Tom’s Talk — Cheetah: the greyhound of Zambia’s vast plains

Sara Drawwater
27 October 2011
Kafue National Park’s number one flagship species in the

Kafue National Park’s number one flagship species in the Open Africa monitoring program — according to Richard Estes, in his book ‘The Safari Companion’, a guide to watching African mammals, is, “A cat with a greyhound chassis, built for speed”.

It has relatively small feet for its body size, and tracks that show signs of its unsheathed claws. It is this that allows one to distinguish between the tracks of cheetah, hyena and wild dog in areas where these animals occur together. This can be more often than one expects, especially in the central part of the Kafue National Park.

Normally cheetah are associated with open plains which have clumps of grass and bushes. Here it can stalk and get close to its prey, before sprinting out at incredible speed and acceleration, to overtake and knock down a fleeing puku or impala. Despite its great speed the cheetah cannot maintain it for long distances and will give up easily if its first attempts are not successful. This is nature’s inbuilt way of conserving energy — the cheetah will not use up more energy than it can gain from the prey that it kills.

Once knocked over the prey is grabbed by the throat and choked to death. A cheetah will drag its kill into cover. Here it will open up the body cavity by licking the hair off the soft belly parts and between the hind legs — it does not eat the skin or intestines and does not have jaws powerful enough to crush bones. Like the leopard it goes for the liver and heart as these are highly nutritious. It will eat as much meat as possible from the hind quarters — up to 14 kilograms. The cheetah does not go back to an old kill so has to hunt on a more regular basis than other large carnivores like lion, leopard and hyenas. These three culprits all compete with the cheetah, steal its prey, and even kill the cheetah if given half a chance.

The home ranges of cheetah can be very large, up to 800 square kilometres on the Serengeti Plains (according to Estes). However, we have noticed that in the Kafue National Park the cheetah’s home ranges can be considerably smaller and is related to the availability and abundance of food as well as how easily it can be obtained. Competition for this food also has to be considered. If lions move in, the cheetah moves out.

Socially, cheetah are normally found only in small family groups of a mother and her cubs. The mother cheetah cares for her cubs up to the age of two to three years when they split up. Young females start breeding themselves. The males hang around together as sibling cohorts (groups) or single males on the look out for a receptive willing “lady”.

Another interesting and possibly worrying fact about cheetah is, it is thought that they have a very small gene pool, especially in Southern African farming areas, where they were easily obtainable stock and hunted almost to extinction. This makes them very vulnerable to disease. Fortunately conservation efforts of captive breeding and their reintroduction to controlled game areas, together with education and habitat protection has reversed this trend. Cheetah numbers seem to be increasing in Southern and Central African regions.

In the Central part of Kafue National Park and adjacent Game Management Area, where Kaingu Lodge is situated, there are fairly big grassy plains, or dambo’s as they are called here. These are separated by areas of Miombo woodland. We have found that the cheetah here move from one dambo to the next through the woodlands, where if they find prey, they will hunt and kill it, right here in this atypical cheetah territory. I mention this because the woodlands are not normal cheetah habitat. the Miombo woodland overlaps with lion and leopard habitat. It is therefore necessary to look for all the possible clues when finding tracks, signs and kills — an interesting detective game that can be difficult to solve unless one actually catches ‘the culprit in the act’ so to speak.

Going out with guests to walk our ‘Open Africa’ monitoring transects adds interest and spice to their experience. We look for clues and signs that will allow us to positively identify the presence of cheetah in our area. It goes without saying that although we concentrate on the five Kafue National Park flagship species of cheetah, elephant, sable, Deffassa waterbuck and wild dog, we learn a whole lot more about the entire environment, and natures wonderful ecological web.

The Tom’s Talk seriesThis is the fifth article in a series about happenings in and around Kaingu Safari Lodge, Kafue National Park, Zambia.1: Introducing Tom’s Talk from the Kafue National Park2: Tom’s Talk — Facelifts and new adventures at Kaingu, Kafue National Park, Zambia3: Tom’s Talk — Sable antelopes, the show-piece of Kafue National Park, Zambia4: Tom’s Talk — Open Africa and Kaingu Safari Lodge5: Tom’s Talk — Cheetah: the greyhound of Zambia’s vast plains

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