Cheetah

Salty dust [1]

In the 1980’s Amboseli National Park (established in 1974 as a National Park but already a park from 1948) was the most popular among all the Kenya parks. This was probably because it was relatively near Nairobi, despite the corrugated road to get to it, and it offered abundant quality accommodation. The latter I cannot confirm as we always camped there! Tourist packages included an Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks circuit, as there is a road that joins them. The result was that travel companies would take tourists in large numbers and we found it rather crowded, particularly around the lodges and the swamp area.

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Despite its popularity, the park was still beautiful mainly because of Kilimanjaro that in a clear day offered an amazing view . With its 5,895 metres summit it truly showed itself with its well known peaks Kibo (the flat one) and Mawenzi (the rugged one) above the cloud cover creating a really special atmosphere [2].

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Elephants and buffalo were plentiful and there were still black rhinos that could occasionally found browsing on the scarce trees and bushes, unaware of their sad but approaching extermination.

In 1982, David Western wrote: “…The Amboseli population, at a low of eight animals in 1977, had only two breeding males and three mature females. Given such low numbers and localized populations it is inevitable that the black rhino will, like the white rhino, have to be managed in many cases as a national or even international herd…” [3]

It was the park’s flatness and its scarce vegetation, together with the abundance of prey species, that made it an ideal place to find large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, although they were already decreasing in numbers.

The abundance of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles also made Amboseli a great place to spot the already scarce cheetah and, if you were lucky as we were, to watch them hunting.

Although not considered among the great cats for anatomical reasons [4] these are very interesting and exciting animals to watch. Relying on speed to catch their prey, they are forced to hunt during the day so that they can see where they step while running -for short bursts- at a maximum speed of 100 to 120 km per hour! An injury could have severe consequences to the animal that can cause its death due to starvation! It is this behaviour that exposes cheetah to tourism interference and often leads to them getting disturbed by over-eager drivers.

Although we witnessed a few chases, we only managed to observe a couple that ended with a successful capture and kill of a Thomson’s gazelle. Several times we watched them loosing their prey during the chase when the latter in desperation entered terrain that was too rough for the cheetah or when the latter took a tumble at speed!

Even if the hunt was successful, the cheetah requires about a quarter of an hour of rest before it can start eating and, although their instinct directs them to consume the hindquarters (the richest part of the animal) during this recovery time cheetah are very vulnerable to larger predators -particularly spotted hyenas- to snatch its prey forcing it to hunt again!

Although we saw cheetah defending their prey against a single hyena by bristling and increasing their size dramatically, most of the time we watched while a pack of hyenas harassed them away from their freshly killed prey.

I will not attempt to describe a cheetah hunt as this has been done many times and through different media during hundreds of years. Instead of of that, as pictures I dare recommending my favourite sequence that, despite its age, is still one of the best I have seen (except seeing it live, of course). It is a Survival documentary called “Two in the Bush” filmed by Alan and Joan Root. Although the film (link below) is worth watching in its entirety, the cheetah sequence starts at the 15:32 minutes mark when the Roots are seen driving on the plains. It is important to bear in that the movie was filmed in the 1980’s with cameras that were not those we have today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8NzgBqOgJY

We did not attempt to emulate the Roots in filming the hunt but we were lucky enough to take a few shots of the action but the only good ones were those we took after the hund ended when we were lucky that a combination of positioning and camera zoom worked miracles, at least for our standards!

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We visited Amboseli several times over the years and eventually we got to know it quite well. Already at that time it was showing sigs of severe erosion, particularly during the dry season and we thought that it should be closed to the public for several years to allow it to recover. The park was so degraded by 1991 that the New York Times published an article highlighting its poor status [5]. Since then, a number of initiatives to manage the park have been initiated although I do not know about their degree of success.

To enter Amboseli you crossed the lake that gives the park its name, a usually dry ash lake and the first place where we saw both dust devils and mirages, the latter framed by Kilimanjaro.

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Funnily the lake was occasionally flooded! During these times it became a quagmire that took some driving to negotiate.

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At first we camped at the now called Amboseli campsite but the lack of adequate shade prompted us to seek other places. We then found the palm tree campsite that our friend Paul also used when staying at the park. Although lacking ablution facilities, this was a shady and cool camp, ideal to rest during the hot time of the day and even to have a short nap before embarking on a late afternoon game drive.

Being rather secluded and with small camping areas it had the advantage of not being frequented by the overland trucks that were beginning to be common at the time and that immediately crowded the limited space and facilities available at the other campsites. We soon learnt the reasons for this seclusion…

While Paul was investigating a rinderpest outbreak we took the opportunity to join him a couple of times at the palm tree campsite where he was staying with his camp hand Tobias as usual. He was a great help at the camp as well as producing some good food, particularly in the evening when we were tired after driving all day. However, the English breakfast was his “special” and this prompted Paul’s say of “with such breakfast, who needs to think about cooking later” in reply to our criticism to the rest of the English cuisine!

