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Growing Up Cheetah
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Growing Up Cheetah @ National Geographic Magazine
   
By Carol KaufmannPhotographs by Anup and Manoj Shah



Vigilant mother cheetahs in Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve must fight the odds—and stronger predators—as they raise their cubs on the run.



How do you stay alive in a landscape filled with stronger predators, where lions or hyenas will kill your offspring, and jackals or vultures will steal your food? You keep moving. Binti, a new mother, gently nabs one of her ten-day-old cubs by the scruff of the neck. Although mother and cub are protected from human harm in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, they must still combat a harsh world. Binti, whose name means "daughter" in Swahili, learned maternal skills from a peerless teacher—her mother, Amani. "Amani's practical, cool, efficient," says Anup Shah, who documented and named her growing family over three years.
 
Binti owes her survival to Amani's faithful routine. At about six months Binti actively began learning how to hunt. So will her offspring. Cheetahs like a fresh kill and must pursue and catch their prey. Cubs are good observers, watching their mother whether she's scouting for prey, sharpening her claws, or stalking potential dinner.
 
When the family needs to eat, Amani climbs atop a nearby termite mound to survey the undulating plain. A Thomson's gazelle has strayed from its herd. Amani focuses her amber eyes. The gazelles continue to graze. Amani crouches, shoulders hunched, ears flat back, frozen. A few steps propel her into a run. Her speed builds, and within seconds she reaches full sprint. She sails across the savanna, often airborne, a symphony of speed and grace.
 
But the gazelle has a head start. Clocking speeds nearly as fast as the cheetah's 60-plus miles (100 kilometers) an hour, the gazelle makes quick turns intended to throw Amani off. Despite being the world's fastest land animal, a cheetah snags such prey only about half the time. This is one of the good times. Amani trips the gazelle with an outstretched paw. With one last bleat, the gazelle goes down. Amani goes for the throat, her bite suffocating the prize. Over the next several months the sharp-eyed cubs will try to emulate Amani's behavior—and fail miserably, mainly because their prey notices their awkward approaches. So mother makes them practice, over and over.
 
"Successful mothers seem to produce really successful cubs," says Marcella Kelly, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who has tracked female cheetah lineages for up to eight generations. "They're nervous, excitable, vigilant. In the wild they need to be jumpy. Cubs most likely pick up these traits."
 
Once young cheetahs are on their own, it can take months for them to become skilled hunters. Some adolescent cheetahs start out hunting impossible prey, including buffalo. Those who learn from their mistakes survive. Among Amani's successes is her daughter: Binti had her five cubs in the same area where Amani gave birth to her.


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More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The fastest land animal on Earth is running the most critical race of its life—the race for survival. The cheetah—capable of reaching 60-plus (100 kilometers) miles an hour in seconds—is finding it harder to outrun increasing pressure from humans and land encroachment. Fewer than 15,000 cheetahs now remain in the wild, according to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).
 
Unlike the protected cheetahs in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve (those featured in National Geographic magazine this month), cheetahs in Namibia live mostly in unprotected areas. Though Namibia boasts the largest number of cheetahs in the world, increasing numbers of farms have cut into cheetah territory, making conflict inevitable. The cheetah's natural prey base, like the kudu, has declined as well. Both factors have contributed to cheetahs attacking farmers' livestock, leading farmers in the 1980s to kill at least some 7,000 cheetahs, and, according to CCF, subsequently halving the Namibian cheetah population. CCF has been working with farmers since 1991 to develop alternative livestock and game management practices to reduce conflict, as well as relocate cheetahs to other ranges. The group has created an incentive program to benefit farmers who don't harm cheetahs. CCF is encouraging the creation of conservancies, where farmers cooperatively manage wildlife and ensure habitat and prey base for cheetahs.
 
A lack of genetic variation, which makes the individual animals more susceptible to disease and death, also threatens the cheetah population. Captive breeding programs have attempted to mate animals, but many males, already inbred, suffer from poor sperm quality and have difficulties producing offspring. CCF has experimented using artificial insemination technologies from cheetahs around the world in captive breeding programs.
 
If you want to learn more about issues facing cheetahs, you can reach the Cheetah Conservation Fund at www.cheetah.org.

—Christy Ullrich
Did You Know?

Related Links
Big Zoo Encyclopedia
www.thebigzoo.com/Animals/Cheetah.asp
Learn more about the cheetah's habitat, its predators, and social structure.
 
Predators in the African Savanna
www.geocities.com/biomorrow/diversity.html
Explore the diversity of predators in the African savanna.

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Bibliography
Carol, T. M. Cheetahs of the Serengeti Plains: Group Living in an Asocial Species. University of Chicago Press, 1994.
 
Durant, Sarah, Marcella Kelly, and Tim M. Caro. "Factors Affecting Life and Death in Serengeti Cheetahs: Environment, Age, and Sociality." Behavioral Ecology (2004), 11-22.
 
Eaton, Randall. The Cheetah: The Biology, Ecology, and Behavior of an Endangered Species. Litton Educational Publishing, 1974.
 
Frame, George and Lory Frame. Swift and Enduring: Cheetahs and Wild Dogs of the Serengeti. Elsevier-Dutton Publishing Co., 1981.

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NGS Resources
Sunquist, Fiona. "Designed to Kill."  National Geographic World (September 2000), 19-21, 26.
 
"Okavango:  Africa's Savage Oasis." 1996. Only available online at www.nationalgeographic.com/okavango/index.html.
 
"Cheetahs Growing Up in the Wild."  National Geographic World (August 1984), 14-9.
 
Cahalane, Victor H., and Walter A. Weber.  "King of Cats and His Court." National Geographic (February 1943), 217-59.

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