Tag Archives: Wildlife

Wildlife: Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus)

Warthogs are one of at least four unique species in the pig family (Suidae) native to Africa. Other natives include the wild boar (Sus scrofa) in northern Africa, bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus) in east Africa and southern Africa, and giant forest hog (Hylochoerus meinertzhageni) in isolated areas of central Africa. Species of warthog occur throughout parts of central Africa as well as the equatorial regions towards southern Africa and the eastern parts of southern Africa.

Conservation Status & Threats

Warthogs, African bushpigs, and Red River Hogs are threatened by hunting and poaching for their meat, but occur in large enough populations that they are not significantly threatened as species. At regional levels Warthogs are believed to have gone locally extinct in some West and North African states.

The canine teeth of Common Warthogs develop into tusks made from the same material as teeth in other animals, including Elephants. Like the ivory taken from African and Asian Elephant species, a Warthog’s ivory tusks have been carved and used in decorative and ceremonial applications. Due to the healthy status of many Warthog populations there may not be a prohibition on the domestic or international trade of their ivory, however the illicit way their tusks are acquired makes possession and trade problematic.

Warthogs in South Africa.

Relatives & Identification

Warthogs: Up to 63-85 cm (2-3 feet) at the shoulder. Males can weigh 60 to 150 kg (130 to 330 lb) while females are notably smaller at 45 to 75 kg (100 to 165 lb). Total body length 110-180cm (3.6-6 feet).

Males have two pairs of tusks: one pair on the upper part of their mouth and a second, smaller pair on the jaw fitting. With their mouth closed they fit closely together. Females have only a pair of upper tusks which can reach as much as 15.2-25.5 cm (6.0-10.0 inches) in length. The tusks of males can be even larger with one record-setting male possessing tusks 63.5 cm (25.0 inches) in length. Despite popular belief the tusks do not become “razor sharp” from normal use, but are still considerably dangerous.

Warthog Distribution: Increasingly diminishing distribution throughout South Africa. Large distribution throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

Bushpigs: Up to 66 to 100 cm (26 to 39 in) at the shoulder, and weigh from 55 to 150 kg (121 to 331 lb). Total body length 130-170cm (3.6-6 feet).

Bushpig Distribution: Predominantly northeastern parts of Southern Africa and reaching into southern East Africa.

The giant forest hog, which currently has a scattered distribution in tropical parts of West and Central Africa, can weigh as much as 275 kg (606 lb). All species in the Suidae family native to Africa are capable swimmers in spite of their size.

Habitat & Behavior

Warthogs live in a male-dominant hierarchical structure typically based on age, which also correlates to size. However males are typically solitary even when steward of one or more females and offspring which form a group called a sounder. Depending on the quality of their habitat and success of the male in acquiring females, it may keep more than one sounder. Multiple sounders and bachelor males of related individuals form a clan and may occupy a specific range for generations.

Adolescent and adult males do not form a permanent part of this group but during mating seasons will move among sounders for receptive females. Unsuccessful or immature bachelor males may live alone or form small bachelor herds.

Warthogs are commonly diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day and sleep at night, but some populations may be primarily nocturnal especially where human-wildlife conflict exists. They require water and prefer to live in savanna, grasslands, and lightly wooded areas, but will expand into less forgiving environments with a satisfactory supply of water. Similar to Savanna Elephants and White Rhino and Black Rhino, warthogs enjoy wallowing in mud.

Warthogs kneeling to eat short grasses. RHA

Warthogs are among the only herbivores known to kneel on their forelimbs to eat at short grasses or drink water. While leaning down they are also able to make use of their tusks to pull up roots and succulent grasses. Their tusks are also defensive tools and with head held down point forwards during a charge.

Warthogs can run at up to 55 kph (34 mph), allowing them the speed to escape many ambush predators. Typically the warthog’s fight-or-flight response leading into a charge is a retreat away from a threat, however their size, speed, and determination to get out of danger makes Warthogs a clear threat to anything standing in their path. For this reason animals and especially humans on foot must be careful when walking in areas where warthogs are potentially present as scaring them can result in an inadvertent charge.

