The Cheetah Challenge



Many people believe the cheetah is headed for extinction but, when all the facts are considered, it is clear the cheetah has as good a chance of survival as has any other large predator. It’s future depends entirely upon how man manages the species.

Whereas cheetahs occur in open grasslands their optimum habitat is savannah – the treed-grasslands. They are also found on the fringes of deserts where they drink water when it is available but can do without it - obtaining their moisture requirements, then, from the flesh of the animals that they eat.

Cheetahs do not occur in habitats with heavy undercover or tall grass, although they will use the fringes of such vegetation for shelter. Good visibility is critical for these cats, as is the vital requirement of having open country in which they can apply their fast-running hunting techniques.

The density of cheetah populations depends on the food items present. Small to medium sized antelopes comprise their normal prey but they can take animals as large as waterbuck. Even giraffe calves are recorded. Ostriches, too, fall prey. They have a predilection, however, for taking the young of larger antelope.

Adult cheetahs are solitary animals. When groups of cheetah occur - up to five in number - they comprise mother and cubs; or sub-adult siblings; or they are young bachelors not yet confident enough to venture out entirely on their own.

Adult male cheetahs mark their home ranges with urine and faeces, and they have been observed reacting aggressively towards strange males that invade their living space. This has led some researchers to believe cheetahs are territorial. Others disagree, quoting many observations of random non-aggressive contacts between adult males.

No distinction seems yet to have been made between the home range occupancy phenomenon in cheetahs and their suggested occupation of territories. A home range provides an animal with its living requirements - air, water, food and shelter. A territory is all to do with breeding. When one considers the cheetah’s reproductive behaviour it is difficult to attach any breeding advantage to a territorial imperative.

There is another explanation – that there might be an hierarchy amongst adult males. If this is the case ritual urination and faeces marking of its home range by an adult male can be explained, not as territorial factors, but as advertisements of the presence of a dominant male. Dominant males would be aggressive towards strange males that invade their domains – because such males would have no ranking. Dominant males would also show no aggression towards known lower ranking males. Furthermore, dominant males would have priority access to females in oestrous – which factor would have survival advantages for the species.

The males and females only come together for the purpose of mating. The female then goes back to living a solitary life, gives birth to her cubs, and rears them on her own. There does not appear to be any regular breeding season.

Litters range from one to six. Three is the average. The babies are hidden in tall grass or thick bush and the mother moves them frequently. At three weeks the cubs can walk. At six weeks they are able to follow their mother. They are fully weaned at three months. At twelve months they are killing on their own – at which time they become independent. Their mother then immediately prepares for her next litter.

During the first three months of their lives baby cheetahs are particularly vulnerable to predation – by all predators from the size of jackals upwards - when the mother is away hunting. In game reserves rich in these predators, therefore, the likelihood of whole litters being wiped out is quite good.

Female cheetahs become sexually mature before they are two years old – at about the same time that young leopards and young lions are just cutting their mothers’ apron strings. Both leopard and lion females normally become sexually mature only towards the end of their third year. The propensity for cheetahs to increase their numbers rapidly, therefore, far outstrips that of the other two big cats.

Why, then, is the cheetah supposedly more threatened with extinction than is either the leopard or the lion?

The answer lies in the fact that Africa’s prime cheetah habitat – the savannahs - is also the continent’s prime cattle country. Since the beginning of recorded history in Africa, it is known that when man occupied the savannahs, and brought with him his cattle, sheep and goats, the cheetahs considered these animals fair game. Other predators also killed man’s domesticated animals, but these other predators can live in habitats besides the savannahs – the cheetahs can not.

Cheetahs are renowned for their speed, catching their prey after a short but very fast chase. In the final dash they attain speeds of up to 75 kms per hour (45 m.p.h.). This makes them the fastest animal on earth. Recent research has shown that during this chase the temperature of their blood rises to near fatal levels and it is this factor that causes them to break off many hunts.

The colonial farmers quickly cottoned-on to the fact that, after the cheetahs had run out their dash potentials, they could be easily run down by a man on horseback. They were then dispatched – often with a stirrup swung on the end of its leather strap. In the modern era most cheetahs are killed with rifles.

The cheetah once occupied all the vast savannah regions of Africa and along all the fringes of the continent’s deserts. Historical records show they occurred throughout Southern, Central, and East Africa and right across the sahel, south of the Sahara desert, to West Africa. Up until about 1970 cheetahs were regularly reported from Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and northwestern Egypt.

During the last half of the 20th Century, outside Africa, cheetah still occurred in the northern parts of the Arabian peninsula, in Iraq, in Iran, and east of the Caspian Sea to Afghanistan and Baluchistan. They became extinct in India in 1952. It is reported that there is still a stable population in Iran.

Cheetah skins found their way into the spotted-cat-skin trade – yes – but the existence of this trade was NOT the main reason for their decline. The principal reason for cheetah extirpations was because man killed them in protection of his domesticated livestock.

