With only 13,000 cheetahs left in the wild, the future of the world’s fastest land animal is far from secure. Mary Wykstra, Director of Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, tells the story of nearly a decade spent observing the life of a cheetah she calls “Mom.”
In her clan, the mother raises babies independently, while males wander alone or in small groups. She was responsible for teaching her five youngsters how to survive in a harsh world where her family is persecuted by others. She kept them moving, often traveling more than ten kilometers a day in search of food and shelter. Though this is the story of one mother cheetah striving to raise cubs in the heart of East Africa, it is also a story of the challenges cheetahs face in the wild. The adaptability of the mother cheetah I soon came to know as “Mom” became the focus of my studies for three years, and she was the first cheetah that my project, Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, monitored closely. But her story began long before I met her.
In the 1960’s, wildlife experts predicted the extinction of cheetahs in Kenya by 2050. There are fewer than 13,000 cheetahs in the wild, making the 1,400 cheetahs in Mom’s Kenya critical to the survival of the cheetah species. The lessons about cheetah adaptability we took from Mom might change our understanding of the cheetah’s relationship to human activities. And they might help us gauge the likelihood of cheetah survival in the ever-changing landscape that has for centuries been central cheetah territory.
The Cheetah Family
At seven years old, many female cheetah are past mothering age. But when I first encountered her in 2005, Mom seemed proud of successfully raising five cubs that were on the brink of maturity. Eighty percent of cheetah cubs die before reaching the age of six months but Mom’s twelve-month old cubs stood a good chance of reaching independence. Competition for declining wildlife and other resources was evident in their range.
Their favorite food was small antelopes, but traveling in a group of six, the cheetahs were often harassed by jackal and hyena, alerting the game and the people of the presence of predators.. Mom taught the cubs to survive in the thick bushes, where they were less likely to be seen by their competitors. They learned to catch hare, guinea fowl, and other small animals, but they were growing fast and were always hungry. The herds of goats, sheep, and calves grazing along the edges of the bush eventually became impossible to resist
Cheetah Status in Kenya
When I first heard about Mom’s situation, I was in my third year of conducting cheetah research in Kenya. I learned about cheetah ecology and project management from working with the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). In Kenya, I worked in collaboration with the local wildlife authority, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). My research assistant and translator was Cosmas Wambua, a young Kenyan who had worked previously with KWS and studied in India. Cosmas had research experience, a love of his home country and a great rapport with everyone he met. To understand the threats to cheetah survival, our main task in the previous three years was to identify current country-wide cheetah range, population size and details of how cheetah behavior changed in response to both natural and human pressures. Our project was not originally based in Mom’s area. Our attention quickly shifted to the region because it represented typical challenges faced by wildlife throughout Africa. Here, as in many parts of East Africa, changes in livestock and agricultural practices reduced the area available for wildlife to move and hunt. Mom’s case would soon provide an insight into the cheetah’s responses to land use changes.
The Kenya cheetah population declined from an estimated 10,000 in 1900 to fewer than 1,500 in 2000. Our studies between 2000 and 2005 show that the Kenyan cheetah range was reduced by only 30%. A cheetah’s home range can be vast, ranging betwewn 500 and 3000 square kilometers in Tanzania and Namibia. Only about 400 cheetahs would live in Kenya if they were territorial like lions and leopards. But a cheetah seldom seeks out invaders and will range an area which may or may not overlap with a neighbor’s range, only disputing a site if two or more individuals happen to enter the area at the same time. The sharing of home ranges means that Kenya actually has the potential to support up to 9,000 cheetahs. However, their large home ranges are also the reason they are so vulnerable to land use changes that result in loss of space and prey.
Land Use Changes
In February of 2005 I received a phone call. “I heard your cheetah talk in Nairobi last week,” said the caller. His name was David Stanley, and he was a commercial rancher in an area called Kiu, about 90 kilometers south east of Nairobi. He then asked what could be done to help cheetahs that wander the acacia forest hills in and around his farm – an environment quite different from expected cheetah habitat. Mom and her family roamed in the Kiu area, a patchwork of meadows and thick acacia forest. Recent subdivisions, from large commercial ranches to small individual plots around Stanley’s ranch had increased poaching for game meat and coincided with people’s perception of increases in human/wildlife conflicts, of which predator attacks on livestock are only one category. Many members of the Kiu community were outraged by recent livestock losses. They reported that a rash of recent livestock attacks could be blamed on a group of six cheetahs—Mom and her cubs. Though cheetahs do not live in prides, people referred to the cheetahs as a pride because the cubs were nearly as big as Mom, and they almost always travelled together. Some of Stanley’s staff reported that people planned to kill the cheetahs. Other members in the community shared Stanley’s view that wildlife is an important aspect of their lives and began asking if something could be done to preserve wildlife while maintaining the livelihood of farmers in the area.
