Wednesday, August 5

Hardships of the Hunt: How Cheetahs Struggle to Obtain Prey

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For cheetahs, most hunts end in failure—and the difference between success and failure often comes down to experience

Blackened stalks of grass crunched beneath the tires of the Land Rover as we pulled just off the track to get a better look at a lithe, tawny shape shimmering in the haze of the midday East African heat. A controlled burn had recently surged through this sector of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, and already new shoots of green growth were poking through the charred landscape. But my eyes were fixed firmly ahead, studying the feline form we had pulled over to observe. It was a cheetah, and she was on the hunt. Following her line of sight through my binoculars, I soon spotted her quarry: a cluster of grazing Thomson’s gazelle, drifting slowly in her general direction as they picked amongst the burnt grass, looking for fresh growth. The cheetah was watching them intently, her body low to the ground in the inimitable pose of the classic hunter. But there was one complication: a few yards behind her, gamboling about in the dead grass, was a cub.

The cheetah’s cub couldn’t have been more than three months old, not yet weaned and therefore totally dependent on its mother for protection and nutrition. Cheetah cubs are born to litters of three or four, and this cub was almost certainly the sole survivor of a larger group of siblings. So it was no surprise that the little cheetah didn’t want to let its mother out of its sight. As she crept closer to her prey in imperceptible increments, the cub followed—but it had none of her poise, none of her grace, and none of her discretion. And so as I watched, the drama unfolded in two separate arenas: the gazelles inched ever closer to the hunter and their own doom, while the cub risked giving away the hunter’s position with each undisciplined movement. The minutes stretched into half an hour, and the tension finally ratcheted to its breaking point. The cub broke into a playful sprint, catching up with its mother in leaping bounds.

This was too much to ignore, and the gazelles’ heads snapped up in alarm. The prey took flight, and the hunter leapt into pursuit—but the Tommies were still too far away, and the hunt was over before it really began. This was not an unusual series of events. For cheetahs, most hunts end in failure—and the difference between success and failure often comes down to experience. These big cats become more adept hunters as they age, accumulating skills and fine-tuning their techniques. Strategies like choosing the right hunting environment, locating appropriately sized prey species, and closing the proper stalking distance are all learned behaviors which can contribute to a cheetah’s success or failure on the hunt. But even the most experienced cheetah can’t be guaranteed a kill. Studies have shown that single cheetahs may make less than a quarter of their attempted kills. So what can a cheetah do to increase its chances of putting food on the proverbial table? As it turns out, I’d discover one possible answer just a day later.

Another day, another cheetah— or, in this case, another five cheetahs. As we pulled up to a lone blackthorn in the middle of the midday heat, I was shocked to discover what proved to be no fewer than five individual cheetahs sprawled beneath its scant shade. And these cheetahs were obviously companions: they sought constant contact with each other, resting with their legs and tails intertwined. They yawned frequently and lolled comfortably in each other’s company, radiating a sense of relaxation and confidence. There could be no question: these were the Mara’s famous “Fast Five.” These cheetahs have earned a fair bit of celebrity for themselves in recent years; their photos are shared frequently among safari enthusiasts on social media, and they’ve featured in televised nature documentaries. They belong to what’s known as a coalition of male cheetahs: a group of related or unrelated males that have formed a tightly knit social group.

But I knew that after reaching about 15 months of age, most cheetah cubs achieve independence from their mothers and begin a solitary lifestyle. So why did these five males form a coalition in the first place? To get some answers, I relied on the expertise of Dr. Elena Chelysheva. She has worked as the project manager of the Mara-Meru Cheetah Project since its inception in 2011, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more familiar with the cheetahs of the Maasai Mara. The project works with local conservation groups to maintain an extensive database of cheetah identifications, and I knew that she’d have the scoop on the Fast Five.

“I actually dedicated my article to the coalition of five males,” says Chelysheva of one of her most recent reports for Swara, a magazine published by the East African Wildlife Society. Her research shows that there are a multitude of reasons that cheetahs form coalitions: they can avoid confrontations with larger predators, gain access to preferential territory, and benefit from having more eyes and ears to detect potential threats. “Cheetah sociality is a very interesting and complex topic,” she explains. Her work demonstrates how this coalition’s leadership role is shared between two different cheetahs. This means that both leaders are responsible for resolving conflicts between coalition members and selecting which prey to hunt. It’s a complex job that comes with its own set of challenges. But there’s one advantage to joining the team that isn’t hard to figure out: by hunting in a group, cheetahs can tackle larger prey species and have a better chance of eating well.

