In my last post we were following a band of cheetahs across the red dunes of the Kalahari with researchers Gus and Margie Mills. The story continues…
Darwin seems to be the ‘leader’, often getting up and trying to egg the other two on, chirping in encouragement. But a leader is only as good as his troops and sometimes those two are so uninterested that he has to give up and lie down in the shade again.
For us it’s a privilege to be with these wild creatures even if there’s no thrill of a full-blown high-speed chase, no fascination of watching them feeding. But it does give an inkling of what their lives are like, and Gus and Margie’s too – lots of heat and lots of boredom enlivened by an occasional highlight. Margie keeps herself busy with Sudoku; Gus has a short catnap.
We’re not bored for a second, hyped up on enthusiasm and awash with new information as Gus and Margie explain that they have collared 19 animals over the past four years and identified 107 individuals by photographs (it’s all in the spots and patterns on the legs though not quite as easy as Margie makes out!).
When they began their study they expected to find that springbok was the main item on the cheetah menu, as the similar Thomson’s gazelle is in Serengeti. Not so. Here steenbok are the dominant prey species, comprising a third of kills, with springbok a distant second at 19% and hares 18%.
There’s a gender bias too: steenbok are top of the pops for mums with cubs (45% of their kills), while male coalitions like Darwin, Huxley and Wallace munch mainly on ostrich (nearly 30% of kills) and gemsbok calves (just over 20%). Single females prey mainly on steenbok and hares, while single males also appear to favour hares.
Just as lunch menus are different for Kgalagadi cheetahs compared to their Serengeti cousins, so is child rearing. In Serengeti, just 5% of cheetah cubs make it to adulthood and lions are responsible for killing 70% of those that don’t. If you’re a cheetah cub, you have a better chance of surviving in the Kgalagadi.
‘Perhaps this is because there are fewer large carnivores here, where 31% of the cubs we’ve found in the lair survived to independence,’ says Gus. The flipside, though, is that Kgalagadi mums who lose cubs don’t seem to come into oestrus again as quickly as their northern sisters, so they produce cubs more slowly.
We’re in a state of excitement overload after our Mills Cheetah Experience, as happy as bees on a sunflower … Until two weeks later when we hear that the duo has spent a day in the dunes watching Darwin and his band of lazies kill a gemsbok calf,
then found one of their collared females with four tiny cubs. It’s soooo hard
not to envy them.
More about Kgalagadi
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