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Cheetahs able to change their Spots

Cheetahs able to change their Spots

For approximately six years the cheetahs of Mountain Zebra National Park (MZNP) were the only major predators in this 28 386 hectare space. However, with the introduction of lions in 2013, they were no longer king of this jungle. But did this change their behaviour?

A study looking at the effects of lions on cheetah space use and diet revealed that lions and cheetahs are able to live in harmony in smaller protected areas. Yet, despite being present first, the cheetahs had to adapt slightly to avoid altercations with the lions.

According to Dan van de Vyver, former Mountain Zebra guide who completed his master’s degree in Zoology on the subject, the introduction of lions in 2013 led to the cheetahs changing their locations in the park. They did not, however, change the size of their home ranges. “Female cheetahs are not territorial, but have home ranges. They move around the entire park, but have preferred areas,” says Van de Vyver.

Something else that changed after the introduction of the lions was the way the cheetahs interacted with vegetation. “Lions used either open- or closed-vegetated areas in the park, while the cheetahs preferred a combination of the two,” he said.

When it comes to food preferences, lions and cheetahs target different species. Van de Vyver says that cheetahs favoured kudu calves and springbok. “Cheetahs have a preferred prey range, preying on the most abundant species that weigh between 18-56 kg. In Mountain Zebra, it is springbok.”

Male lions on the other hand opted for red hartebeest while one female was observed catching Cape mountain zebra, black wildebeest, eland and red hartebeest.

Van de Vyver says that there was only one incident of a lion chasing a cheetah from a kill and a single record of a male lion killing a cheetah and one of her cubs during the study period. Cheetahs were followed and observed on foot while GPS collar data helped to determine home ranges. For the lions, collar data as well as observations from vehicles were taken into account.

Dr Angela Gaylard, SANParks regional ecologist for the frontier region says that research projects such as these play an important role in strategic adaptive management. “We monitor and reflect on all interventions that we undertake. This way, we see whether the anticipated outcome has materialised, or something totally unexpected happened and we need to adapt our approach,” says Gaylard. “This is part of the process of learning by doing.”

Cheetahs were first re-introduced back into the park in 2007 and population numbers have done extremely well.  Van de Vyver says that they are extremely adaptable. An example of this is cheetahs choosing den sites on the mountainous slopes to avoid predation.

Written by René de Klerk– SANParks Times Reporter

Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za

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