When panicked or stressed the long hairs running along the front-half of their back will stand on end. Unlike the African Bushpig, Warthogs have muscles near their tail which draw taught when running and helps hold the tail erect. This is thought to act as a signal to other warthogs who may follow a lead warthog to safety. The raised tail has also been associated with helping young to follow their mother through high grass, though this behavior and many other aspects of Warthogs is not yet fully understood.

Adult males are capable of digging their own burrow, but may take over those made by Porcupines or Aardvarks. If abandoned by the warthog these burrows are very important for other animals able to survive only because of the protective shelters made by other species.

A sounder of Warthogs grazing in South Africa. RHA.

Reproduction & Lifespan

Warthogs keep multiple burrows, or dens, within their home range so that there is always a safe place to sleep or to raise young. These burrows are often in enormous termite mounds that can be 2-3.5 meters high and go deep underground. These locations are thought to often be partially excavated by Aardvarks that feed on the termites, leaving  a nice area to make a den for the warthogs.

Unlike Bushpig piglets which have stripes, likely to camouflage them from the eyes of predators, Warthog piglets must rely solely on its mother and burrow for protection. Warthog sows give birth away from the male and will leave the burrow with their mother after 50 days. Unlike most hoofed animals, such as impala and gazelle, warthogs commonly give birth to multiple young in a single litter. The gestation period is approximately 170 days and litter sizes are typically 2-3, but a litter with as many as 8 piglets has been recorded. It takes roughly 21 weeks to completely wean the piglets and they will become a part of the sounder until sexual maturity is reached by 18-20 months of age.

Males typically leave their mother at 15 months old, but will still be three months shy of sexual maturity and about three years away from mating. Adult males engage in fights with other males, possibly over mates or resources, but are not known to be territorial or to fight over a specific range or den. The fights involve sidling up to one another and bashing their head sideways, taking out of play the ends of the tusks and reducing dramatic injuries.

Warthogs can live for more than a decade in the wild, with some examples living for as long as 17 years. In captivity a 17-18 year lifespan is possible.

Sources:

  • “The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” by Richard D. Estes
  • “Walker’s Mammals of the World” by Ronald M. Nowak
  • “Stuarts’ Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa” by Chris & Mathilde Stuart

Great Books on Adventures and Wildlife Conservation (2014 List)

Listed below are some fascinating true stories about incredible individuals creating their own adventures, overcoming adversity, and discovering themselves and the world around them. These books and memoirs make great gifts for adventurers, people interested in wildlife conservation, and animal lovers for the holidays! Check the Back Country Gear page for other books and gear recommended by Red Hawk Adventures!

Note: All synopses are from GoodReads.com and are property of their respective owners. All links are to GoodReads which has ratings, synopses, and user-created reviews of the books listed below as well as books on related subjects.

Babylon’s Ark: The Incredible Wartime Rescue of the Baghdad Zoo by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

   When the Iraq war began, conservationist Lawrence Anthony could think of only one thing: the fate of the Baghdad Zoo, located in the city center and caught in the war’s crossfire. Once Anthony entered Baghdad he discovered that full-scale combat and uncontrolled looting had killed nearly all the animals of the zoo.

  But not all of them. U.S. soldiers had taken the time to help care for the remaining animals, and the zoo’s staff had returned to work in spite of the constant firefights. Together the Americans and Iraqis had managed to keep alive the animals that had survived the invasion.

 Babylon’s Ark chronicles the zoo’s transformation from bombed-out rubble to peaceful park. Along the way, Anthony recounts hair-raising efforts to save a pride of the dictator’s lions, close a deplorable black-market zoo, and rescue Saddam’s Arabian horses. His unique ground-level experience makes Babylon’s Ark an uplifting story of both sides working together for the sake of innocent animals caught in the war’s crossfire.

The Elephant Whisperer: Learning about life, loyalty and freedom from a remarkable herd of elephants by Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

   When South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony was asked to accept a herd of ‘rogue’ elephants on his Thula Thula game reserve in South Africa, his commonsense told him to refuse. But he was the herd’s last chance of survival – notorious escape artists, they would all be killed if Lawrence wouldn’t take them. He agreed, but before arrangements for the move could be completed the animals broke out again and the matriarch and her baby were shot. The remaining elephants were traumatised, dangerous, and very angry. As soon as they arrived at Thula Thula they started planning their escape…As Lawrence battled to create a bond with the elephants and save them from execution, he came to realise that they had a lot to teach him about life, loyalty and freedom. Set against the background of life on the reserve, with unforgettable characters and exotic wildlife, this is a delightful book that will appeal to animal lovers everywhere.

Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick

  Daphne Sheldrick, whose family arrived in Africa from Scotland in the 1820s, is the first person ever to have successfully hand-reared newborn elephants. Her deep empathy and understanding, her years of observing Kenya’s rich variety of wildlife, and her pioneering work in perfecting the right husbandry and milk formula have saved countless elephants, rhinos, and other baby animals from certain death.

   In this heartwarming and poignant memoir, Daphne shares her amazing relationships with a host of orphans, including her first love, Bushy, a liquid-eyed antelope; Rickey-Tickey-Tavey, the little dwarf mongoose; Gregory Peck, the busy buffalo weaver bird; Huppety, the mischievous zebra; and the majestic elephant Eleanor, with whom Daphne has shared more than forty years of great friendship.

    But this is also a magical and heartbreaking human love story between Daphne and David Sheldrick, the famous Tsavo Park warden. It was their deep and passionate love, David’s extraordinary insight into all aspects of nature, and the tragedy of his early death that inspired Daphne’s vast array of achievements, most notably the founding of the world-renowned David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Orphans’ Nursery in Nairobi National Park, where Daphne continues to live and work to this day.

    Encompassing not only David and Daphne’s tireless campaign for an end to poaching and for conserving Kenya’s wildlife, but also their ability to engage with the human side of animals and their rearing of the orphans expressly so they can return to the wild, Love, Life, and Elephants is alive with compassion and humor, providing a rare insight into the life of one of the world’s most remarkable women.

Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family by Cynthia Moss

   Cynthia Moss has studied the elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park for over twenty-seven years. Her long-term research has revealed much of what we now know about these complex and intelligent animals. Here she chronicles the lives of the members of the T families led by matriarchs Teresia, Slit Ear, Torn Ear, Tania, and Tuskless. With a new afterword catching up on the families and covering current conservation issues, Moss’s story will continue to fascinate animal lovers.

One Man’s Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey by Sam Keith, Richard L. Proenneke

  To live in a pristine land unchanged by man…to roam a wilderness through which few other humans have passed…to choose an idyllic site, cut trees and build a log cabin…to be a self-sufficient craftsman, making what is needed from materials available…to be not at odds with the world but content with one’s own thoughts and company.

   Thousands have had such dreams, but Richard Proenneke lived them. He found a place, built a cabin, and stayed to become part of the country. One Man’s Wilderness is a simple account of the day-to-day explorations and activities he carried out alone, and the constant chain of nature’s events that kept him company.

   From Proenneke’s journals, and with first-hand knowledge of his subject and the setting, Sam Keith has woven a tribute to a man who carved his masterpiece out of the beyond.

The Wilderness Family: At Home with Africa’s Wildlife by Kobie Krüger

   Everyone warned Kobie Krüger that being the wife of a game warden at a remote ranger station in South Africa’s largest national park would be an arduous move. The heat was unbearable, malaria would be a constant danger, her husband would have to be away for long stretches, there were no schools or nearby doctors for their three daughters, and of course the area teemed with wild animals. Yet for Kobie and her family, the seventeen years at South Africa’s Kruger National Park were the most magical of their lives. Now, in The Wilderness Family, Kobie recounts the enchanting adventures and extraordinary encounters they experienced in this vast reserve where wildlife has right of way.

  […] But nothing prepared the Krügers for the adventure of raising an orphaned lion cub. The cub was only a few days old and on the verge of death when they found him alone.  Leo, as the girls promptly named the cub, survived on loads of love and bottles of fat-enriched milk, and soon became an affectionate, rambunctious member of the family. At the heart of the book, Kobie recounts the unique bond that each of the Krügers forged with Leo and their sometimes hilarious endeavor to teach him to become a “real” lion and live with his own kind in the wild.

