Friday, February 27, 2009

Killer cheetah

Cheetahs are pretty big cats, but in most cases if a cheetah encounters leopard, lion, or a hyena (hyenas are neither cats nor dogs), it will almost always retreat or give up kill. Cheetahs specialize in killing Thompson's gazelle (Tommie), a relatively small and fast animal. We have recently seen one male cheetah almost on a daily basis.

We first saw it scent marking territory not too far from our camp. Then we saw it emerging from the bushes one day and Ben said, "It looks like it is going to hunt." Being the diligent HYENA researchers that we are, we left the cheetah to look for hyenas. About 30 minutes later we saw the cheetah scarfing down a Tommie. We had never seen a cheetah hunt, so we were disappointed.

The next day we were on our way home from our morning observations when I spotted the same cheetah crouched about 30 meters from our truck. This cheetah was definitely stalking prey. I didn't want to talk, because the cheetah was close enough that my voice may have disturbed it, so I tapped Ben on the shoulder and quietly said, "cheetah." He slowed down and came to a stop just past the cheetah. I reached in the backseat for my video camera. Before I could get the camera ready, the hunt was on! There was a group of Tommie's about 150 meters away from the cheetah and it seemed an insurmountable distance to cover. I tried to get video for a second and realized it was futile and just sat riveted watching the fastest land animal on earth pursue its quarry. The cheetah closed the gap between itself and the cheetahs in about 5 seconds and chased a small Tommy over a hill. We lost sight of it at this point. We drove over the hill and saw the cheetah carrying the Tommy in its mouth. The chase covered about 300-400 meters in less than 20 seconds, resulting in a nice meal for the cheetah.

A few days later we were once again on our way home and Ben spotted something lying behind a bush. We drove closer to investigate and discovered it was a dead impala. Not just a dead impala, but a large adult male impala. I have seen male impala stand its ground against hungry hyenas, so killing an adult male impala is no small feat. They are fast enough to outrun most predators and strong enough to fend off the smaller predators. Not so on this day.

As the impala came into full view, we saw our friendly cheetah had already eaten the entire left leg of this impala! The cheetah looked fat and seemed to be taking a break from eating. We watched for a few minutes and the cheetah decided it could pack a few more pounds of meat away.

My initial thought was that the impala may have died from some other cause, such as disease, since there was no blood on the impala, except the leg where the cheetah had eaten. After taking a closer look with the binoculars we could see puncture holes in the neck of the impala where the cheetah had clamped it canines around the throat of the recently departed impala.

Later in the evening, another researcher stopped by the kill site and said the cheetah had eaten all four legs (that is where the most muscle tissue is) and most of the high calorie internal organs. Then a young hyena, named Acadia, approached the carcass and began nibbling. After a few nibbles, Acadia pulled the carcass away from the obese cheetah. Had the cheetah not been eating for 3 straight hours, it may have put up a fight. Acadia is about 16 months old and has a long way to go before being a full-size hyena, but an impressive feat none-the-less, taking a fresh kill from a killer cheetah like this one.

Why did I eat so much?

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