Conservation | Dec 2020

Cheetah – perfect Kalahari predators

Duncan MacFadyen, Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

The cheetah, the world’s fastest land mammal, is one of the predators that finds sanctuary in Tswalu Kalahari’s wide, open spaces.  Cheetah are known to be shy and elusive and, as a result, we don’t know exactly how many there are on the reserve. They are regularly encountered, though, often with cubs. While cheetah numbers in protected areas, like Tswalu, are on the increase, they are classified as vulnerable due to the many risks which endanger the population across Africa. Ninety percent of their historic range on the continent has been wiped out due to habitat loss and alteration, as well as fragmentation of cheetah populations. Habitat loss is caused largely by the introduction of commercial land use, such as agriculture and industry, and is further aggravated by ecological degradation, like bush encroachment. Cheetah regularly come into conflict with humans. Illegal wildlife trade, as well as persecution by farmers and community members, is common. It is interesting to note that cheetah appear less capable of coexisting with humans than leopards. Other threats to their survival include a shortage of prey and conflict with other species such as large carnivores. Cheetah also need space.

Image by Don Heyneke

They are well adapted to the open plains and rolling dunes typical of the southern Kalahari, but are also at home in savannah woodland. The only habitat on the reserve where you don’t usually find them is the Korannaberg mountains. Cheetah have always inhabited Tswalu as a transient population, however as numbers have increased over the years many have become resident on the property. Occasionally, animals have been introduced into the population from outside, usually by assisting the South African Police Service with animals rescued from the wildlife trade.

Female cheetah lead a relatively nomadic lifestyle in search of prey in large home ranges, whereas the males are more sedentary and may establish much smaller territories in areas with abundant prey and access to females. Cheetah are more active during the day, whereas lion, leopard and spotted hyena are more active at night. These larger carnivores, especially lion, often kill cheetah and regularly steal their prey. Diurnal habits help cheetah to avoid larger predators in areas where they both occur.

Images from Tswalu Kalahari

Hunting is a daily priority, with peaks at dawn and dusk. They often make use of elevated observation points, such as termite mounds, to search for prey while staying alert to the risk posed by larger carnivores. Despite their speed, cheetahs still rely heavily on the element of surprise. It is believed that a cheetah has a one-in-10 chance of catching an animal that is not taken by surprise, while success rises to a one-in-two chance if the prey is caught off guard. The cheetah uses speed to catch and overpower its prey, knocking an antelope off balance and grabbing it by the throat as it falls. Because of its relatively small jaws and teeth, cheetah are not as effective in killing their prey as other large carnivores, and in some cases the prey takes some time to die. The cheetah generally predates on small to medium-sized prey, mostly antelope such as steenbuck, impala, springbok and red hartebeest.

Image Cheetah kill from Tswalu Kalahari

Breeding occurs throughout the year, after a gestation period of around three months, and litters are usually from three to five cubs. Weaning happens at around four months, and cubs are independent by around 20 months of age.

The cheetah is a vocal felid with a broad repertoire of calls and sounds, including growling, snarling, hissing and, most predominantly, a bird-like chirp. Cheetah are the most timid of the big cats and there is no record in southern Africa of a wild cheetah ever having attacked a human.

Image 1 by Kevan Dobbie, Image 2 by Mark Winckler

By conserving cheetah populations and their habitat, Tswalu is ensuring that future generations can encounter and enjoy this incredible species in the wild. It is important to understand how the cheetah interacts within its ecosystems, and how it is affected by environmental and human influences. Tswalu plays a pivotal role in the conservation of the species by protecting suitable habitat and ensuring a balanced, holistic ecosystem which enables all species indigenous to the Kalahari equal opportunity to survive and thrive. Cheetah guardianship at Tswalu is another key conservation success story.

Image by Don Heyneke