Stanley’s father emigrated from Britain to Kenya in the early 1900’s to settle the 10,000-acre farm where Stanley grew up and raised his own family. In the 1950’s, the region was one of Kenya’s most productive areas for beef, dairy and sisal fiber. At the time elephant and rhino were already rare in the area, but zebra, buffalo, eland, and the smaller gazelle and antelope were common. Lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah were not commonly seen, but evidence — tracks, old kills and night-time roaring and cackles — were signs that predators stalked the area. After Kenya’s independence in 1963, the land around Stanley’s ranch was divided into parcels around 10,000 acres in size and distributed to private ranchers and government-managed ranches. By the 1970’s much of the land remained undeveloped. Shareholder land parcels – individually owned shares in a commercial ranch – soon replaced the government-owned ranches. In the late 1970’s, some of the less productive shareholder ranches began dividing large commercial ranches to individual 5-20 acre plots. The subdivisions broke once large land parcels into fragments of wild land mixed with private plots that the owner defined with cut trees, cleared bush, cultivation and/or fences. In 2005, Stanley & Son Ranch., now about 5000 acres, was the only single-owner commercial ranch among the remaining share-holder ranches and divided subsistence settlements that dotted the hilly landscape. As he took us for a short walk around his cattle paddocks to point out the areas where cheetah were recently seen, Stanley reminisced about the abundance of game that once resided in the area.
Stanley recommended that we meet Lumumba Mutiso, a small-scale farmer who had lost three goats to the cheetah family the previous day. We found Lumumba and several other men repairing a fence. Lumumba is from the Akamba tribe, and his roots went deep in the history of the Kiu area. He was a large man, about six-and-a-half feet tall, and wore a torn white tank-top and well-worn trousers. He was gripping a 3 foot machete – locally called a panga. Although I later learned he spoke perfect English, on this occasion he spoke only to Cosmas and only in Kiswahili and his native tongue, Kikamba. He waved his arms as he spoke, the panga moving as if an extension of his arm. He would not talk with us unless we were there to take the cheetahs away, he said at first. “Hizi vitu zinamaliza mbuzi zetu. Ziku kula mbuzi yangu tena ntaziua.” The sentences translate as “The animal is finishing our goats. If it kills mine again, I will kill it.” Cosmas was able to pacify Lumumba and discuss the situation calmly. Lumumba agreed that we could continue to consult him but that he needed a few days to calm down.
Cosmas and I met with wildlife authorities in Nairobi and decided to set a trap for the cheetah family. Our plan was to collar and release the mother in the same area. I knew that I needed the support of someone like Lumumba, who was well connected in the community, to help us evaluate feasible livestock loss prevention measures and to secure community endorsement for the re-release of the cheetahs. With butterflies in my stomach I returned to Lumumba’s house equipped with cheetah photos, a giant stack of cheetah literature, and the will to win him over to the idea that the cheetahs should remain in the Kiu area. This time there was no panga in his hand. Though I could tell he was a bit suspicious, he greeted me warmly.
Lumumba was known to all of his friends as “Zoom”. He and his family welcomed me to their traditional Akamba home, all of them speaking with me in a mix of English and Kiswahili. After a couple of conversations, Zoom offered to show me around the community. I did not see the cheetahs on that visit, not even a track. I was sure they had left the area. I again returned to Nairobi to join Cosmas in completing the National Cheetah Survey, hopeful that the Kiu cheetahs would stop killing goats and return to the less inhabited bushland away from the village.
Two weeks later I received a call from Lumumba. “Mary, I saw them!” he exclaimed with great excitement. He told me that he was watching his goats graze near the area where the cheetahs attacked a few weeks back. As he sat under a tree he saw the five full grown cubs watching some goats that had wandered near Stanley’s fence line. As most herders do, Zoom called the goats to him with some whistles. He said he was curious about the cheetahs’ next move, so he sat quietly in the shade of a tree and watched them. They sat in an opening and looked his way. He heard a rustle in the bush 30 meters behind him and he turned to see the mother cheetah sitting just below the tree watching him the same way he was watching the cubs. “Mary says cheetahs don’t attack people,” he repeated to himself while gathering stones to throw. Tears welled in my eyes as Zoom told me that he wanted to help protect the “beautiful animal.”
During my next visit I stayed in a tent in Zoom’s yard. We spent every waking hour meeting with people in the community. . He thought the cheetah family might have previously lived in the now-settled area prior to the subdivision, confirming discussions that increased conflict often occurs when wildlife is displaced from natural habitats.