The poor genetic make-up of today’s extant cheetah populations has given scientists additional room for concern. Theoretically, this means the species has only a limited chance of adapting to changing circumstances in its environment. Scientists say that when the numbers of animals in a population sinks below a certain threshold, the interchange of existing genes, and the production and distribution of beneficial mutant genes, during the breeding process, falls below the critical level required to ensure the population’s long term survival. In this regard 300 has been mooted widely as representing this minimum number – and, as more and more cheetah are killed by farmers, so more and more cheetah populations outside Africa’s bigger game reserves, have fallen below this critical number.

There is, however, contradictory evidence that casts doubts on this theory.

Africa’s southern white rhino population – when it faced imminent extinction during the early part of the 20th century – had been reduced to less than 30 animals. As a result of appropriate management the numbers now exceed 4 000 and many hundreds are shot annually by licensed hunters. The species is now considered “safe”.

The alien Fallow Deer, now widespread in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, started from one male and two females in 1947. During the last 50 years some 15 000 animals have been harvested for meat on the farm where they were first introduced. Many more thousands have been culled or hunted in other areas. This population is clearly far from extinction.

The Himalayan Thar, which now infests Cape Town’s Table Mountain, originated from just one male and one female. Even as I write these words there is a massive operation underway to exterminate what has become a large feral population. Despite its lowest possible original numbers this population of animals has been growing rapidly for years and has never faced extinction.

It has been suggested that one way to improve the genetic make-up of Africa’s cheetahs is to interchange individuals from the continent’s different populations thereby spreading whatever different genes exist. Another suggestion has been to introduce Iranian cheetahs to Africa’s populations, and vice versa. The purists reject these ideas saying that it is equally important to keep each subspecies pure because, they say, an animal’s genetic make-up has only local adaptation advantages – which argument holds a large measure of truth. Others say broadening the gene-base altogether will improve the long-term survival chances of the species, as a whole, which is far more important.

This controversy has many facets and the arguments of their respective pros and cons will likely go on for many years to come.

No matter what the justification for any of these arguments, historical data from the 20th Century, and before, is unequivocal about three things:

Wherever cheetahs once occurred they have either disappeared altogether or their numbers have declined drastically – and that these declines continue; The reason why this has happened is because man has occupied the cheetah’s most important and most extensive habitats – the savannahs - thus man competes directly with the cheetah for living space; and
Man is responsible for the disappearance of many cheetah populations, and for the declines in many others, because cheetahs predate heavily on man’s domesticated small stock. The cheetah pays the price when man reacts by killing them in protection of his stock.

Nevertheless, no matter how drastic may have been its decline during the last century, the cheetah has the ability to bounce back when conditions are favourable.

During the height of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe Bush War (1972-1980) farmers were unable to address the problem of stock-losses occasioned by wild animal predation. Many kills went unrecorded. During this period, therefore, remnant cheetah populations expanded in number and dispersed widely. Consequently, at the end of the war reports about cheetah predating on domestic small stock came in from every corner of the country – even from places where cheetah had not been recorded for 50 years and more.

Another story tells a similar tale.

In the early 1980s, seven adult wild cheetah from Namibia were released into South Africa’s 200 square mile Pilanesberg National Park – where most natural cheetah-cub predators were absent. There was also an abundance of suitable prey animals for the cheetahs to hunt. All the conditions favoured the cheetah. Within 12 months the seven cheetahs had increased to 17 – and that year they killed every single waterbuck calf and practically the whole of the tssessebe calf crop, too. Consequently, the decision to introduce the cheetah was voted a bad idea and they were all removed (by shooting).

The cheetah, therefore, is capable of remarkable recovery given the right conditions – despite the scientists’ worries about its apparently fragile genetics. Furthermore, if society REALLY wants the cheetah to survive, common sense should be telling us a number of obvious things about how to achieve this desirable objective. It should be telling us we should be concentrating much more on developing practical solutions to the human/cheetah conflict situation than on imposing new and draconian laws that are designed, solely, to provide the cheetah with ever-greater legal protection. The reality of life is that, no matter what the legislation says, when a struggling farmer is confronted by cheetahs that repeatedly kill his calves he will, one way or another, get rid of them all.

Society needs to allow pragmatic wildlife managers to create conditions that will make the farmers of Africa WANT to have cheetahs on their land. This will happen ONLY when it is in the farmer’s own best interests to have them. THAT means the cheetahs, despite depredations on domestic or wild game stocks, MUST produce for the farmer more benefits than problems. And that, in turn, means some kind of sustainable-use of the cheetahs that will bring the farmer significant financial benefits.

The long-term survival prospects for Africa’s cheetahs, therefore, is wrapped up NOT in some emotionally- charged magic-wand protectionist solution supported by improbable laws that fail to recognise the realities of the human/cheetah conflict situation, but in simply changing the cheetah’s social status. The cheetah will only be saved if society can be persuaded to de-proclaim it a so-called ‘endangered species’ – which it is not. The species has just been inappropriately managed! Society needs to start understanding, instead, that, to save the Cheetah, man needs to consider those SAFE populations of cheetahs (such as those that live on the extensive game and cattle ranches of Namibia) as ‘wild products of the land’ that man can ‘use’ sustainably for his own benefit. And the most practical way to achieve this is for society to support the sustainable hunting of cheetahs on those properties, and on other landholdings like them, for a very high price.