The last cheetah we wrote about was a scrawny, injured juvenile running through the streets of Abu Dhabi – another casualty of the Gulf country’s (illegal) obsession with owning exotic pets. But this past weekend we met a host of other cheetahs with a more hopeful destiny in South Africa’s Limpopo province and discovered – to our great delight – that this remarkable creature is actually the animal kingdom’s 21st century feminist.
Female cheetahs enjoy their solitude
Many wild female cats stick together in groups while the males go off on solitary adventures. Female lions hunt communally, and all lactate together in order to help raise each other’s cubs. But the opposite is true of cheetahs.
Once the world’s fastest animal reaches maturity, she will fight with another female who encroaches on her home range, and prefers to hunt alone except when teaching her cubs the ropes. Although mother and daughter pairings will occur, the 21st century feminist of the animal kingdom prefers her solitude.
Hunting with a belly full of babies
A female cheetah will continue to hunt throughout her pregnancy thanks to a special “hammock” muscle that keeps her unborn kittens high up in her stomach instead of dragging on the ground. At the end of her 3 month gestation period, during the last 5 days, the pouch will sag, signaling that she is ready to give birth.
The Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center has been working to increase South Africa’s cheetah population through a special breeding program for nearly three decades. When possible, these animals are released back into the wild. Others are permanent residents.
Nadia, a South African guide who gave us a tour of the facilities over the weekend, described how female cheetahs choose their mates.
“The male models up and down the female cages and urinates on the cages. A female must choose him by urinating on the cages and then lying next to the male – this signals to our curator that she has selected him,” she said. He is then released into the female cheetah’s enclosure. When she is satisfied, she gives him the boot.
“After two weeks, the male pretty much begs us to let him out,” she said, because once the cheetah knows she is pregnant, she becomes very aggressive towards the male.
“He is just a sperm donor,” one woman on our Land Rover joked.
Cheetahs are among the most endangered of big cats because they have not evolved the power and strength of the lion or leopard, both of which will kill cheetahs if they compete for food, and babies have a low survival rate as they are regularly plucked up by pythons and other animals before reaching maturity.
Also, despite being the world’s fastest animal with adaptations that allow them to pump more oxygen through their bodies while hunting, Cheetahs tire easily. They reach speeds of up to 75mph but typically won’t last for more than 1,600 feet. “Cheetahs can kill themselves from exhaustion,” said Nadia, a guide who gave us a tour of the facilities, if they push too hard during a hunt.
“The cheetah’s black spots absorb a lot of heat,” so it is harder for them to cool off than other animals, she added.
During our tour, we had the good fortune of being in an enclosure with several juvenile cheetahs. They still cavort and play with one another and harass the neighboring pack of wild dogs, but in time, like all modern females, the girls will tire of their brothers and strike out on their own. Hopefully, they won’t land up in the Middle East – where they definitely don’t belong.
More on wildlife conservation in the Middle East: