Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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Much has been written about the cheetah but there is still a great deal to learn. Some say the cheetah is heading for early extinction. Others say this is nonsense that the cheetah has as good a chance as any other large predator to survive into posterity. What is clear – as is the case with all the other large predators - is that whether the cheetah dies out, or remains with us into posterity, will depend upon how man manages the species and how much pragmatism he employs in his management practices.

The cheetah has been depicted (in the movies) as an animal of the open grassland. They are, however, more frequently encountered in savannah habitats – treed-grasslands – where the bulk of the continent’s populations exist. They are also to be found on the fringes of deserts. They drink water regularly when it is available (during the rains) but can do without water for months on end. They then obtain their moisture requirements from the flesh of the animals that they eat.

Cheetah do not occur in forest or in woodland areas which have heavy undercover or tall grass, although they will use the fringes of such vegetation for shelter. Good visibility is one of the critical factors in good cheetah habitat, as is the vital requirement of having open country in which they can apply their fast-running hunting techniques.

The cheetah’s occurrence in suitable habitats, and the density of their populations, depends very much on the prey items that are present. Generally small to medium sized antelopes comprise their prey, such as impala, springbuck and reedbuck in Southern Africa, and Thomson’s and Grants Gazelle in East Africa. They can, however, take prey as large as waterbuck and giraffe calves. They have a predilection, however, for taking the young of larger antelope, like waterbuck and tsessebe. Ostriches, too, fall prey.

Adult cheetah are essentially solitary animals. Nevertheless, groups of cheetah, up to five in number, are seen quite often. Such groupings comprise the sub-adult siblings of a recently independent litter; or they are young bachelors not yet adult enough to venture out entirely on their own.

There has been much conjecture about whether or not adult males occupy territories. Adult male cheetahs mark the boundaries of 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. Other researchers say cheetahs are not territorial – quoting random non-aggressive contacts between adult males in support of their theories.

In the literature, no distinction seems yet to have been made between the home range occupancy phenomenon in cheetahs and their possible 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. And when I look at the cheetah’s reproductive behaviour I find it difficult to believe that there would be any breeding advantage to the species if the males occupied territories.

Nobody seems to have yet considered the possibility of there being an hierarchy amongst adult male cheetahs in the same population. Apparent ritual urination and faeces marking within a cheetah’s home range would thus be explained, not as territorial factor, but as advertisements of the presence of a dominant male. Dominant male cheetahs would be expected to be aggressive towards strange males that invade their domains (see above) – because such males would have no ranking. Dominant males would also show no aggression towards known lower ranking males (see above) when they meet, because such males would not represent a challenge. Furthermore, dominant males would have priority access to females in oestrous – which factor would have survival advantages for the species.

Smithers (Mammals of the southern African subregion) states that “the courtship of cheetahs is a subtle and complex process and unless a number of conditions are met they will not breed.” Miss Ann van Dyk (De Wildt Cheetah Sanctuary, South Africa) and Dr David Meltzer (Pretoria Zoo, South Africa) have now cracked the code and Miss van Dyk is now producing cheetahs in captivity almost at will. In captivity the males and females are now kept apart throughout the year – until the female comes into eostrous at which time two or more males are introduced to her. Aggression between the competing males, and between the males and the female, are thought to play an integral part in causing a successful mating.

In the wild adult cheetahs live solitary lives – so the adult males and the adult 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 five with an average of three. Six have been recorded. The babies are hidden in tall grass or thick bush. The mother moves them frequently during the early stages of their lives. At three weeks the cubs can walk and 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 very vulnerable to predation – by jackals, hyenas and lions, even (probably) by baboons – when the mother is away hunting. In game reserves rich in these predators, therefore, the likelihood of whole litters being wiped out on a regular basis is probably quite good.

Females become sexually mature at 21 to 24 months old. By comparison, young leopards do not become independent of their mothers until they are 22 months old, or older, and they become sexually mature at about 30 months. Some leopard females have been known to come into oestrous, for the first time, only in their fourth year. Young lions become independent at about 22 to 24 months of age, and young lion females reach sexually maturity towards the end of their third year. The propensity for cheetahs to increase their numbers rapidly, - when conditions for them are optimum - therefore, far outstrips those 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, therefore, it is known that when man occupied these habitats with his cattle, sheep and goats, his domestic stock herds were heavily predated upon by cheetahs. These domestic stock herds were also, of course, predated upon by lions, leopards and hyenas, but these predators can live in other habitats besides the savannahs – the cheetahs can not.

Cheetahs are renowned for their speed, catching their prey after a very fast chase that covers up to some 400 metres. In the final dash they attain speeds of up to 75 kms per hour (45 m.p.h.) which 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.

From the very earliest of times in the colonial era, cheetah seriously conflicted with the domesticated stock enterprises of the white settler farmers. But the farmers quickly cottoned-on to the fact that, in open country – after the cheetah had run out their dash potentials – they could be run down by a man on horseback. They were then easily dispatched. One farmer, it has been reported, killed four cheetah one morning by galloping alongside them and whacking them over the head with his stirrup iron – swinging the stirrup iron, on the end of its leather straps, like a bludgeon. In the modern era, however, most cheetahs are killed with rifles.

The cheetah once occupied practically all the vast savannah regions of Africa and it occurred all along the fringes of the continent’s many deserts. They occurred from South Africa northwards. Historical records show that they occurred in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Zambia, southern Congo, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, north-eastern Uganda; Somalia, Sudan, and right across the sahel regions, south of the Sahara desert, to West Africa. Up until about 1970, cheetah were still present in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and north-western Egypt. More recent records of cheetahs in these northern countries, however, are scant. Wherever they once occurred, however, their numbers have declined in consort with man’s expansion into the continent’s cheetah habitats, and the cheetah’s destruction has been occasioned by the fact of their predation on man’s domesticated animals.

