Written for National Geographic Kids magazine
THE KGALAGADI IS HOME TO ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CHEETAH POPULATIONS IN AFRICA, BUT WE KNOW PRACTICALLY NOTHING ABOUT THEM. A NEW PROJECT IS SET TO CHANGE THAT.
A springbok herd is grazing peacefully in the hot mid-morning sun, the dust irritating their nostrils. Suddenly a cheetah explodes from the grass she has been hiding in. Stealthily she has been stalking the herd from a downwind direction. The springbok run for their lives. Within seconds the cheetah is at full speed, targeting a springbok ram.
The dark stripes below the cheetah’s eyes absorb the harsh sunlight, helping her to see clearly in the bright light. With the cheetah’s long legs moving in a blur, she rapidly gains on the springbok, her flattened tail guiding her like a rudder. Without breaking her stride she pounces, sinking her sharp canines into the back of his neck, avoiding the springbok’s hooves and sharp horns.
The sprint has exhausted her but this time she was lucky and her cubs will eat. Her slim body is built for high speed, making cheetahs the fastest animals on Earth, but they cannot maintain the speed for long distances. If they miss in their sprint, they must stop to rest before they can hunt again.
After catching her breath, she called to her cubs who were hiding under a nearby camel thorn tree. Cautiously they came out. Knowing that lions, hyaenas and jackals would be attracted to the scent of blood, they eat quickly. Sometimes they are chased away and have to watch from a distance as their competitors eat the kill their mom worked so hard for.
Watching from a safe distance is Dr. Gus Mills and his team. They are doing research on the cheetah of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Watching you watching me
The Kgalagadi Rransfrontier Park is about 38 000 square kilometers and is one of the largest conservation areas in the world. About two thirds is in Botswana and a third in South Africa. It is called a transfrontier peace park because it crosses a national boundary but there is no fence – just some whitewashed stones to mark the border. Because it’s such a large protected area the cheetahs are able to live without conflict with humans, but it’s a population that we know virtually nothing about.
“We’re concentrating on the South african side because of the huge size of the park, using a combination of traditional and hi-tech tracking methods to monitor the cheetahs,” says Gus Mills.
Working with Khomani San trackers and with the use of radio collars, GPS and digital cameras, they are able to monitor the movements and behaviour patterns of individual cheetahs. Gus reckons that there are about 80 cheetahs in the park. even though it is just a year into a five-year project, they have already found out some interesting things.
Hare raising snack
“We thought springbok would be a key prey species, probably the most important food for cheetahs,” explained Gus. “but it doesn’t seem as though this is the case. The cheetahs are feeding on quite a wide variety of food items including animals that we didn’t expect, such as springhares. They are a very important prey and nocturnal and so the cheetahs are hunting at night.
Hares and springhares actually make up the majority of their kills, although because of their small size it means they have to kill more often. They also feed on species like steenbok and duiker. The project team have observed quite a few male cheetahs going for eland calf, which is a really big prey.
The eland have moved south in the park due to the dry conditions further north and so are probably in a weak state.
“The Kgalagadi cheetah may not be as dependent on springbok as we thought they were. It may be that when females have cubs, springbok become very important. It’s all very well snacking on springhares if you’re on your own but when you’ve got kids to feed, a springhare just won’t do,” says Gus.
Each cheetah female lives on her own, but some males form groups of two or three called a coalition.
“We have two males collared,” says Gus, “a solitary male and one from a coalition of two. These two cheetah groups appear to have overlapping territories in the southern Auob. The coalition have recently moved into the area inhabited by the single male. Perhaps they will force him out.”
Cheating the lion
A lot of cheetah cubs die young. In the Serengeti, only about five per cent of cubs born there become adults. Most are killed by lions. In the Kgalagadi the population of lions is smaller and more spread out, so there is less pressure on cheetah cubs.
To date Gus has come across one adult male cheetah killed by a leopard. The team suspects that he was injured by one of the male cheetahs from the coalition.
“The cheetah had been chased for about 250 metres. A cheetah should be able to outrun a leopard at that distance so we presume he wasn’t in good condition,” recalls Gus.
Battle of the sexes
In normal carnivore populations there are more females than males. However, towards the beginning of the project it looked like there were two males for every female. As the project progressed the ratio was looking less unusual. Perhaps the females are better at hide-and-seek!
There’s still a lot to learn about how cheetahs survive in such harsh conditions. Gus and his team will be conducting research for another four years. It’s hard, hot work, but for them watching the beautiful sprinters in this peaceful place is a labour of love.