  Writing with deep affection and luminous prose, Kobie Krüger captures here the mystery of untamed Africa–its fathomless skies, soulful landscapes, and most of all, its astonishing array of animals. By turns funny and heart-breaking, engaging and suspenseful, The Wilderness Family is an unforgettable memoir of a woman, her family, and the amazing game reserve they called home for seventeen incredible years.

The Last Rhinos: My Battle to Save One of the World’s Greatest Creatures by  Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence

    When Lawrence Anthony learned that the northern white rhino, living in the war-ravaged Congo, was on the very brink of extinction, he knew he had to act. If the world lost the sub-species, it would be the largest land mammal since the woolly mammoth to go extinct. In The Last Rhinos, Anthony recounts his attempts to save these remarkable animals.

   The demand for rhino horns in the Far East has turned poaching into a dangerous black market that threatens the lives of not just these rare beasts, but also the rangers who protect them.

   The northern white rhino’s last refuge was in an area controlled by the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the most vicious rebel groups in the world. In the face of unmoving government bureaucracy, Anthony made a perilous journey deep into the jungle to try to find and convince them to help save the rhino.

    An inspiring story of conservation in the face of brutal war and bureaucratic quagmires, The Last Rhinos will move animal lovers everywhere.

The Cowboy and His Elephant by Malcolm MacPherson

   In the late 1980s, a female baby elephant was born on the plains of Southern Africa. In a “cull,” her family was slaughtered. Only the newborn female’s life was spared. Terrified and bewildered the young elephant was transported to America to be sold.

   Bob Norris is a cowboy with an enormous empathy for animals. Handsome as a movie star, he was the Marlboro Man, with his face appearing on billboards around the world. But something was missing. When the hurt, vulnerable little elephant, Amy, came into his life, an incredible bond between the most unlikely of friends was forged.

  Bob adopted Amy and through close observation, gentle training, humor, and endless perseverance, this accomplished horseman gradually coaxed Amy into overcoming her mistrust of humans, and her fear of the world. Amy became a beloved member of the Norris family, and partner to the ranch hands, but Bob knew from the start that the ultimate goal was for Amy to regain her confidence “and” her independence – even, if it were possible, to go back to the savannahs of Africa.

   Amy may have left the cowboy’s life, but she never left his heart. “The Cowboy and His Elephant” is a story of mutual friendship, of genuine love and compassion, and foremost, this is an American story with roots that run deep in the values and traditions of the American West.

Check out these and other books, memoirs, and nature and adventure documentaries on the Back Country Gear page recommended by Red Hawk Adventures and buy them direct from Amazon.com!

Asian Wildlife: Tiger (Panthera tigris)

There is only one species of Tiger, however there are six of nine modern subspecies still found throughout Asia. Tigers are among the most well-known species of big cat, especially throughout Asia and the Middle East where they play a strong role in folklore and culture. The Tiger is also featured in the symbols of many ancient cultures and is the national animal of South Korea, India, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. Like Leopards, the Tiger is feared for its attacks on humans, particularly in areas with dense human populations who live in or near a Tiger’s territory. However this fear is not entirely misplaced as it is estimated that Tigers account for the most human deaths of any mammal and is more likely to defend itself by killing a disruptive human than Lions or Leopards.

While the Lion is considered the “King of the Jungle” it is the Tiger that is the largest extant cat species and is highly adaptable to a variety of climates and ecosystems. There are even efforts to save current Tiger populations by introducing them into safe areas that are far outside their traditional habitats. Success in this endeavor is due in no small part to the apex predator’s lack of specialization, allowing it to make the best of environments that Lions and Cheetah would find inhospitable.

The Tiger is one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac and the White Tiger, ruler of the West, is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations (or cardinal directions). In the Chinese agricultural calendar the Tiger is the first animal and is linked to spring. Tigers may also symbolize Earth in Chinese art, whereas the contrasting Dragon symbolizes spirit, thereby creating a balanced yin and yang.