When I told him that I needed an employee in the area for the next two years. He replied immediately, “I want the job.” I thought about it – Zoom was well connected and respected in the community, he definitely had developed a passion for cheetahs, and as a farmer he had great empathy for the people. I hired him
After several weeks, KWS granted us permission to attempt to trap Mom. We received radio collars, had a welder build the trap, and got the area’s Member of Parliament, the chief, and the local elders to endorse the plan. Mom was caught in a trap Stanley had meant for a leopard that had been harassing his cattle. Knowing the cubs might be around, and because we were waiting for the veterinary team to arrive from Nairobi anyway, we moved the cheetah trap from Zoom’s to Stanley’s. Within a few hours one of the cubs, a male, went into our trap. He was large enough to carry a collar.
After administering anaesthesia, the veterinary team carefully examined the cheetahs’ amber eyes, white teeth and smooth spotted fur – both cheetahs were in excellent physical condition. The one medical problem that surprised us was that Mom had broken two teeth, which explained her habit of killing easy-target goats rather than the small antelope that were being displaced by the settlement and poaching. Though the breaks were more than a month old, they were still healing. We injected Mom with antibiotics, collared her and her cub, and released them both. Our research team now included international expertise, Kenya research experience, community connections, and a wise mother.
Lessons from Mom
Knowing typical cheetah home-range behavior, we thought the family would avoid areas of human disturbance, and that it was unlikely that they would stay around for long. We fully expected Mom to bring her family into the neighboring Maasai community where there was less settlement and where large herds of small gazelles grazed in open grassland – typical cheetah habitat. To our surprise, Mom stayed in the thick bush, close to the Kiu settlement area, rarely moving more than a kilometer from day to day. When she was younger, she probably found plenty of food in the area and seldom bothered with the goats. Even now, she seemed to travel in areas where the habitat supported dikdik and Grant’s gazelles, not seeking out the goats but actually moving away from them.
One day, we followed the collar signals into a forested riverbed. It was not clear to us whether the vervet monkeys were screaming alarm calls because of us or the cheetahs that were hiding in the bush around us. Cosmas and Zoom had never deliberately been so near large wild cats, so we walked close to each other. Suddenly Mom ran in front of us, leapt about two meters, grabbed one of the monkeys from the end of a branch and held it in her mouth. She saw us and paused briefly as if she were shocked by our presence – she must have been concentrating so much on the monkey that she did not know we were there. A scurry of cubs ran in all directions around us and, with Mom in the lead carrying her kill, disappeared into the bush. Mom had just given us a peek into cheetah adaptability never before witnessed by any researcher. She was teaching her cubs to jump as well as to run.
The Family Splits
Three weeks after we collared the cheetahs, we lost the signal from Mom, but the cub’s signal showed he had moved several kilometers into a dense forested area on a neighboring ranch. Within days we found out that Mom had sustained a head injury of unknown cause. It would require Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) veterinary intervention. Weak and dehydrated, Mom wandered into one of the villages almost as if she was asking for human help. The people were amazed that KWS would come so quickly to take the injured cheetah to Nairobi for treatment. Most people understand that wildlife brings substantial income into Kenya, but never before had they seen their own area as an important wildlife refuge. The community asked what they could do to help a species that drew so much attention from KWS. It became a turning point in the community when people first saw Mom as a mother rather than an enemy. We took the near-tragic opportunity to strengthen our education program and to encourage efforts in improved husbandry that could prevent livestock losses. –
While Mom was recovering we tracked the cubs daily. We saw them kill a hare on two occasions, so we knew they were eating. Then the cub’s signal suddenly stopped, six days after Mom was taken to the hospital. Because the cubs should still need guidance from their mother, we had planned to release the recovered Mom where we hoped she could find and continue to train them. Rather than keeping her in captivity and risking that she would lose her fitness for hunting, we returned her to Kiu and released her where the family spent time in the previous weeks. We hoped they would reunite, but Mom seemed to have different arrangements; she ran across the busy Mombasa Highway and into the northern hills, a patch of steep forest where it is difficult for people to graze their livestock. The area was known for being the lurking grounds of poachers, who had depleted its stocks of antelope and gazelle for bushmeat.
We focused on finding the cubs that we believed remained south of the highway. We did not know for sure if the cub’s collar was broken or if the siblings had moved out of range. One afternoon a villager told Zoom that a poacher went into a local pub with a collar removed from a cheetah. It had been caught and killed in a snare set near the we last signal we had received. We rushed there, escorted by KWS rangers, and found the carcasses of two cubs killed in a line of snares set for small antelope. It did not appear that the poachers targeted the cheetahs, as no body parts were removed. Mom had taught her cubs to survive by killing a variety of prey and subsisting on the margins of human settlement, but nothing could prepare them for almost-invisible traps set in the very area where they hunted. We received word a few months later that three young cheetahs were seen hunting near Stanley and Son’s border – the other three cubs?
