Mashatu’s cheetah families

This is the fourth post from my last trip to Mashatu Game Reserve in the south eastern section of Botswana called the Tuli Block. The eastern section up to and including Redshield on its south western border has been declared a game reserve, known as the Northern Tuli Game Reserve (NOTUGRE), of which Mashatu is a significant part. NOTUGRE has the Tuli circle as its northern border, the Shashe river as its eastern border, the Limpopo river as its southern border and the Moutloutse river as its western border. It was late October so it was hot and the first good rains had still to fall.

“This is a place which will flood your senses, lift your soul and will tease your intellect. Its diversity will intrigue you and its predators will excite you. Travelling along meandering river beds lined with giants or creeping through croton groves builds expectations of what could be just around the corner.”~ Mike Haworth

Mashatu is a small unique part of Botswana. Unique because of its varied geology and landscapes. It also has three main seasonal rivers which flow through it during the summer rainfall period. These are the Majale, Pitsani and Matabole rivers. They are dry for most of the year but flow strongly during good rains. Mashatu is especially well-known for its predators, which range from lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyaenas, wild cats, Black-backed jackals, Bat-eared foxes, aardwolf, genets and civits.

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to the lives of others.”~ Wendell Berry

Mashatu has four cheetah groupings. One is a three male coalition, the second is a female cheetah with three sub-adult male cubs,  another female with two younger cubs around six months old  and a third female with two small cubs possibly three months old. What makes it especially impressive is that these cheetah females rear their cubs in an area teeming with predators such as lions, leopards, hyaenas and jackals.

“Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence.”~ Abigail Adams

Cheetahs are diurnal and  hunt during the day when most of the nocturnal predators are asleep. The black spots on their tan coats help provide camouflage. Cheetahs have a distinctive black “tear stripes” down from their eyes to their months on either side of their face. The tear stripe is thought to reduce the glare during the day.

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In late October when its is particularly hot and there is little shade in the open areas, the Shepherd trees provide valuable respite from the intense sun.

Further away from the rivers, the landscape is dry and quite barren in spring. This gives the cheetahs plenty of room to use their competitive advantage to hunt steenbok and impala. The Cheetah’s long thick tail has spots, which turn into rings and at the end is tipped with white. Half way down the tail it flattens and this acts as an aerodynamic rudder at high speeds. The cheetah also does not have retractable claws

The three sub-adult male cubs were feisty and often tackled each other in play fighting.

The play fighting is a critical part of their development where they learn to tackle and fight their prey.

It was interesting to see two male cubs gang up against the third. This was just playing and the third cub being picked on did not hold back and gave as good as he got.

All the playing took place in the shade of a Shepherd tree even early in the morning. We were waiting for them to play out in the open sunny area  around them but they never did.

This particular morning we went out early  and were on the vehicle and moving out of camp by 5h45 just because it got so hot around 10h00. We drove back where we had left the cheetah mother with her three sub-adult cubs the evening before. Cheetahs do not move around at night if they can help it as the nocturnal predators are active at that time. I like the next image as the cheetah mother was passive and unfazed by her boisterous cubs fighting around her at around 6h30 in the morning.

Although there was much play, as soon as their mother got up they all sat up and started looking around. It was early in the morning so there was a chance that some nocturnal predators were still making their way back to their dens. Cheetah females are usually solitary when they have not got cubs.

The second cheetah mother with her two approximately six month old cubs. They were lying in a very rocky side of a low hill overlooking the Majale river. Their stony bed did not seem to bother them one bit. The area in front of these cheetahs adjacent to the Majale river was a large open area, a perfect kill zone for a cheetah. It was remarkable how well camouflaged these cheetahs were in the shade in this stoney area.

“I gaze upon a female cheetah with wonder. I see strength, form and tenacity. I see independence, resourcefulness and a creature that does not waste. I see keen senses and maternal nurturing. I am looking at the fastest land mammal with eye watering acceleration. I am also seeing them disappear from the precious earth.”~ Mike Haworth

When the adult female was lying on the stones in the previous image we did not see that she had quite a large wound on her left shoulder. It did not seem to worry her too much and she did not limp when she walked.

Cheetahs have good eye sight and are looking around for signals from other animals and birds whether danger was approaching in the form of other predators or opportunities for hunting were coming. Cheetahs are thought to be able to see detail up to five kilometres away. Usually a cheetah will stalk to within 50 metres of its prey before accelerating to speeds of 100kms per hour within three seconds and reaching top speeds of 120kms per hour for short bursts. The cheetah uses its speed and momentum to knock over its prey, after which it wrestles its prey until it can get a throat grip to suffocate it.

It is heartening to see cheetahs thriving in Mashatu. According to the African Wildlife Foundation there are approximately 6,674 adult cheetahs remaining in the wild.

“Be curious, not judgmental”~ Walt Whitman

On our last morning we found the third cheetah mother with her three small cubs. We found them in the saga grove feeding on an impala which their mother had killed for them. The cubs were hungry and tucked in but were dead quiet. They has no visibility on any approaching threats so often stopped looked up and listened.

Cheetah are usually born in litters which vary from three to five, and more is isolated cases.  After two to three weeks the cubs begin to walk but are vulnerable to predators while their mother hunts. In the first few weeks the cubs are dark grey with a long grey-white mantle of hair on their backs and necks. This colouring provides effective camouflage and begins to disappear at around three months of age.

The cheetah is the only big cat in the feline family that cannot roar because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck.  An article in the Journal of Anatomy, showed that the tetrapod hyoid apparatus provides the skeletal scaffolding supporting the tongue, upper vocal tract and larynx, and thus forms the core of the vocal production system. Hyoid anatomy in mammals is consistent in terms of the number and general shape of segments, and the muscles connecting them. Five cat species (lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard) have the Epihyoideum which is an elastic ligament, whereas in all other species of the Felidae, the epihyal is completely ossified. It is  hypothesized that these differences in hyoid structure are correlated with differences in the species’ vocal repertoires: those felids with an elastic epihyoid are able to roar but not to purr, while species with a completely ossified hyoid are able to purr but not to roar. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1570911/).  Cheetahs also vocalize by making a unique bird-like sound called a “chirrup” when they are excited or calling their young cubs.

“Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.” ~ Stewart Udall

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and let it be.

Have fun,

Mike

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