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Spending quality time with big
cats in the wild was one of my goals for
this trip and Tanzania did not disappoint. It is striking how similar the thirty-eight
cat species are: Enlarge a domestic housecat and you have a leopard, elongate it for a speed to yield a cheetah, add a mane
and roar to
build a lion and so on.
Researchers believe that all but a few of the world's cheetah died in an ice age 10,000 years ago. The population bred up and there were about 100,000 cheetahs, possibly all descended from a single female, in 1900. Today, there are around 12,000 with 10% in captivity. Due to the expansion of humans and illegal hunting, the range of the cheetah is now limited to portions of sub-Saharan Africa.
The greater Serengeti ecosystem contains between 1000 and 2000 cheetahs, the second largest surviving population. While cheetahs are active during the day and are not rare in the Serengeti, they can be hard to spot lying low in the grass. We were lucky to get so close to these cheetah cuties.
This streamlined cat is built for speed: special paw pads and semi-retractable claws provide exceptional traction, large nostrils and lungs provide quick air intake and the long heavy tail acts as a rudder for stability. But this intense speed is taxing, they can only maintain their top speed of 115 km/h for about 300 metres.
A cheetah's hunt begins as a long stalk followed by a short burst of their fabled speed. They bring quarry down by tripping it. Then, like other cats, cheetahs go for the throat: they clamp down with their jaws. The exhausted prey quickly dies from lack of oxygen.
While cats have prospered all over the world through millions of years of change, all big cat species are now threatened. Lions have been eradicated from most of their former range, including Europe, the Middle East and almost all of India. The lions of sub-Saharan Africa, concentrated in parks and reserves, are not considered endangered. Lions are the most socialable and co-operative of all cats which may help them survive. The Serengeti is home to about 3,000 lions, the largest concentration of big cats in the world.
Lions are primarily nocturnal but easy to find lying around during the day. Lions spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping and "conserving energy". Communal hunts usually take place early and late at night; but lions can become active any time, day or night, hungry or gorged, when easy opportunities to catch prey arise.
Serengeti lion population
has been relatively stable except for a canine distemper
virus epidemic in 1994 which killed one in three lions. The virus entered the Serengeti
via the many domestic dogs kept in villages surrounding the park. Disease transmission from
domestic dogs also infected the wild dogs of the Serengeti, which were wiped
out in the early 1990s.
The ever vigilant Athumani, who showed us a scar on his arm where he had been gouged by a lion cub years ago, scans the horizon while posing for this picture. Accredited guides in Tanzania are highly trained professionals who attend refresher courses every year. It really does not look good for them when a client gets eaten. Animal attacks are not common, however. Car crashes pose a greater danger.
The best way to find a leopard is to look for the distinctive tail hanging over a branch. Camouflage spots mimic the dappling of shadow and light of the shaded areas preferred by leopards. Smaller than lions, leopards are bigger, stronger and slower than cheetahs. Leopards use this strength to drag prey high into trees for safekeeping. With a range that still stretches from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Pacific Coast of Asia, leopards are the most widely distributed great cat. While classified as endangered, they have proven more adaptable in the face of human expansion than cheetahs, lions or tigers.