After dinner we usually made an inventory of the birds seen during the day as well as planning where we would go on the morrow. That night, however, Paul was starting to tell us about what had happened to him earlier at that camp when, suddenly, we started hearing people shouting!

We stopped talking and listened. After a few seconds we clearly heard a loud and frantic scream: “elephant!” that got repeated until finally we heard a desperate “help us, elephant!” Without hesitating Paul and Tobias grabbed their torches and ran towards the source of the voices. I followed.

We did not have a lot of ground to cover, perhaps one hundred metres, when we came to the next camping spot, a clearing in the bush where the drama was unfolding. There were tents and a Land Rover with three terror-stricken occupants in the back, two men and a woman rather scantily clothed. Outside there was a large elephant holding the roof rack and vigorously shaking the car as much as its springs would allow and, in so doing, badly shaking the people inside!

We then realized that the elephant had stepped and flattened an aluminium camera case and scattered camera(s) and lenses on the fine dust. Luckily, as soon as we shone the torches on the intruder, it took off tail up, aware of its guilt, crashing into the low palm trees to the relief of the vehicle occupants and mine when I saw it running in the opposite direction rather than charging!

After helping the “victims” to collect their dusty gear and their wits, we reassured them that the elephant would not come back as it got quite a fright, not being sure of this ourselves as it was unusual that elephants would attempt to raid a camp in Kenya. After we saw that our neighbours were as calm as the situation allowed, we returned to our camp.

After commenting the incident with the rest of the campers it was Paul’s turn to return to its interrupted story that, funnily enough, also dealt with elephants! He told us that one night he was woken up by some noise outside the tent. Through the door he realized that there were elephants outside and then he felt a rush of hot air in his face, coming from one of the visitors. It was trying to get to the food he had in the tent. Quite alarmed, he tried to get out through the other tent exit that went to his “kitchen” area only to find it blocked by a white elephant that blocked his way. The intruder had managed to break a sac of flour and it was enjoying it!

In the meantime, another pachyderm was busy trying to get at Tobias’ tent where some dirty pots and pans were kept to be cleaned the following morning. His smaller tent was lifted from the ground and Tobias got very frightened and -according to the storyteller- proffered such screams that he managed to scare the animals away, saving the day! After that achievement Tobias rushed to the Land Rover where he spent the rest of that night! (Something I would also have done! – Bushsnob)

It was then apparent that the campsite was a rather uninhabited one in virtue of its naughty elephantine visitors that have become used to get food from campers and the news had spread prompting campers -except us!- to stay away. As it is inevitable in these cases, the camp was closed soon after and, possibly, the elephants destroyed as wild animals always pay for being fed by people who do not realize the consequences of their actions.

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I always wonder if some of these were the culprits!

 

[1] The English meaning of the Maa word Amboseli.

[2] There is apparently a third peak called Shira that I learnt about when writing this post! See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro (Consulted on 19/10/19).

[3] Western, D. (1982). Patterns of depletion in a Kenya rhino population and the conservation implications. Biological Conservation, 24: 147-156.

[4] The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 45 – 70 mph. Cheetahs have also been known to swim, although they do not like to. “…The Cheetah is not one of the Great Cats, because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck it can not roar, therefore it is a Lesser Cat…” See: https://bigcatrescue.org/cheetah-facts/?amp (consulted 16/10/19)

[5] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/19/travel/an-african-park-in-peril.html (consulted 16/10/19)

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 60

Searching among old pictures to illustrate my future post on Amboseli National Park I found this picture that, at first, I discarded as another useless picture. I was about to delete it when I noticed that it showed some suspense on what happened next.

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I am certain that you have found the “hidden” beast. It was a cheetah stalking a Thomson’s gazelle at the edge of the Amboseli swamp. What happened next will be revealed in the next post…

Spot the beast(s) 50

During our recent visit to Hwange National Park we found these beasts. See if you can see them all…

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Credit: JA de Castro.

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Credit: JA de Castro

This view will clarify any doubts you may have. This trio blocked our road while driving from Hwange Main Camp towards the Nyamandhlovu pan. They eventually moved to the thicket and that is the time we took the first picture.

It is an easy “spot” but one that I hope you enjoy in view of the beauty of the beast!

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The light was good and the picture came out very nice! Credit: JA de Castro.

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Calling its mates. Credit: JA de Castro.

