year old toyota in the direction of the hills in front of us. Why do you spend everyday with these animals. You are not a film maker in the traditional sense of the word. I mean you make films about them, but I think that your industry choice is more symptomatic of your love of animals rather than as a creative drive to make films?” “I wouldn’t want to make films about anything else if that’s what you mean” as he stares past me to the dirt road ahead. “I love being here, Zimbabwe, in the bush, it’s the most beautiful place for me. These animals are the only thing I know. They mean everything to me. Traditional film making is dead, gone are the days where a producer may pay for me to spend years in the wild with these animals. They want things tomorrow not in three years. They want drama when it’s not there. The same reason that these animals are under such pressure is the same reason that documentary film making has moved on. They are treated as a commodity to be exploited quickly and ruthlessly.”
Cheetahs are one of the most vulnerable predators on our planet. Already the species is extinct in all of asia and all but a few pockets of the middle east.
The fastest animal to have sprinted across our earth was now mainly confined to pockets of habitat in southern Africa. Fast enough to pull down the fleetest of antelope yet not strong enough to defend their kill from other predators a cheetah’s life is a life of run, hit and run again. Requiring habitat and prey whilst avoiding human confrontation has been a constant battle for the species over the last 200 years. A battle that has been slipping away from them. There are now 12 000 cheetahs left in Africa. This number has decreased from 70 000 30 years ago. Once revered by ancient egyptians as creatures belonging to divine pharaohs and nobility they were as recently as the last decade recast as thieves of livestock, fleet footed enemies of farmers and herd boys alike. CITES* has red-listed the species as vulnerable and is protected by law internationally. Despite this it is suggested that over 700 cheetahs are killed every year in agricultural areas through Africa as human beings continue to infringe and impact on their natural territories and rural conflict is difficult to manage and regulate.
As I sit and watch Kim Wolhuter with the cheetahs I marvel at the incredible scene that unfolds. Wolhuter has spent the past 13 months with these animals in a concession known as Malilangwe in south east Zimbabwe. It is perhaps the most beautiful land I have seen on the African continent.
In 2011 Wolhuter began to bond with a family of 6 cheetahs – One adult mother and 5 cubs. The African bush is a cruel mistress and that family has now dwindled to 3. One mother and 2 female cubs remain over a year later. Whilst clearly emotional about the loss of the three cubs Wolhuter remains pragmatic. “This is what makes cheetah so vulnerable” as one cub literally floats past his leg on the way to its mother. The cats make a contact call that is so innocuous to their appearance that it takes three or four of the bird like chirps for me to fathom that these large predators are communicating with each other. “Sounds like a bird doesn’t it?” Wolhuter smiles. he makes a whistle as he moves towards the mother and flops next to her. She stares at him, accepting his presence without prejudice. The second cub comes over to greet Wolhuter offering him the side of her head in a vigorous playful push that can only be perceived as affection. “Her brother was killed by leopard” Wolhuter continues taking as he stretches out on the ground, barefoot and completely relaxed. “That was hard for me, I had a real bond with him. To find his tiny carcass the next day half eaten, fallen out of a tree… that was difficult.” His voice fades off as stretches out prone on the ground, cat like. “Her sisters were killed by lion and disease. Cheetahs are incredibly vulnerable.
” He reiterates. “When you spend everyday of your life with them, it’s difficult to rationalise their death. Difficult not to ask why. Difficult not to miss them when they are gone. It makes me appreciate what I have though, makes me appreciate right here, right now with them because tomorrow I may find they are casualty of this environment.” His eyes drift to the African sky. “I might find that they are gone”
Three days later and I have watched a man blur the lines between man and beast to the extent where I am questioning where that line actually exists. It’s a line that has moved like a drifting tide line over the centuries. Wolhuter seems to have repositioned that line again as I watch him walk through the bush with his feline companions. A cheetah’s gait is as effortless as it is silent and even Kim Wolhuter’s barefooted trot next to these animals lacks the grace of the creatures that he has adopted. Perhaps that is as obvious a separation between man and beast as any. These creature melt into their environment whilst we simply compromise and adapt.
What this occurs next defies for me what seems physically possible as the female adult cheetah pauses. Instantly Wolhuter drops silently to the ground and the two cubs fall slowly in behind her. She has spotted some impala through the Mopane trees and past the clearing 600m ahead. Her tail flicks with anticipation and her body lowers like lean, long spotted piece of thread floating cm’s over the earth.
Her cat like, predatory appearance has disappeared and within seconds she is simply a part of the earth’s texture. I marvel at her transformation as she creeps slowly forward whilst her three companions remain static and silent in the long grass. The explosion is not of sound but rather of movement, it is completely silent but the physicality is deafening. It is near impossible for me to fathom that something non mechanical could generate this speed in an instant. An animal that I have spent the last week understanding how vulnerable is now leaves me breathless as she shoots through the grass, body lowered and gait extended to the point where she looks like piece of stretched elastic, contracting and extending as she drives towards the now panicked antelope.
As the impala scatter she peels off at speed and hones in on an individual. Impala are incredibly athletic and so often over the last 15 years I have watched them prance metres in the air at full speed just because they can however they are no match for her as she reels in her target. The impala drifts left and she rudders the same way with her tail, not losing an ounce of speed. As the impale drifts right she extends her front leg whilst her other legs drive her forward and uses the sharp dew claw to hook and trip the animal, using its own momentum against it as careers into the ground in a cacophony of dust and flailing legs.
Instantly she is on it, avoiding the razor sharp hooves and attaching herself efficiently and almost primly to the animals windpipe. The entire hunt has lasted no longer than thirty seconds and has been undertaken in complete silence. As the impala’s movements become more subdued the mother’s three companions trot quietly in to share in the spoils. Wolhuter lags behind slightly as he struggles to stay with the obviously hungry cubs. The impala kicks out into the ether as if a finale in this dance, defiantly, before falling motionless. It’s difficult for me not to feel a moment of regret for the unfortunate beast that was moments before enjoying the warmth of the african sun.
I am taking photos now. Photos that are incredible. I almost feel a little nervous and check my exposure twice as the three cheetahs feed on the carcass whilst Wolhuter sits butted up next to them. The viewfinder of my camera tells a different story for me. It always does. Their is no context in these image, my drive is to show that story, share this last week with people that may not believe, understand or even care. Here is a man, a conservationist a filmmaker who has devoted his life to these animals. These animals are his context, his relationship with them his family. He is one of the few men and women who asks nothing in return from them. These photos give context to an era that in 50 years may not be with us as the tide of humanity overcomes these creatures, they give context to a man who who gives his life to be part of that thin line.
They give context to a very special man.