A New Family
We still had a signal from Mom, so we focused on the known. Cosmas and I hiked into the hills to get a visual. She was moving, but we wanted to be sure she was still healthy. We reached a location where the signal was strong, an area of heavy bush where we saw leopard and buffalo tracks. Cosmas wore a headset to listen for the signal while I listened for sounds around us. There was a rustle in the brush and out darted Mom. She looked healthy. Under the bush we found a freshly killed tree hyrax, a short-legged mammal about the size of a small house cat that lives in the branches. We quickly left the area with hopes that she would come back for her small meal. Once again she had uncharacteristically stalked a tree-dwelling animal in thick bush rather than chasing an antelope across a patch of grassland.
Cosmas and Zoom tracked Mom each week in September and October 2005. Cosmas called me in early October to tell me that they had seen Mom and she had four tiny new cubs. Apparently, she had just become pregnant before she was injured and, after she was released, she retreated to the relative safety of the northern hills to give birth. Two days later, I received another call. “Mom crossed the highway with her cubs,” Cosmas said quietly, “and two of them were killed by a vehicle.” Cosmas and Zoom followed Mom’s signal to make sure that she was not injured. When they had a clear enough signal to know that they were close, Mom made a mock charge at Cosmas, and Zoom was able to see the two remaining cubs. Perhaps the death of the two cubs would assure that Mom could focus on the survival of the remaining pair.
We tracked the new family and averaged a visual every six weeks. Mom and her new cubs traveled along stream beds, spending most of their time in thick bush areas. Although she was never far from a settlement and occasionally less than 200 meters from herds of sheep and goats, she rarely killed livestock. Mostly, the group survived on hare, hyrax and small game like dikdik, duiker and grants gazelle. We never witnessed another monkey kill, though she was often near troops of monkeys. Our hopes to get visuals on the cubs were often foiled by their circling behind us, a method Mom must have taught them to avoid approaching threats. When the cubs were about 12 months old we began tracking the family daily in hopes of collaring a cub, but Mom suddenly disappeared the week we planned to capture one. When she returned about 4 weeks later, she was alone. The cubs were old enough to go off on their own, and despite our missed opportunity, we hoped that is what they had done.
After two more months of tracking Mom, her signal disappeared again. We continued tracking exercises once or twice a week, and after another three months the signal was strong in a valley where we used to find her regularly. We hiked into the thick bush, and when we were close to the signal Mom mock charged us. Out from under the bush ran three tiny cubs. Mom was doing what she did best.
Putting a Plan into Action
Another land subdivision was approved by authorities in January 2007, breaking apart a third of the remaining ranch land where Mom roamed. As ranch managers removed fence lines and the new owners began to identify and settle their 10-acre plots, human activity levels on Mom’s turf increased. Mom moved between the northern section of Stanely’s ranch and the rugged southern section of the subdivision, where few people could reach their plots by vehicle. In June, we found Mom in a cleared area of the Stanley ranch near a herd of impala gazelles. As Zoom looked for the cubs with binoculars, he counted not three, but seven cubs. The four new cubs looked two or three months older than the ones we knew to be Mom’s, but we never discovered who their mother was. Mom continued to care for the seven cubs through August, remaining in the 20-square-kilometer area most of the time. Increasingly, her signal came from near the goat herds brought in by the new settlers.
As the cubs grew older, Mom’s ability to resist the goats weakened. Tensions within the community resembled those we had seen two years before. This time, with the network of communication that Zoom had established, we were able to help the people to regularly warn each other of the location of the new “pride” of cheetahs in the area. Lore spread of this cheetah being the “good Mom” who raised three litters of cubs in the area after going into the village of Centre for help in 2005. She moved frequently and freely between settlements and the forest, and though she sometimes tried to take livestock, she was rarely successful. Instead, she had begun hunting large antelope, an uncommon, energetically-costly adaptation to a large litter and reduced small prey that had also been noted by researchers in the Serengeti.
Although Mom’s collar stopped transmitting in 2007, we made the decision not to remove the old collar or re-collar her because of the risks of immobilization at her age. Residents knew Mom because of her device and reported sightings through Zoom long after the batteries died. People claim that the seven cubs dispersed and remain in the region. Mom produced another single cub in 2008 that did not survive. In 2009 she gave birth to two more that thrived. Because she tends to disappear for long stretches before she delivers, we believe she travels into the neighboring Masai land to find her mates, returning to Kiu to raise her family.
Mom’s interesting behavioral changes gave us the framework to develop our community programs. We now have three scouts working within the settled areas. We also have a network of alerting herders to “chunga mbuzi” (watch the goats) when a cheetah is in the area. Although conflicts still occasionally occur, farmer tolerance for the presence of the cheetah has increased dramatically. Along with information from recent national studies, the lessons from Mom’s behavior have been vital in the development of a government-endorsed document guiding cheetah conservation efforts in Kenya.