Cheetahs and their Role in the Wild

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The image of a cheetah making its way stealthily through the long grass, or perched on top of a termite mound surveying the land can be the highlight of any South African safari. In fact, these graceful animals are often more difficult to come by than their Big Five counterparts, and are every bit as interesting.

World Cheetah Day is celebrated on December 4 each year and while these African animals rarely make the headlines when it comes to conservation, they too are facing increasing difficulties in modern times, mainly due to habitat loss.

Cheetahs require large ranges of flat grassland for their survival – exactly the kind of territory favoured by cattle and sheep farmers. As a result, the cheetah population has plummeted by 30% in the last 18 years, leaving less than 7 500 adults in the wild today.

What would happen if the cheetah became extinct?

Cheetahs exist in an environment together with other predators such as lion, hyena and leopard so it would be logical to assume these African animals would fill their spot in the food chain. While this is perfectly plausible in theory, nature is never as simple as all that.

Due to their superior speed, cheetah are not restricted to preying on old and weak specimens – that is the job of the lion and hyena. Cheetah are able to catch up to any animal alive and in the absence of old and weak specimens would manage to catch the next best thing – the slowest animal. In this way they contribute to natural selection in a small way.

Without cheetahs to pick off the slow pokes, these animals would live to breed. Slower prey species mean more desirable options for opportunistic predators such as the lion and hyena which could then abandon their preference for the old and weak or even, in the case of lions, the larger animals which are more dangerous to catch.

Sharing the spoils

Cheetahs are relatively timid animals, and often bullied into surrendering their prey to scavengers such as jackals and vultures – something which the larger predators will not tolerate. In this way the cheetah contributes to the survival of these other species too.

Despite these far reaching effects, any African safari would be a lesser event without the chance to spot these graceful animals streaking across the savannah in full flight. With any luck you just might come across one of these amazing creatures during your next game drive, make sure you let us know if you do!


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Thursday, 15 November 2018