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January 17, 2019

Cheetah, the endangered cat of the wild

Acinonyx Jubatus. That is the scientific name of a cheetah. In the early days, cheetahs spread from the near east, south India and most of Africa. Around 1950, cheetahs became extinct in south India. Very few remain in the near east, in the Arab world. And I mean very few because they do not exist anymore in the wild but in captivity or as pets in private ranches. The only remaining ranges that are currently supporting some populations of cheetahs is in Africa, and more so, south of Sahara.

Why is a cheetah so sensitive to the changes in their environment? One school of thought picks up an explanation. Cheetahs have an extraordinary genetic uniformity. A rare condition which is indicated by the animal having an inferior gene pool. Something like what would happen in a situation of in-breeding, where a population has almost similar genetic makeup. That makes the cheetahs vulnerable to diseases that can wipe them in a given area. With an inferior gene pool, there is hardly any resistance to infectious diseases.

Another school of thought, one which I certainly share, is the destruction of their habitat, which plays a vital role in keeping cheetahs alive. Cheetahs live in plains where they can horn out their running skill which is detrimental to their survival. Within the same habitat lives the principal cheetah prey, the gazelles.

They too must live in an area without much high vegetation, to give them a vantage vision to spot the cheetahs. When such habitat changes, then those who depend on the habitat for survival must evolve or adjust to their new environment, or perish. It now depends on which animal will adopt faster to the changing fortunes. A gazelle can forage deep into a bushy area and risk other predators who hunt in the thick bushes, like the leopards and other nocturnal cats. But a cheetah will have to take many generations to change their hunting style in order to be able to find food in thick bushes. Since evolution takes hundreds of years for a species to change, then the fastest to adapt, or those with easily adaptable or flexible feeding habits will survive.

Then there is this human factor that is contributing to the decline in the numbers of cheetahs in the wild. It is a known fact that the largest percentage of animals in the protected areas like national parks and reserve, live outside such confinements. These areas were once their home ranges.

They used them as corridors when moving from one grazing zone to another. Humans have encroached these areas and pushed back the animals into the hinterland where conditions are unfavorable to the survival of the cheetahs.

When the animals insist on being out of the parks, they cause the human wildlife conflict and they are the perpetual losers in all cases. When they retreat back to the protected areas, their problem is not solved yet. Tourists and their minders are waiting.

Cheetahs are diurnal (active in the daytime). And so are the tourists doing their game drives. Photographers love the morning light. The amber light of the setting sun is also a great time for film makers. Those exact timings are the best times for a cheetah to hunt. Unfortunately for him, everyone wants a picture of him, hunting. He wakes up early and gets ready to feed and feed the family. As early as 6am, he is out checking the position and composition of his prey, the gazelles.

At that exact time, a filming crew is already out and looking for him, to make him the star of the film. The cheetah notices a lone gazelle still cloggy from a bad night’s sleep. He begins to crawl towards the gazelle, with full intension of making a meal. As he passes close to the filming truck, the track’s engine fires to life noisily.

The truck overtakes the cheetah in order to film the front. They want the cheetah to walk directly towards the camera. Unconcerned, the film crew have blocked the view of the cheetah. Now the cheetah abandons the hunt. Even if the truck moves away from the view of the gazelle, the psych is over. The cheetah decides to try later. But even later, the truck will still be there, accompanied by more tourists who have been alerted by radio of the presence of a hunting cheetah. So next time you see a cheetah, salute him if he is able to hunt successfully. It may be his tenth try. Give him a chance to survive.


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