On my first real day out in the field, I had some incredible luck.
We had found the baboons and had been observing them about an hour. The group was just starting to casually forage amongst the trees and bushes at the edge of their sleeping grove, the next stop apparently being a large flat plain with scarce vegetation. I was pestering Raf, our senior observer, with the incessant questions that are implicit with your first day in the field, when we heard a tentative, loud bark from a baboon high up on a trunk of an acacia – an alarm call. Young baboons and females with infants began running towards us, back towards their sleeping quarters and away from the alarm calling baboon. A few baboons unburdened by offspring climbed adjacent acacia to assess the scene and began calling as well. Scanning the horizon with my binoculars, I saw…nothing. It was my first day, after all. After a few minutes, Raf motioned for Ben to bring the truck around so we could investigate.
Ben and I remaining clueless to the location of the alarm call, Raf directed us to the cause of the commotion – as we arrived, the cheetah still had its teeth in the neck of a large male grant’s gazelle. And there were three other cheetahs waiting patiently for her to finish the hunt.
I got to see not one, but 4 cheetahs, in the wild. Why was this so exciting?
Cheetahs are primarily solitary animals once they’ve reached adulthood, only coming together to mate. This group was a family of nearly grown cheetahs still learning how to hunt/consume a carcass. Based on their physical appearance, presence, and overall lack of ability to consume a carcass, the younger cheetahs were probably a little less than a year and a half old.
Cheetah cubs also have an incredibly high rate of mortality, with around 70-80% of offspring dying in the first three months. This is primarily due to predation (upwards of 70% of cubs are killed by other large carnivores while the mother is hunting), but reduced genetic diversity has also resulted in high levels of recessive genes and thereby weak cheetah cubs.
We’re going to come back to predation in a little bit, since that’s the more important cause of cub mortality, and talk a little bit about genetic diversity, since I think it’s got fascinating implications for conservation efforts down the line. Low genetic diversity in cheetahs isn’t entirely the fault of humans – around 12,000 years ago a mass mammalian extinction created a bottleneck in 75% of mammal species. Everyone that survived recovered, but cheetahs in particular seemed to have recovered in quantity but not quality, with cheetahs suffering from susceptibility to the same infectious diseases, low sperm quality, and kinked tails. This information is coming from the Genetic Diversity section of the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s (CCF) website, as opposed to specific papers looking at the genetics of cheetahs.
I mention that specifically because more recent bottlenecks are far greater cause for alarm than this ancient one, and the CCF is likely being diplomatic. The recent bottleneck, by the CCF’s estimates, brought down the population from around 100,000 in 1900 to about 10,000 today. Today’s cheetahs to have such low genetic diversity that (as of 1985) they can accept skin grafts from unrelated cheetahs. In order for this to be possible, the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) needs to be near identical on a genetic level, as the MHC complex the body whether a cell is part of the self or whether that cell is something else entirely. Population wide MHC diversity serves a protective function as pathogens that can get past one MHC combination may not be able to get past another combination. This is one of the important immune factors in preventing the spread of the disease throughout the entire population. The global cheetah population is already very low, so managing these levels of genetic diversity will be paramount for future cheetah well-being. Despite that, calling to attention these low levels of genetic diversity was a little bit controversial and the authors were called out for not seeing to the real conservation problems at hand – high levels of predation and human conflict.
Now, hyenas and lions have always been beating up on the little cheetah. It’s easy to do – they aren’t bred to fight, they’re bred to run. And when they do run, they need a 20-30 minute break after so their insane heart rate can return to cheetah-normal. This makes their catch (if they caught anything, with that 50% success rate) easy pickings for anyone bigger. What makes now so different? Well, there’s the already basally low population density of cheetahs (discussed next), but there’s also an increased density of their predators in national parks and wildlife reserves, since that’s the only place to go now. This means that cheetahs are likely to move out of these protected areas with high predator densities and into non-protected land (private farmland).
Over 90% of cheetahs live outside protected management areas, despite translocation efforts. Between 1978 and 1994 alone, this led to a perceived wildlife-livestock conflict produced a literal open season on cheetah hunting. Between livestock and game farmers, an estimated 9,588 cheetahs were “removed” in Namibia. I say “perceived” because cheetahs are diurnal hunters, in contrast to many African predators, and may be blamed for other predator’s kills.
To ease these human-wildlife conflicts, the CCF has helped implement an innovative measure: the livestock guarding dog program! They give the farmers dogs that have literally been bred to save livestock from wolves and bears in Turkey, the Anatolian shepherd and the Kangal dog. Because cheetahs are the lowest on the predator totem pole, they are unlikely to see a goat herd guarded by a large dog as easy prey. This has reduced livestock loss from predators by over 80%. Additionally, the CCF trains farmers in other predator-friendly livestock farming methods and fighting the illegal wildlife trade on their own as well as in conjunction with the US Department of State through the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking.
Mom takes a step back for the wee babes. Once a cheetah has hunted, they need to rest for 20-30 minutes before they can actually eat. While a cheetah is only successful in a hunt about 50% of the time, this remission period is when other predators can easily swoop in and steal the kill.
Baby 1 is going for it!
Mom is the back left cheetah.
Everyone is relatively relaxed because we were on a large, open flood plain. It would be easy to see anyone coming to take the kill. Also, this is ten minutes later, as we’re leaving, and the babes still haven’t opened the gazelle up.