RESEARCH: Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal but cheetah cub survival rates are low

Cheetahs are the fastest land mammal but cheetah cub survival rates are low. Why is this?   

Previous studies of cheetah cub survival rates on the Serengeti Plains of Kenya and Tanzania in Africa in 1994, 2000, and 2004, found that it was exceptionally low because of the lion population attacking them. The survival rate was only 4.8% of cubs – that is 5 cubs out of every 100 cubs born survived beyond 14 months of age.

Researchers from the Zoology Department of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom conducted a similar study on cheetah cub survival rates in 2013 and published the results in the Journal of Zoology. They compared the cheetah cub survival rate in the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) Transfrontier Park on the border of Botswana and South Africa with the Serengeti study.

The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is a large feline, a wild cat in the Felidae family. The Cheetah is native to open savannahs in sub-Saharan Africa. It is diurnal, hunting in the morning or early evening before it gets dark. It is the fastest land mammal on Earth, running at a speed of 112 kilometres per hour (70 miles per hour) for short distances. It lacks the stamina to run for long distances, so it must catch its prey quickly, otherwise it will give up and try again later.

The female Cheetah has 1-6 young, called cubs, after a pregnancy of 90-95 days. 

The Kgalagadi research assessed an area of the park covering 6,000 square kilometres, which was similar to the 5,200 square kilometres studied in the Serengeti Plains.

There were differences in the types of carnivores in the two parks. The Serengeti had 100 times more Spotted Hyenas and 4 times more Lions than the Kgalagadi. The Kgalagadi had Brown Hyenas but the Serengeti didn’t have any. The Serengeti had 3.5 times more Cheetahs than the Kgalagadi. There were 1.8 Lions for every Cheetah in the Serengeti and 1.7 Lions for every Cheetah in the Kgalagadi – which is about the same ratio.

The Serengeti Plains research looked at 125 cubs, whereas the new study looked at 67 cubs over a period of 20-68 months, with high-frequency radio collars. 

The researchers found that approximately 55% of cheetah cubs in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP) who emerged from the den survived compared with 28% of Serengeti Plains (SP) emerging cubs; 45% of 4-month-old KTP cubs survived compared with 15% of Serengeti 4-month-old cubs; and 35.7% of 14-month-old adolescent cheetah cubs survived in the Kgalagadi, compared with 4.8% in the Serengeti.

They found that from 4-14 months of age, of the Kgalagadi cheetah cubs, 7 were probably killed by predators, 3 died from starvation, 2 were injured and unable ot keep up with their mother, and one got lost. In the Serengeti, it was assumed that 73% of cubs were killed by predators – mainly lions.

The researchers said that their knowledge of how the cheetah cubs died was difficult to quantify because the observations and tracking periods were spread over several years. The main finding was that many cheetah cubs died in the den (and not when they were older and roaming the plains). In the den, 45% died in Kgalagadi (43% from non-predation and 2% from predators) and 72% in the Serengeti.

Therefore, many cheetah cubs die by 14 months of age, before they develop their powerfully fast speeds. More study is needed to fully understand the den deaths.

Location of photographs: Serengeti, Kenya

Photographer: Martina Nicolls


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