How the cheetah came to be what he is

A South African folktale


A long, really long time ago, the cheetah was a sandy yellow brown, plain-skinned animal that roamed the plains of Africa. He wasn’t very swift then nor was he feared as much as he is today. But one day, in that distant past, things changed quite dramatically for that big cat.

One summer morning, it was God who called all the animals of the Dark Continent to assemble on the vast savannah to decide who among them was the fastest. After many trial races, the finalists were the antelope and the cheetah. There was great excitement in the air as the two got ready for the final run. The cheetah, whose paws were very soft then, decided to borrow the wild dog’s feet for the race. The antelope, well-equipped with hooves, too was all set to run the long race across grasslands, swamps and rocky terrain. The elephant blew his trumpet and the two runners shot off.

The animals cheered as the antelope was getting ahead of the cheetah. It seemed obvious that the slender, long-legged animal was faster of the two. However, something dreadful happened; the antelope struck his foot on a large stone and tumbled to the ground. The speeding cheetah went past. But when he realised what had happened, he stopped suddenly, turned around and went back to the fallen opponent.

“Hey, what happened? Are you hurt? How can I help you?” he asked in a kind voice.

All the animals looked on in amazement. “What a wonderful act of kindness from the cheetah,” they cried in appreciation. God, looking down from the heaven, too was impressed. He declared the cheetah to be the fastest runner and bestowed upon him long limbs, a light body and a long tail for balancing. He also gave the cheetah feet like those of the wild dogs, thus making him perfect for a swift run.

The cheetah soon became the best hunter in the savannah. The Masai people who lived there watched him in fascination as he hunted. “We have so much to learn from him,” they said to each other. The tribe’s headman sent all the young men into the plains to learn cheetah’s hunting tactics so that they too could become better hunters.

Zandu was one such boy who went to study the cheetah but he was a lazy and a cunning one too. “I have a great idea. I will use the cheetah to hunt for me. I could rest in the shade of a tree while my pet cheetah would run in the blazing sun to catch an antelope for me. What a clever idea!” said Zandu with a smirk. One day, while the mother cheetah was out hunting, Zandu crept into her cave and stole her two cubs, as he planned to train them to hunt for him.

When the mother returned, she found the cubs gone. She meowed and purred for them but got no reply from them. In panic, she looked for them in every part of that vast land – across the grasslands, on rocky mountains, in the dense forests and in thorny scrublands. Her smooth skin now had deep marks and cuts, and the tears that rolled down her cheeks left a deep brown scar on both sides of her nose. When the headman heard about Zandu’s evil plan, he ordered him to take the cubs back to the cave; as a punishment he had to hunt food for all the people of the village for a month. The mother cheetah was, of course, delighted to have her babies back. But the unfortunate incident left marks on her body and face for ever.

That is how the cheetah became the fastest animal on the planet and how he got his distinctive marks.

Published as part of a series titled ‘Folktales of the World (Retold) ’ in Deccan Herald, Student Edition, dt. September 28, 2013


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