I was on an early morning safari drive with Bountiful Safaris in the Maasai Mara National Reserve and we were watching a cheetah and her cubs. One of the cheetah cubs climbed into the branches of a tree and became stranded some nine feet above the ground. The mother cheetah simply walked away as the cub frantically chirped in distress. “Can we lend a hand?” I asked, but our guide quickly rebuffed my suggestion. “That cub got itself up there, it will get itself down,” he assured us. After a while, the cub did indeed climb down.
“People are more interested in seeing lions than cheetahs,” says our guide. Yet cheetahs are the most vulnerable and rarest of the world’s big cats and growing steadily rarer.”
In the early 20th century it is believed that around 100,000 cheetahs roamed the Earth. Slowly and inexorably, cheetahs have been exterminated from large portions of their former range in Africa and the Middle East. Once plentiful in places such as India, cheetahs are now extinct in 20 countries and occupy about 17% of their historic range. Fewer than 10,000 cheetahs survive in the wild today. The last significant populations are found in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.
In the past, cheetahs were widely distributed across Kenya. However, over the years, herders, farmers and a general human population increase has crowded the cats out of their habitat. Cheetahs are now resident in about 23% of their historical range in Kenya. Even within Kenya’s great game parks, cheetahs are under enormous pressure. The Maasai Mara and the adjoining Serengeti in Tanzania is considered to have one of the most stable cheetah populations in East Africa, but is still estimated to have less than 300 individuals!
Despite their speed and killing efficiency, cheetahs are in the bottom ranks of large African predators. Cheetahs today are outnumbered by their enemies to which they are largely defenseless. The cheetah may be a predator, but it is also preyed upon. Among carnivores of the African savannah, only the lowly jackals give way to the cheetah. Lions, leopards, and even hyenas, not only challenge adult cheetahs for prey but also sometimes attack and devour their cubs. Mother cheetahs find it difficult to raise their cubs in the wild, and mortality among cubs can run as high as 90%. Those that do survive reach sexual maturity around the age of 18 months.
Wildlife trafficking is also taking a huge toll on the dwindling cheetah population. Cheetahs remain highly fashionable especially in the Gulf States, where cheetah cubs are treated as exotic wild animal pets. Trading in cheetah cubs is particularly destructive. It creates demand and incentive for unscrupulous traders, with cheetah cubs fetching upwards of US$10 000. The poachers will more often than not kill the parents of the abducted animals. A cursory search on the internet indicates that trade in wild cheetah cubs is a large-scale enterprise. In recent years cheetah smugglers have been arrested in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. In 2015 the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the cheetah’s status to Vulnerable, with the illegal trade cited as a major threat.
Back to the Mara … we watch as the cubs play among themselves. The cubs stalk, chase and pounce; a sequence that bares close resemblance to actual hunting by adults. One cub chases another to the point of capture, then swipes at its rump or hind leg with a paw in the same manner that an adult cheetah knocks its victim to the ground. The final stage ends up being a wrestling match as opposed to the fatal strangling bite between an adult cheetah and its prey.
I meet members of the Mara Cheetah Project who are are collecting photographs of the Mara’s cheetahs from guides and guests so that they can track their movements within the ecosystem. Under the guidance of the Kenya Wildlife Trust they determine the threats that cheetahs face in the greater Mara ecosystem and come up with sustainable solutions to mitigate them, such as their very successful community-based approach. You can see more about them on their Facebook page.
Since the 1900s the cheetah population has dwindled by more than 90% and continues to dwindle every decade. The reasons are simple: encroaching on habitat, loss of natural prey and illegal hunting for pets. The Maasai Mara is still a major habitat for the cheetah thanks to the continuous efforts by several cheetah conservation groups. More work, however, needs to be done, and only a concerted effort by all stakeholders presents the cheetah’s best hope for survival.
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