I was told about this incredible ‘morph’ phenomenon that has not been seen for over 90 years, and that there was a pressing need to monitor and protect it while raising awareness of the species as a whole. The last one recorded was shot in Tanzania in 1921. “Morph” refers to a genetic colour variation, the most well known being the ‘King’ cheetah, specimens which have only occurred in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The only reported cases of this morph which scientists believe is a recessive gene like the king cheetah, have been in East Africa from the subspecies, acynonix jubatus raineyii.
I was hooked from the first moment I heard about this, and needless to say I immediately wanted to get reference, but the prospect of finding it seemed incredibly remote. The only hope I had was that the cheetah, a male, was still with his mother and occupying the same area before he reached the age of independence. This time was fast approaching so the need was urgent to find him. Apparently he already showed small signs of conflict with other male cheetahs trying to get to his mother who had come into season again. Searching for him is similar to looking for a needle in a haystack.
I was at home at Soysambu when I got the call that a window of time was open for me to have a vehicle and a spotter plane available to search the 100,000 acre area in which the cheetah was believed to be. That’s quite literally the equivalent of a needle in a haystack. So I made my way there with not a great deal of optimism other than I thought I would get some good background reference.
Days later, after numerous searches by plane and by vehicle, I found him. There he was. A white spot in a landscape painted gold by the morning sun. As we got closer we had to be very tactical about our speed and noise level which is pretty much impossible in a landrover, especially when you’re driving over big rocks. Lots of “ok forwards…”, “STOP” and “shhhhhhh!!!” in theatrical whisper. He let us get quite close before hunkering down and slinking off in the direction of even more vehicle-unfriendly rocks. But we managed to keep up and he didn’t seem overly anxious about us. We barely noticed that his mother was following at a distance. We were with him like this for about 30 minutes that seemed like about five seconds. Then having punished the vehicle to the extent that I was amazed the wheels were still on, I noticed that he began to move away from us, walking at first, then trotting, then a good run.
I came away feeling as though I had seen Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. And got photographs! The painting itself, aside from being the most accurate portrayal I was capable of, includes certain elements that are important to the story. The area is one that accommodates one of the highest densities of cheetah populations in East Africa. This could be as a result of a distinct lack of other larger predators that would be a threat to their existence, a large prey base, and an area relatively protected from development. . The title, “The Phantom”, suggests an elusive, mythical entity that exists somewhere between night and day.
It’s possible that this unique morph cheetah could change scientific theories on cheetah genetics, and his existence could draw further attention to a species on the brink – my principal motivation for doing this painting.
Guy Combes - Phantom
Product Code: COMPH2
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