Conservation Status & Threats

Elephantback Tiger Hunt: A Surprise Appearance of a Tiger (Public Domain)
Elephantback Tiger Hunt: A Surprise Appearance of a Tiger (Public Domain)

Most if not all Tigers that are alive today, totaling fewer than 5,000 in the wild, have a predominantly orange coat and black stripes. While Tigers with a white coat, black stripes, and blue eyes are naturally occurring in the Bengal Tiger (P. t. ssp. tigris) subspecies, these animals have not been seen in the wild since 1953 and any remaining specimens are likely in captivity.

Tiger hunting has been a popular activity for hundreds of years, especially in India which featured grand hunts for the maharajas and other wealth people, including the British during the British Raj. In the 1900s Tiger parts became a popular part of the animal parts trade which included their skins, teeth, and claws. During this time Tiger populations were reduced by 95% from an estimated 100,000. The “Traditional Chinese Medicine” made a resurgence beginning in 1950 and now the Tiger parts trade includes the penis, which is incorrectly believed to act as an aphrodisiac or sexual-performance enhancer, and the tail, which is used by some in attempted treatments of skin conditions and joint ailments.

Today poaching of Tigers still occurs, but unsuccessful mating due to habitat disruption and disturbances by humans may play a significant role in the continued decline of Tiger populations in Asia. Despite a ban in the trade of Tiger bones in China the farming of Tigers, by raising them in captivity and harvesting their organs and other parts, may be the largest supplier of the contemporary black market animal parts trade.

Recent efforts by Save China’s Tigers have brought a limited number of tigers to the country of South Africa, where the apex predators have thus far seen success in a limited introduction to the South African climate and ecosystems.

Habitat & Life

Historical range of tiger is shown in pale yellow and current range (2006) in green. CC2.5G; from Fate of Wild Tigers: Sanderson, E., Forrest, J., Loucks, C., Ginsberg, J., Dinerstein, E., Seidensticker, J., Leimgruber, P., Songer, M., Heydlauff, A., O’Brien, T., Bryja, G., Klenzendorf, S., Wikramanayake, E. (2006).

Tiger populations have decreased approximately 50% over the past twenty years their range has fallen by the same percentage, an important correlation that backs up population studies. Across all 6 remaining subspecies of Tiger it’s estimated that fewer than 5,000 individuals worldwide and are all listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN. It’s suspected that Tigers are more susceptible to disturbance by humans, which may account for some loss of range and difficulty in finding mates. However hunting and poaching likely contribute to the majority of the population decline.

Tigers still exist throughout most countries in South East Asia as well as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma (Myanmar). They can be found throughout regions with rocky terrains, tropical rainforests, swamps, evergreen forests, and grasslands; and apparently have no problem with large obstacles, such as rivers and bays, as Tigers have been recorded swimming nearly 30 kilometers without pause. On land they typically travel 10-20 km a day, but may cover as much as 60 kilometers as they attentively patrol their vast territories.

Hunting Tiger in Ranthambore. Photo by Rhaessner (CCA-SA3.0)

It’s thought that Tigers hunt primarily by sight and sound and like many big cat species their attacks on prey are rarely successful, with a recorded failure rate of 90% in some specimens. By comparison, Lions, who may hunt alone but more often in a group of two or more, have a failure rate of around 80%. African Wild Dogs are among the most successful predators, mostly due to their incredible endurance and pack size, and only fail to catch prey 20-30% of the time.

Primarily solitary animals, Tigers make exceptions when they are searching for a mate or in the case of a female raising her young. Typically females will mate once every 2-4 years, having a litter of up to six cubs, but more typically 2-3. Life expectancy of cubs during the first two years is only 50%, however successful Tigers may live for more than 20 years in the wild.

Relatives

Moholoholo-lions

There are many big cats in the Panthera genus, including the well-known Lion. However there are other species like the Snow Leopard, which has been recently added to the Panthera genus, but may not be as closely related to a Leopard as it is to the Tiger! As well, the Cheetah is a distant relative, and is the fastest mammalian predator in the world.

