(The following excerpt from Africa’s Celebrity Cheetah Is One Popular Cat by Margaret Backenheimer recently appeared on chicagotribune.com. To view it in its entirety click on the link below.)
During a recent wide-ranging safari through Kenya and Tanzania, I often came face to face with Africa’s Big Five — elephants, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and lions — not to mention giraffes, zebras and hippos, but from park to park, the creature I most hoped to separate from the grasses of the savanna, the cheetah, eluded me.
Indeed, the game viewing in the Maasai Mara surpassed all others. We even glimpsed a leopard up a tree with his kill, a large impala, dangling over a branch beside him. But not a cheetah in sight.
On the last game drive of my last day on safari, our Land Rover came to a halt below a high mound, and there she was, a cheetah sitting, then stretching, as if she’d been waiting weeks for my arrival. Her name is Malaika, my driver said, meaning Angel. Malaika scanned the horizon, alert for danger and prey. I tried to lock eyes with her, to no avail. Wild, she did as she pleased. Having enough of us, she bolted off into the tall grasses.
It turns out that Malaika had made a name for herself long before I chanced upon her. She is the star of several YouTube videos in which she leaps onto the roofs of safari vehicles, which she uses to survey the plains for quick meals, a practice passed down from her grandmother. No ordinary cheetah, this one, but rather a celebrity of the savannas — and as it happens, the answer to my own safari dreams.