Monday, 19 October 2015

Cheetahs - Waltzing Ballerinas of the Savannah Grasslands

Part 1

The Serengeti in Northern Tanzania is one place where its still possible to see how Cheetahs live in the wild.

Over the past 25 years or more, biologists at the "Serengeti Cheetah Research Project" have come to know more than 400 individual cheetahs, using their distinctive spot patterns as identifiers.

Cheetah Cubs normally spend about 18 months with their mothers learning how to survive and it may take them another year or two to become good or excellent hunters. They often start out chasing wildly inappropriate prey including Buffalo.

Most Female Cheetahs rear fewer than 2 individual cubs to independence in an average lifetime of seven years.

A Cheetah ambling across a field is among the most beautiful animals on Earth, Long Legged and Slim; shoulders rolling, lithe as a model on the runway.

Cheetahs have small, delicate mouths. Their big eyes are set forward, the better, to focus on prey.

Cheetahs are not sturdy enough to defend themselves from 2 competitors for prey; namely Lions and Hyenas. So, they have become expert hunters being elsewhere employed.

If their rivals hunt mainly at night, cheetahs hunt by day. If their rivals favor thick herds of wildebeest and zebra, cheetahs concentrate on Thomson Gazelles and Impalas where the prey is less dense and there are fewer eyes to notice them slinking through the grass.

The Cheetah's famously swift chase lasts an average only for 10 seconds and being brief in bringing down prey is a good thing.

It means the flurry of a chase is less likely to attract attention from impalas or gazelles. After bringing down prey, a cheetah will typically lie still for several minutes to recover her or his breath and also to check whether anyone is watching.

For an Adult Cheetah, the real danger is not losing a kill but losing her cubs. 95% of cheetah cubs die before reaching independence. Hyenas kill them out of hunger, while Lions usually do it out of bad habit.

Wildlife Conservationists feel that killing cheetah cubs is simply an extension of the male lion's urge to kill the cubs of any "Big Cat" so he can get a lioness pregnant with his own cubs.

Lionesses kill cheetah young too, to protect their territory. Female Cheetahs deal with the threat by constantly moving preferably before their rivals even know they are around. They coexist as a "Ghostly Species" slipping into temporary vacancies between prides of Lions and packs of Hyenas.

Over the course of a year, a female cheetah in the Serengeti will wander an area of some 320 square miles, larger than New York City.

Several Female Cheetahs may overlap in their wandering pattern but even so, cheetahs tend to be thin on the ground.

It is believed that there are no more than 250-350 Cheetahs spread out across the Serengeti Ecosystem competing against 2,500 plus Lions and 10,000 spotted hyenas.

It is theorized that the entire cheetah population of Sub-Saharan Africa may have been small even in the best of times.

If Females wander through large areas, males usually stick to a few choice areas within a particular ecosystem.

Because they have no cubs to worry about, males can maintain and defend small territories averaging around 20 square miles.

Two or Three Males usually Brothers may hold a territory jointly.

Part 2

Paternity is one of the great unknowns of cheetah biology, not just for researchers but for cheetahs themselves. A Female's home range may contain three or four male territories and she may mate with any resident males as well as with transient males that may pass through.

Unlike Lions, male cheetahs have never been known to kill cubs, perhaps because they have no way of knowing whether the cubs are their own offspring.

The question of who fathers the cubs is of special interest because cheetahs are a genetic mystery.

In the 1980's researchers discovered that all cheetahs are genetically the same - so much so that skin grafts from one cheetah to another produce no immune reaction. This finding caused geneticists to rethink the cheetahs evolutionary history.

Roughly 20,000 years ago cheetahs ranged around the world. At different times there were two different species of cheetahs living in the world.

But cheetah populations apparently suffered a drastic decline about 10,000 years ago, and all cheetahs now living appear to be descended from a relative handful of survivors.

No one really knows what this signifies for the future of the species.

Some Biologists suggest that having survived the population bottle-neck and recovered, cheetahs in the wild suffer no ill effects from their genetic homogeneity.

Others believe that they may be unusually vulnerable to any small change in their natural environment, particularly disease.

Either way, the cheetah is a conundrum : The fastest animal on land, an apparent model of evolutionary fitness, is also as inbred as the average lab mouse.

The single largest population of cheetahs in Africa exists in countries in Southern Africa namely in Namibia and in Botswana respectively.

Namibia has approximately 3,000 Cheetahs while Botswana its neighbour has around 2,000 Cheetahs. Together, Botswana and Namibia have 50% of all wild cheetahs in Africa.

Most of Botswana's Cheetahs live in the Okavango Delta as well as in and around the Kalahari Desert Region. In the wetlands of Northern Botswana, one can see Cheetahs killing their prey in an unusual way.

They are "Masters of Maneuvers". They hold antelopes underwater till it drowns - this is a rare form of cheetah kill which has not been often recorded on film.

It has to be stated here that the world's largest cheetah population lives in Namibia and thrives largely because ranchers and landowners have exterminated Lions from the huge private ranches that dot the countryside.

However, most ranchers regard cheetahs as some sort of 'vermin' that prey on their cattle. Many ranchers argue that the best hope for saving wild cheetahs is to let foreigners who are wealthy trophy-hunt a small number every year.

This is a measure of how difficult the question of cheetah conservation has become that even some environmentalists and conservationists feel that ranchers are right.

Let me end, by saying this "Whether Cheetahs thrive in the wild or are lost in our lifetime is ultimately up to us".

Credits and References :

1) Cheetahs - Ghosts of the Grasslands by Richard Conniff
     National Geographic Magazine - December 1999
     Vol - 196, N0-6
     Photos by Chris Johns

2)  Mara Cheetah Conservation

3)   Cheetah Conservation Botswana



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