Whe wants to explore cheetahs, he has to be quick. Hardly anyone knows this as well as Bettina Wachter. The cold of the night is still deep in the bones of people and animals when the evolutionary biologist drives her off-road vehicle through the Namibian bush one May morning. Shortly before, one cheetah fell into the trap, the second male within a short time. Wachter and her colleagues from the Berlin Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) don’t want the big cats to wait long. Until the midday sun burns, they want to examine both cheetah brothers, equip them with GPS collars and then release them back into the wild.
Wachter’s team has been researching the behavior, ecology, health status and reproduction of cheetahs, the rarest big cats in Africa, for almost twenty years. The species is on the red list of the World Conservation Organization IUCN, status: endangered. There are barely 7100 copies left on the entire continent. Around a fifth of them live in Namibia.
The cheetah is a highly specialized hunter, everything about him is trimmed for speed: his claws are permanently extended, like spikes on the shoes of athletes, they help him to achieve a higher speed. His physique resembles that of a greyhound; With a maximum of 60 kilograms, it is a lightweight. All of which makes it the fastest mammal in the world. However, the cheetah pays a price for this record-breaking special physique. It is physically inferior to other predators such as lions, leopards and hyenas. “As if a 100-meter sprinter competes against a heavyweight boxer,” says Wachter’s colleague Jörg Melzheimer, “no chance.” When a cheetah meets a leopard, the encounter often ends fatally for the former.
The cheetah has therefore looked for its niche. You can hardly find it in protected areas anymore, where its sturdy competitors rule. Instead, most of the remaining cheetahs have moved to farmland – often to the displeasure of their owners.
Cheetahs cannot be baited with meat
The fact that the population has been declining for decades is also due to the old conflict between humans and predators. On the one hand, there are the cheetahs, who keep killing calves in search of prey. On the other hand, there are the farmers who no longer want to accept these losses. According to their own statements, some had lost up to 30 percent of their young calves to the predators in the past. As a result, the hunter became the hunted, and farmers captured and shot cheetahs. Wachter cannot say exactly how many animals were killed in this way. The kills on private farmland were not illegal.