Autumn 2021 | Deirdre Opie

Tree-climbing cheetahs

One afternoon, while broadcasting a live virtual safari for Wild Earth, cameraman B’Kay and I were following two male cheetahs moving purposefully towards a shepherd’s tree (Boscia albitrunca), a species so typical of the Tswalu landscape. I was just thinking that the branches of this particular tree were low hanging, and also at an easy enough angle even for a cheetah to climb, when one of the males leapt effortlessly onto the lowest branch and proceeded to walk along the limb as if it was a totally natural thing to do. When he got to the tip of the branch he executed a pirouette and defecated – all nicely captured on live TV! These two particular male cheetahs are known for this behaviour, sometimes even climbing a tree with a Sociable weaver’s nest in it, to leave their mark. Marking their territory in this way sends a clear message to other animals. The reason they climb high up in a tree is to enable the scent to travel on the wind. Branches need to be low hanging and gently sloped as, unlike leopards, cheetahs’ claws are not adapted to climbing vertical tree trunks. As with most animal behaviour, they learn how to climb and scramble around in the trees by exploring as cubs, under the watchful eye of their mother.

Image by Deirdre Opie; video by Wild Earth