Super moms

This post has been adapted from the Spanish original that appeared in the magazine Muy Interesante. I am grateful to the magazine for publishing the article and those readers interested in it can find it @ http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/fotos/vida-y-curiosidades-de-los-guepardos

After writing “A chase”[1]. late last year, I did research on cheetahs and found some useful information that I used to prepare “Super moms” and later I realized that I had forgotten that I had written “A chase” earlier! So now, I think that the present post follows it nicely as it offers what I hope is interesting facts on the cheetah, one of the most beautiful animals on this earth.

The vast majority of cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus) live in Southern and Eastern Africa and also in some parts of Iran.

MAP OF CHEETAH DISTRIBUTION

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Areas with high (red), medium (brown) and low (pale brown) population density. In pink is its original range. Map credit: Attribution: By Al Pereira puis traduit par Deliryc64 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It is one of the great cats although it has unique characteristics that place it in its own genus describing that its claws are semi-retractile unlike other felids that can retract them totally. While the latter use their claws to climb trees and tear flesh, cheetahs’ have a grip function to favour their acceleration, similar to the sprinters’ shoes.

foto-1Young cheetah in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya.

Although its taxonomic location is being reviewed at the moment, its closest relatives are the puma (Puma concolor) and the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi). These three species together form the Puma lineage, one of eight that make up the Felidae family.

Since its discovery in 1775 by von Schreber the population of cheetahs has declined dramatically to the present situation. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that there are 6,700 adult and young animals distributed in 29 sub-populations and it is classified as a vulnerable species.

The cheetah needs large tracts of land and is currently heavily threatened by the loss of habitat due to the advance of the agricultural and industrial frontier. In addition, unlike the leopard (Panthera pardus) that can adapt to live close to people, the cheetah, a timid animal, is unable to do so.

 

Its relative docility and tolerance to humans has contributed significantly to its decline. Apart from being hunted as trophies, since the time of ancient Egypt, four thousand years ago, they were captured and kept as pets. This custom is still maintained today as they are displayed as status symbols and used for hunting in several countries. The consequence of this is that these animals have disappeared from much of their habitat.

In addition, these animals are very vulnerable in the wild because of the way they obtain their food. Cheetahs use their great speed to hunt but to be effective they need open spaces and excellent visibility since a false step can mean an injury that may condemn them to hunger since they are too timid to steal prey from other animals.

Female hunting springboks in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.

The hunting of their prey, medium-sized gazelles, begins with their stalking until they reach a distance of between one and three hundred meters. From that moment a real “life race” between hunter and prey starts. After three leaps the cheetah is already about 45kph and during the chase it can reach over 110kph in short stretches. This makes it the fastest mammal on earth as we all learn at school but also one that enjoys an exquisite elegance of movement.

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Resting after hunting and strangling a Thomson gazelle in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. See the teeth marks on the gazelle’s neck.

When it reaches the prey it makes it makes it trips it and, after it falls down it chokes it and kills it quite fast. The cheetah, usually exhausted after the chase needs to catch its breath and it only starts feeding after a while that can be as short as five or as long as fifty minutes. At that time it is common for other larger predators to steal its prey. Knowing that this can occur at any time, the cheetah eats fast and much, starting with the muscular hindquarters and it is able to eat up to 10kg of meat from a sitting.

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Eating a Thomson’s Gazelle.

The “public” life of the cheetah not only exposes them to losing their prey because of the interference of irresponsible tourists that, eager to obtain a better picture, interfere with their hunt but they can also lose one to two quarries every ten to stronger predators and, in some places, losses can reach up to fifty percent.

Cheetahs breed throughout the year and females ovulate when they have sexual contact with the male. For this reason their pups may be from different fathers boosting genetic diversity, an important factor in shrinking animal populations.

They gestate for almost three months and between three and five cubs are born, although in rare cases up to eight offspring have been observed. It is easy to imagine that for an animal that relies on speed to eat, being pregnant adds another complication to its life.

Cheetahs, especially females with cubs need to hunt almost daily and they are constantly monitoring their surroundings from a vantage point that can be a termite hill, a tree[2] and even a car!

This behavior not only allows them to detect possible prey but also prevent attacks on their offspring by lions, leopards and hyenas that would not hesitate to kill them. Failure to hunt either due to natural shortages or human interference may also mean that the cubs would starve.

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Four cheetah cubs with prey. National Park of Nairobi, Kenya.

Fortunately for the species, there are females that manage to breed the vast majority of their cubs and these are known as “super mothers.” Some even raise the cubs of other females! These super moms are not only successful hunters who manage to kill prey on a daily basis but that also know how to protect their offspring from predators.

One of these females called “Eleanor” is well known in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania for having raised 10% of all the cheetahs that today live in the South of that huge park. This finding is one of the important achievements of the Serengeti Cheetah Project, led by researcher Sarah Durant[3].

