________The African sun is just beginning to creep over the endless expanse of grassland as a herd of Thompson's gazelle begins its morning feed. They don't notice the buff colored shape inching closer under cover of the tall grass. With a lightening burst of speed the graceful cat springs from it's hiding place. The panicked antelope quickly disperse and dodge this way and that to elude the predator now hot on their heels.
________Nonretractable claws digging into the turf like world class athletes' running spikes, the cheetah zeros in on its intended meal and holds fast. With a forward swipe from an outstretched paw, the big cat knocks the Thommie's legs out from under it. Once the prey is down it is over quickly.
________This very scene has played out for thousands of years on the stage of the savannah. But the show may be coming to a close soon. One of the lead actors is in trouble.
________Among the large cats of Africa, the cheetah is unique in both habits and physique. Unlike the other cats which are built for the life of a powerful ambush predator, the cheetah is built for speed pure and simple. With its long, slender, greyhound-like body this animal is well suited for the small antelope it favors as prey. This lightly built cat is a running machine, every part of it seemingly designed to propel it to the 65-70 miles per hour record it holds.
________The cheetah's spine is extremely flexible, allowing it a long stride. The tail, which is long and broad, acts like a rudder, giving the animals the ability to make high speed quick turns to keep up with dodging prey. Unlike all other cats, which keep their claws sheathed, the cheetah's claws are unretractable. They remain permanently out, like a dog, to give the cheetah a good grip on the ground during flight. Even the dark black markings on the face serve a purpose, acting much like sunglasses to help cut the glare of the savage African sun as the animal scans the plain.
________One thing they do have in common with another African cat, the lion, is the way their male society is set up. Once a cheetah male has reached maturity and has set off on his own, he joins a coalition group. These groups are made up of two to four males who share a territory. The members are often siblings who stay together for life, defending their territory from other coalitions and helping each other overcome females at mating time.
________Females, however, unlike lionesses are solitary animals. They live in isolations, only intermingling with males during breeding season. After mating the female leaves the male to give birth and raise her cubs alone.
________Cheetah vocalizations are also a bit strange for those used to the load roars and growls emitted by lions and leopards. The calls of a cheetah mother can be likened to the trilling of birds. They are able to purr, unlike lions and other cats which roar.
________The range of the cheetah was once vast, covering most of Africa and some of Asia and the Middle East. In fact, Indian maharajas once kept these sleek animals as pets, using them as aids in hunting. The cheetahs present range is considerably smaller, with the largest populations occurring in Southern and Eastern Africa. A few may remain in parts of the Middle East.
________Worldwide population has been estimated at 8,000 to 10,000 animals.
________Why after thousands of years of survival have the cheetahs begun to lose their foothold and slip toward extinction? Many theories abound about why these animals are declining. Among them is an assertion that cheetahs, for whatever reason, lack the genetic diversity to sustain a viable population."In 1983, research biologists Steve O'Brien, David Wildt and Mitch reported that cheetahs exhibit a dramatic lack of genetic variation compared with other mammals- a genetic deficiency comparable, in fact, to that of inbred strains of laboratory mice." (Caro, 1994, June)
________This genetic impairment was brought to the attention of researchers and conservationist after many facilities were having trouble breeding cheetahs in captivity. This theory of genetic problems may be flawed, as it doesn't take into account the fact that many facilities, such as zoos may be ill equipped to successfully breed cheetahs. Poor animal husbandry may be more a culprit than the cheetah's genetic makeup.
________This does nothing to explain the declining numbers in the wild, however. The cheetah it seems has many enemies in the wild, chief among them being lions and hyenas. Lions and cheetahs often come into contact in the wild and when they do the cheetah is almost always the loser. It is common for a pride of lions to find and kill any cheetah cubs they encounter in their territories. When the lions threaten a cheetah's cubs there is nothing for the mother to do but draw back and leave her brood to the mercy of the larger predator.
________Cheetahs are learned hunters. To perfect the skills a cheetah must know to survive means hours of watching mother and practicing themselves on live animals the mother brings them. This puts the cheetah in a vulnerable position. After a kill other predators may be drawn to a free meal and if the cubs are not fast enough they may end up as food themselves. The cheetah is built for speed not fighting and in a contest between a cheetah and hyena or lion they are rarely the victor.
________But cheetahs, lions and hyenas have coexisted and evolved together over a long period of time, why is the impact of predation taking such a grim toll on them at this time? The answer invariably is man. The lands one inhabited by lions, cheetahs and hyenas were vast. The three species had ample room to pursue their very different lives. Contact between them occurred, but not to the extent it does now that humans have forced them into smaller and smaller places. The lion and hyena have been able to adapt in a fashion to this compressed environment. The cheetah has not. The smaller area afforded them is not providing enough prey or territory and is making them vulnerable to infectious diseases in a way they never have been before. They are unable to compete with the other large predators in their environment.
________The only answer to this problem is to reserve large tracts of land for all the animals to be able to sustain populations. To give them enough room to hunt, breed and stay out of each others way. But is this feasible? The human population in Africa is growing at an alarming rate. More and more land will be needed to build homes, raise crops and tend cattle. With this fact in mind, is it inevitable that the curtain will close on the cheetah's story, and he will become nothing but a memory of speed, grace and beauty?
Caro, T. (1994, June) An Elegant Enigma
_____Wildlife Conservation. pp.46
Many thanks to The Bronx Zoo and The National Zoo for their great exhibits were I learned most of this.
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