Cheetah sightings have been fairly consistent over the past couple of weeks at Londolozi which isn’t always the case. The thicker habitat coupled with a high density of lions, leopards and hyena across the reserve for the most part, make it difficult for the nimble cheetah to establish themselves in the area, not to mention the fact that their overall population in this part of South Africa is rather thin, albeit quite stable.
The recent consistency of cheetah sightings have largely revolved around three individuals; two newly independent sub-adult siblings (a male and female) which are almost always viewed together, as well as a lone male who appears to have set up a territory in the open plains of the south west. While we can still easily go a few days without seeing any of these animals, we still consider ourselves quite spoiled having them appear every now and then.
But why? Why do we not see that many cheetah at Londolozi? Is it really just the competition that keeps their numbers down?
Some argue that cheetah are in fact overspecialized for speed in that they have sacrificed too much power and strength in order to be the fastest land animal in the world which makes life hard for them, especially at Londolozi.
Competition between species is largely what fuels evolutionary changes. Species form and develop new attributes so as to occupy a specific niche in the ecosystem where they are able to exploit a particular area or food source that other species cannot. It goes without saying that cheetah have become specialized for speed. Their bodies are long, tall and slender with a light frame and thick, heavy tail which acts like a rudder, balancing the animal when making high speed turns.
Their claws are semi-retractable, left exposed to act like football cleats, offering a more secure grip on the rough and, at times, loose terrain. Their heads are small and streamlined with fewer teeth so as to make space for larger nasal cavities to maximize their oxygen intake while on the chase.
The majority (over 60%) of their muscular weight sits around their flexible backbone which gives the cheetah that extra leap in its stride. These are but a few of the more notable adaptations that allow the cheetah to reach speeds of up to 110km/h (68mph), bounding up to 8m (26 ft.) in a single stride at full speed which they can maintain for over 500m (0.3 miles) while making dangerously sharp turns in the process. On the open plains, there is simply no match for the speed of the cheetah.
However, these adaptations have arguably come at a cost. When compared to the other large predators of the region, of which the cheetah are in direct competition with, they have been left almost entirely defenseless. These above mentioned adaptations have meant that the cheetah lack the necessary strength, weapons and skills to match up to lions, hyena, leopard and even wild dogs; all of which out rank the cheetah on the so-called predator hierarchy. Lions, hyena and leopard are far heavier animals, adapted for raw power and strength and can easily over power a cheetah, sometimes fatally. Londolozi also happens to have a significantly high density of these three species which, as a result does not afford the cheetah the opportunity to establish themselves here with any great certainty. They are forced into the more open plains and go about their activities during the daylight hours so as to avoid crossing paths with other predators.
We cannot take away from the fact that cheetah are still incredible animals though. Their specialization for speed is something that we can all still marvel at. However, it could be said that they have fallen short in some other adaptations that leave them fairly vulnerable to their competition. Nonetheless, the mere fact that there aren’t many of these amazing carnivores around at Londolozi makes them that extra special to see, if you happen to be one of the lucky few.