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2017/02/02/a-chase/

[2] For a rather extreme example see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/tree-cheetahs-2/

[3] For interesting information on the subject see: http://www.tanzaniacarnivores.org/

A chase

It was driving from the Kalahari Tented Camp on the Auob River bed that we found a cheetah and her four cubs resting under the shade of a tree a long way off, at the edge of the dunes. An impossible find except for a detail: my wife was with me this time and she spotted them! As we had not had a good sighting of cheetah for quite a while, we stayed with them waiting for some action.

We watched them as they moved from the dunes to the actual dry riverbed, the mother always watchful while the cubs were engaged in a never-ending game of chasing and grabbing each other, already graceful and enjoyable to watch.

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After a while, they got under a large tree and they decided to have a rest. Well the mother rested while the youngsters continued with their shenanigans. It was getting rather hot.

When we were considering a return to the coolness of our bungalow we saw, at about one hundred metres downriver a herd of about fifty springbok. They were slowly walking towards one of the waterholes located perhaps two hundred metres up river. We realized that they would need to walk in front of the cheetah so we abandoned our parting idea.

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By the time we looked back to the cats, the mother had already spotted the gazelle and she was already alert while the cubs were flat on the ground. Obviously, their playing had been suspended by mom’s orders!

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As the springbok got closer we saw the female cheetah crouch and her muscles tense so we knew that an attack was being prepared. The cubs were still invisible! “When is she going to go for them?” I thought while I readied the camera but, most importantly, my eyes to watch what was about to take place.

The springbok were still about fifty metres from the cheetah but, at that point, she started running towards the herd scattering gazelles in all directions. Although she did a beautiful sprint through open ground in front of us, she failed. After a while she walked back towards her waiting cubs that broke their cover to greet her, even when she was “empty-jawed”. I thought that the cheetah charged way too early but, who am I to judge a cheetah charge?

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After the dust settled, we saw that the cheetah had split the herd. The lucky ones could continue their disturbed journey towards the water. The unlucky that stayed on the other side stopped for a while and then, reluctantly turned around and slowly retraced their steps. They will need to wait until the cheetah moved off to resume their quest.

The five cheetahs returned to the shade and they were still there when we finally left them after a few fine hours of fine wildlife watching. The following morning, while driving to our next camp, we saw them again, not far off, their black and slender silhouettes against the early morning sky.

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Tree cheetahs

One of the cheetahs started to move on.

One of the cheetahs started to move on. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana, June 2014 . The very high grass and flooded roads around the South Gate area made game viewing rather difficult although the variety of water birds present made up for the hidden mammals. Our lack improved when we moved to Third Bridge. When returning to the camp on our day of arrival we met a pack of wild dogs attempting to cross the bridge. We managed to get a video of this encounter that I will upload as soon as I learn how to! This was the only subject at our dinner conversation until the lions started to roar behind the camp! We decided to look for them the following morning. We calculated that, judging for the roaring direction, that there should have been at a swampy area behind the camp. We got up reasonably early and went for it. While on our way we came across an unexpected sight: two cheetah resting by a pool. There were probably two young males and possibly brothers. We were watching them when they decided to move. Although it was clear that they were not hunting, they look determined so we decided to follow them as much as possible.

They moved towards a fairly large acacia tree and lied down under it. “End of the fun” we thought as it was mid morning. Aware that cheetah hunt during the day as they rely for speed to catch their prey and it is difficult to run at night! So we stayed an extra while, hoping for something to happen. There were many impala and springbok nearby so there was a chance of a hunt.

After a few minutes one of them walked towards the tree and we confirmed its sex by the way it was marking the bushes: it was a male. After the marking was completed to its satisfaction, and to our surprise, it jumped up the tree. Now here I need to clarify that we have seen cheetah using advantage points before (termite mounds and cars) and this was not a surprise. It is believed that they do so while searching for prey.

Cheetah climbing the tree.

Cheetah climbing the tree. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

However, this particular animal kept climbing up and up until it was at about three meters from the ground, “perched” rather precariously we thought, on rather high branches.

Despite the poor picture the squares show one cheetah high on the tree while the second one is climbing to join it.

Despite the poor picture the squares show one cheetah high on the tree while the second one is climbing to join it. (Picture by Julio A. de Castro)

There it stayed looking around and quite relaxed. To our surprise, the second animal followed suit and then the two cheetah were high up the tree, looking very much like two leopards! Our first thought was: “will they be able to come down?” The response came after about 30 minutes when, rather effortlessly, they did and decided that the stress of the climb justified a grooming session and a nap. We moved on after this unexpected sight.