Studies demonstrate that cheetah coalitions of at least three males can successfully obtain prey in about one half of their hunting attempts. While the jury is still out on whether this represents a statistically significant increase, there’s no denying that a big coalition like the Fast Five can hunt larger animals like wildebeest or ostrich. And with larger prey on the menu, they can afford to share their meals. Another hunting-related benefit also becomes apparent when a member of a coalition experiences an injury. Even a minor accident can be a death sentence for a single cheetah, which must be in prime physical condition to hunt successfully. Cheetahs which are part of a coalition, however, can enjoy the privilege of sharing meals with the group while they recover. For these reasons, a fully-functioning coalition is an attractive prospect for many male cheetahs. But even the most robust cheetah coalition can run into unexpected problems when it comes to hunting.

Regrettably, cheetahs continue to experience interference from human observers. In popular reserves like the Maasai Mara, it’s not uncommon to see upwards of a dozen Land Rovers and minibuses clustered around a single predator. To learn how these “traffic jams” can adversely affect the cats’ hunting behavior, I turned to Dr. Anne Hilborn. She earned her PhD while working with the Serengeti Cheetah Project to gather data on wild cheetahs in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Her work involved observing hunting behavior, cataloguing prey selection, and recording information about competition with other predators. Unfortunately, she also saw how cheetahs can be forced to “compete” with tourist vehicles. “In the Serengeti, cars line up along the road and tend to create a line of cars,” she explains. “In areas with off-road driving allowed, the drivers tend to create a partial or complete ring around the cheetah.” It’s not hard to see how this could present some serious problems for a hunter trying to approach its prey undetected. Hilborn’s research shows that cheetahs need a clear line of sight to hunt; a wall of vehicles can completely obstruct their ability to scan their territory for prey. “Cheetahs are visual hunters,” she explains, “and need to be able to spot potential prey from a distance. Blockades of cars can prevent them from being able to see portions of the landscape.”

Vehicles can create additional problems, too. “I have seen a cheetah get up and walk out of the circle of cars to try to find prey,” Hilborn recalls. “Then most of the cars switch on their engines and follow her, jockeying for the best position. It is hard to be a stealth hunter and sneak up on unsuspecting prey when loud cars are following you.” This problem is especially pronounced in reserves that permit off-road driving, where tourist vehicles can follow the cheetahs anywhere they please. The continuous revving of vehicle engines can also alert prey species to the presence of a cheetah, further interfering with the hunting process.

So what can you do to be a more ethical safarigoer?

Many game reserves and national parks have a series of formal guidelines with which guests and drivers should be familiar. These rules may address the questions of driving after sunset, staying on the roads, and how closely an animal should be approached. When it comes to cheetahs, Hilborn recommends an easy rule of thumb: never get closer than 25 meters. If the cheetah is feeding on a kill, that distance should be increased to at least 50 meters. And if a cheetah is hunting, it needs an even wider berth: cars should come no closer than 100 meters.

Additionally, cars should never come between a cheetah and its prey. If you’re watching a coalition or a mother with cubs, you should never drive or park between one cheetah and another member of its group. It’s also important to avoid any actions that could impact this sensitive cat: talking loudly or making sudden noises can cause a disruption to normal cheetah behavior. If this is starting to sound like a lot to remember, don’t worry: your guide will already know these rules. Just be sure to let your guide know that you don’t want to be part of an overcrowded sighting. “Safarigoers should be encouraged to reward their drivers for ethical behavior,” Hilborn suggests, “rather than getting them as close as possible to cheetahs.” Hilborn does acknowledge that it’s only natural for tourists to want to get close in order to photograph wild cheetahs. But if we aren’t careful, we could be endangering the very animals that we’ve come so far to see. “In the past, the Serengeti Cheetah Project recorded an incident where the crowd of cars around a mother and cubs separated one cub from her mother,” Hilborn warns. “The cub was not seen again.” This is a stark reminder, but it’s a necessary one. The cheetah is a uniquely fragile species among big cats, and it has evolved a fascinating social structure to increase its chances of successfully obtaining prey—the last thing it needs is to have its survival threatened by careless human interference. Only by approaching cheetahs with sensitivity and respect can we work to ensure that they survive to reward future generations with the chance to appreciate the timeliness dance of predator and prey in the African bush.

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