Some people, and animal rights NGOs, who have their own agenda’s for saying so, claim that the trade in spotted cat skins caused the cheetah’s decline. This is not true. Cheetah skins found their way into this trade – yes – but the principal reason for the cheetah’s decline has been because, wherever they once occurred, they predated on man’s live-stock.

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. (Smithers, 1983). It is reported that there is still an extant population in Iran.

The genetic make-up of today’s cheetah populations has given scientists new room for concern. In every population of cheetahs still extant in the world their gene counts have all been found to be very low. Theoretically, when a species, or population, has a low gene count this means it has a poor chance of adapting to changing circumstances in its environment. Scientists have suggested 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 new mutant genes, during the breeding process, falls below the critical level required to ensure its long term survival. In this regard 300 has been mooted widely as representing this 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.

Many people are skeptical. They point to the fact that 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. Some say the number was as low as sixteen. Now, through proper management, the numbers exceed 4000 and many hundreds are shot annually by licensed hunters. The species is now considered “safe”.

The alien Fallow Deer in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa has become a very successful feral animal – yet this now huge population started from only one male and two female animals in 1947. These animals were bred up to 15 in a fenced enclosure before being released to the wild. They have now spread all over the province – much to the consternation of the authorities – but this does not detract from the fact that from just three animals a major population of feral wild animals has been created that is far from facing extinction. And on the farm where this all began – alone – some 15 000 animals have been culled for meat during the last 50 years.

The Himalayan Thar, which now infests Cape Town’s Table Mountain in South Africa, originated from just one male and one female that escaped many years ago from a Cape Town zoo. Even as I write these words the game rangers of the South African National Parks Board are trying to eradicate them. Despite this population’s lowest possible original numbers, however, Table Mountain’s current Himalayan Thar population is still growing and is very far from extinction.

It has been suggested (anon) that one way to improve the genetic make-up of existing cheetah populations in Africa is to transfer individuals from the continent’s different populations – comprising seven possible sub-species – and so to spread 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 of the subspecies pure. The genetic make-up of a population, they say, has, principally, only local adaptation advantages – which argument, theoretically, has a large measure of truth. Others say that creating genetic conditions that will probably improve the long-term survival chances of the species as a whole is far more important than trying to maintain what might be only the short-term survival chances of the now comparatively small populations of a number of different subspecies.

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

Historical data tells us that the cheetah’s numbers consistently declined throughout the 20th Century, and its distribution has shrunk, and continues to shrink, progressively. It also tells us that the principal reason for the cheetah’s decline has been because human pastoralists have killed the predator in protection of their domestic stock. If the cheetah is to survive into posterity, therefore, this conflict is the problem that has to be resolved.

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

During the height of the Rhodesian/Zimbabwe Bush War – 1970 to 1980 – white farmers were confined, more and more, to their homesteads, behind security fences, during the hours of darkness. During the last five years of this period most farmers only ventured out onto their properties between 0900 hours in the morning and 1500 hours in the afternoon – because those were the times when the terrorists (or freedom fighters, depending on your inclinations) were least active. Many farms were abandoned entirely.

Cheetahs hunt most seriously during the early hours of daylight and in the late afternoons – when the farmers were safely ensconced in their barricaded homes. Throughout rural Rhodesia, therefore, the cheetahs had cart blanche on many white-owned farms during the greater part of the 1970s – and if they killed sheep or calves few farmers had the temerity to hunt them down. Indeed, very often their kills were not recorded. The animals simply “went missing”. Consequently, by 1980, when the war came to an end and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, reports of cheetah killing domestic stock came in from all quarters of the country – some which had not seen cheetah for fifty years.

Another story tells a similar tale.

In the early 1980s seven wild cheetah from Namibia were released into South Africa’s 200 square mile Pilanesberg National Park. There were, at that time, no spotted hyenas, no lions, no wild dogs and few jackals in Pilanesberg. In other words, the principal pedators of cheetah cubs were absent. But there was an abundance of recently introduced 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 the cheetahs killed every single waterbuck calf and practically the whole of the tssessebe calf crop, too. The managers of that time assessed this situation and concluded that it had been a bad idea to introduce the cheetah – so they were removed (by shooting).

What all this tells us is that the cheetah is capable of remarkable recovery given the right conditions – despite worries about its apparently fragile genetic make-up. It tells us, too, that – if human society REALLY wants to see the cheetah survive - we should be concentrating more on trying to solve the human/cheetah conflict situation rather than imposing draconian legislation that is designed, solely, to provide the cheetah with legal protection. No matter what the legislation says, when a poor farmer is confronted by a cheetah that repeatedly kills his calves he will contrive some means of killing it - and he will tell the authorities to “go to hell”.

What is needed is for society to allow wildlife managers to create conditions that will make the farmers of Africa WANT to have cheetahs on their land. And farmers will only be persuaded to WANT to keep cheetahs if it is their 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 financial benefits.

The long-term survival prospects for Africa’s cheetahs, therefore, is wrapped up not in some magic-wand and/or improbable legal-protectionist solution but in simply changing the cheetah’s status from a so-called ‘endangered species’ to that of a ‘wild product of the land’ that man can ‘use’, sustainably, for his own benefit. And the most practical way to achieve this is to allow the cheetah to be sustainably hunted.
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