Cheetah

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.