Survival of the fittest. The Darwinian theory of evolution of species by means of natural selection is not as simple as some people believe. Well, it is quite simple actually, but the ‘fitness’ part is often misunderstood. It boils down to reproduction and having an advantage over other members of your own species through genes etc, but I’m not going to go into too much depth with this, we can discuss it another time; what I do want to touch on is the way certain animals at the moment just don’t seem to learn!
For a third time now in recent weeks (that we know of; it has possibly happened a few more times), cheetahs have been robbed of a kill in the area around Nyamakunze crest. The last time it was the mother and two cubs being robbed by the Sparta pride, and this time it was the same cheetahs but they were robbed by the Camp Pan male leopard, who incidentally also robbed the male cheetah a couple of weeks ago, in pretty much the same area.
On the larger predator hierarchy in Africa, cheetahs place last. By miles! Lions, the three Hyena species, Wild Dogs and leopards all outmuscle cheetahs when it comes to a confrontation, and being such slight animals, cheetahs are not going going to stick around to try and defend a carcass when any of the other 6 species roll in to try and steal it. Any injury to a cheetah that prevents it running at full speed is potentially life-threatening.
So the question then, relating back to survival of the fittest, is why do the cheetah continue to operate in this area, where recent experience has shown them how dangerous it is? The problem, unfortunately, lies with the food supply. Impala mainly.
Impala and steenbok currently form the staple diet of the cheetah population at Londolozi, but the number of impala in the safer Open Area grasslands of the south-west has been dwindling recently. Impala are what are known as mixed-feeders. They don’t specialize in grass or foliage as grazers and browsers do, but rather are able to eat whats available and pick and choose depending on what’s good at different times of the year. This is one of the reasons impala are so successful, and why so many are seen in the Sabi Sands. The mixed woodland savannah that characterizes the area provides the perfect habitat for these beautiful antelope.
At the moment, as we begin the slow crawl out of winter, the grass in the Lowveld is almost at it’s least palatable. The South-west, with it’s open grasslands but minimal browse availability, is therefore currently not an attractive area for impala, as in the dry season they will typically favour foliage over grass, as leaves tend to be a bit more succulent.
Spending time with the female cheetah and her cubs around Weaver’s nest Pan a few days ago, they were all looking very hungry, yet there wasn’t an impala in sight. Not too far away, though, up on the Nyamakunze crest with it’s mixed woodland habitat, impala were plentiful.
We were looking for these three cheetah recently when ranger Sandros Sihlangu heard impala alarm calling nearby. Moving in quickly, he spotted the adult female with the throat of a still-kicking impala clamped between her jaws. It was still early and the sun had not yet fully risen, so we sped towards the sighting, knowing that in the cool morning air, the sound of the impala’s alarm calls would carry far, and the low temperatures meant that other predators may still be active in the area.
Half an hour had gone by and we were beginning to think that the cheetahs had got away with it. They were feeding in typical fashion, wolfing down chunks of meat while constantly checking over their shoulders for any signs of danger. Ranger Alfie Mathebula suddenly radioed in to say that he had found the Camp Pan male leopard nearby, and he was moving in our direction! Obviously investigating the impalas alarming, the leopard had most probably picked up the scent of the cheetahs and come to see if he could steal a meal. As soon as we heard he was following the scent trail, it was only a matter of time before he came rushing in to steal the remains of the impala carcass.
It played out exactly as we thought it would, with the leopard eventually catching sight of the cheetahs feeding and coming tearing in to chase them off the meat. As the three cheetahs scattered, the leopard grabbed the impala and instinctively dragged it straight towards a thicketed drainage line (creek bed), where he fed on the carcass in peace. Interestingly, the mother cheetah actually pursued the leopard for a while, maybe hoping he would drop some of the kill or that some of it might break off, but it was not to be, and as the leopard disappeared into a dense stand of bushwillows, the cheetahs regrouped and headed north, away from their lost breakfast.
This scene will probably play itself out again before too long. One would think and hope that the cheetahs would learn and avoid the area, but they have to go where the food is. The mother cheetah has already dodged a bullet once in the past few months (I am referring to the injury to her back leg), and how many more cheetah vs. other predator interactions will take place before something disastrous befalls one of these beautiful cats?
Written and Photographed by James Tyrrell