March 2021 wildlife photographer takeover – Alison Buttigieg

This month we’re thrilled to feature the amazing work of Alison Buttigieg, whose unique imagery of cheetahs really displays the majesty of these wild predators, alongside some absolutely cub photos too, of course! A huge thank you to Alison for sharing her work with us, and if you want to see more of her work, please head over to her Instagram or website.

‘I have always been fascinated by animals, or maybe even obsessed!  I grew up watching documentaries and was an avid reader and collector of animal books – I actually preferred them to toys, except for animal plush toys! My favourite documentaries were always the ones about the African savannahs, especially if plenty of big cats were featured. One of the most exciting and happy moments in my life was when I finally went on my first African safari in Tanzania in 2005. I could not believe I was seeing all the same animals and sceneries of my beloved documentaries and books. I was living my biggest dream and was in awe of absolutely everything and when I saw my first cheetah it instantly became my favourite animal. After many more wildlife watching trips I haven’t changed my mind!  Here are a few insights as to why I love cheetahs so much.’

‘Cheetahs are the fastest land mammals and just like the fancy fast cars they are beautiful, sleek and elegant. They are gorgeous just sitting there doing absolutely nothing but very few things can compare to  the thrill of seeing a cheetah chase prey at full speed. However to reach those high speeds cheetahs have had to sacrifice strength, so they are often chased off kills by other predators such as lions, hyenas and leopards. This combination of beauty, mind-blowing speed and vulnerability makes them so special to me. In this photo it is obvious that it’s not only me who has respect towards the cheetah, some wildebeest have spotted it too and are mobbing it to make it clear that they have seen it.’

‘One very surprising and endearing characteristic about cheetahs is their vocalization. Unlike other big cats they can’t roar, and one of their most common calls is actually a chirp – almost indistinguishable from that of a tiny bird. I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard it! They also purr, just like a housecat, but much louder. I took this photo in Samburu, Kenya a few years back.  This young male and his sister had just been abandoned by their mother to fend for themselves, and they just became separated from each other as well. The male was besides himself constantly chirping, calling for his sister. They were eventually reunited some hours later.’

‘Cheetah cub mortality rates are around 90% so they have to be fighters to survive those odds. I was following these two cubs over a period of a couple of weeks in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy near the Masai Mara. It was an unusually heavy rainy season and I never saw these poor little cubs dry! They were constantly on the move with their mom to find food and were harassed by hyenas, lions and baboons. Yet they always soldiered on with impressive determination while I had frayed nerves all the trip wondering whether they would be ok! A few weeks after I left one of the cubs died. A year later I came across the surviving cub again – his mother had just left so that he could gain independence and his way of coping was to infiltrate another cheetah family with younger cubs! I witnessed the first time he approached cheetah family, and months later they are still together.  Animal behaviour never ceases to surprise and amaze me.’

Cheetah mothers have a very tough job raising their young, they are fighting against the odds from the get-go.  They have to protect the cubs from the multitude of dangers they face, provide for them and also teach them to be successful adults. In this photo the mother cheetah (left) is holding the impala by the neck so that the young ones have the opportunity to practice their hunting skills.  What is unusual is that the impala was not fighting back at all.  I think that the impala was in shock from a previous hunting attempt by the same family not long before. This photo was featured in the Remembering Cheetahs book, part of the Remembering Wildlife series of charity books whose mission is to create the most beautiful books of particular animal species and use the funds from the proceeds of selling them to help to protect them.

‘When I come across a family of cheetahs on safari I know its going to be a good day – this is because cheetah youngsters are very inquisitive and playful. Playtime is important for cubs as they practice the skills they will need as successful adults. Cheetahs hunt fast and play fast! So it’s very good photographic practice!’

‘Cheetahs have many attractive physical attributes: their streamlined body shape, a super long tail with the luxurious ringed bushy tuft at the end and the solid spots that mark most of their body.  I especially love their faces with their expressive amber eyes and  distinctive black tear marks.  It is thought that these tear marks help cheetahs see better by reducing glare.  I can’t get enough cheetah portraits!’

‘When it comes to cuteness factor, cheetahs cubs win for me hands down. As a photographer, almost nothing gives me more joy than photographing baby cheetahs. Unfortunately the cheetah’s cuteness as a baby and its elegance as an adult are driving a thriving demand for them as exotic pets. It is notoriously hard to breed cheetahs in captivity so cheetahs are simply being snatched from the wild and trafficked illegally for the pet trade. 5 out of 6 (83%) of these cubs die in transit. Considering the already high cub mortality rate and the declining cheetah population in the wild due to other factors like shrinking habitat and human-wildlife conflict, this illegal wildlife trade puts additional unsustainable pressure onto wild cheetah populations.’

See more of Alison’s beautiful photography on herInstagram or website – there’s loads more cheetahs and other wildlife too, of course!

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