Due to having an identical number of chromosomes (38) a Tiger is able to mate with a Lion. Such a hybrid is called a Liger (in the case of a male Lion and a female Tiger) or a Tigon (in the case of a female Lion and male Tiger). The Liger is notable for its immense size – even larger than a Tiger – due to not inheriting a growth-inhibiting gene. However male Ligers will be sterile, and thus it does not seem to be a persistent occurrence, particularly when these two species no longer have naturally overlapping domains. Tigons inherit a growth-inhibiting gene and are typically smaller than a Lion.

Identification

Lions are second in size to Tigers and can weigh around 250 kg (550 lb), while the largest Tiger subspecies can weigh as much as 306 kg (675 lb). Historically Lions and Tigers have been able to inhabit parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, however their current ranges are regions apart, meaning that they will not be seen near one another. Their markings contrast significantly, along with other identifying features, making them easier to distinguish in captivity than the Cheetah and Leopard.

Cheetah (top) and Leopard (bottom), roughly to scale.
Cheetah (top) and Leopard (bottom), roughly to scale.

Tiger tails are 60 to 110 cm (24 to 43 in) in length, almost identical in length to a Leopard’s and used for similar purposes of balance when both chasing down prey and when climbing trees. However Tigers are thought to rarely climb trees, whereas Leopards in Africa and Asia frequently climb trees to avoid being seen or disturbed.

The largest Tiger subspecies, the Bengal, stands at 1.22m (4 ft) tall and weighs on average 300 kg (650 lb), with the largest specimen ever recorded at an astounding 389 kg (857 lb) as recorded in 1957 by hunter David Hasinger.

The male Tiger is significantly larger than its female counterpart by as much as 70%. Another characteristic that can be used to determine male from female are paw sizes, with male Tiger paws being notably larger than a female’s.

Tiger Subspecies Comparison (Figures are approx.)

Attribute Wild Population Length (incl. tail) Male Weight Female Weight
Bengal (P. t. tigris) < 3,000 2.4-3.1 m   (8-10 ft) 180-260 kg (400-570 lb) 100 to 160 kg (220-350 lb)
Indochinese (P. t. corbetti) 350 2.4-2.7 m   (8-9.5 ft) 150-195 kg (331-430 lb) 100–130 kg (220-290 lb)
Malayan (P. t. jacksoni) < 500 1.8–2.8 m  (6–9.7 ft) 47.2-129.1 kg (104-285 lb) 24-88 kg     (53-194 lb)
Siberian (P. t. altaica) < 400 160-230 cm (63-91 in) 180-306 kg (397-675 lb) 100-167 kg (220-368 lb)
South China (P. t. amoyensis) ~65 220–260 cm (87–102 in) 130 to 180 kg (290-400 lb) 100-110 kg (220 to 240 lb)
Sumatran (P. t. sumatrae) < 500 2.1 to 2.2 cm (85-89 in) 100-140 kg (220-310 lb) 75-110 kg (165-243 lb)
Bali (P. t. balica) extinct ? 90-100 kg (200-220 lb) 65–80 kg   (143–176 lb)
Caspian (P. t. virgate) extinct ? ? ?
Javan (P. t. sondaica) extinct ? 100-140 kg (220-310 lb) 75–115 kg (165–254 lb)

Sources

“Panthera tigris”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris ssp. altaica”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris ssp. amoyensis”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris ssp. corbetti”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris ssp. jacksoni”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris ssp. sumatrae”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris ssp. tigris”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Panthera tigris balica”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (extinct)

“Panthera tigris virgata”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (extinct)

“Panthera tigris sondaica “. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (extinct)

Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Ed., Vol. 1 by Ronald M. Nowak

Further Reading

In the Shadow of the Tiger Documentary Film

PBS Nature film Siberian Tiger Quest Full Episode on PBS.org

The Object at Hand: The story behind the Smithsonian’s display tiger leads back into tiger history, man-eating and otherwise, and sadly, back to the fact that tigers are now endangered.

Featured image photo credit: A Bengal Tiger, photograph by John and Karen Hollingsworth, US Fish and Wildlife Service (Public Domain)

African Wildlife: Hyaenidae Family (Hyena and Aardwolf)

Hyenas and Aardwolves play an integral role in their habitats and show tremendous diversity between species. Interestingly, Hyenas are categorized in the feliformia suborder of the carnivora order due to a physiology and behavior more similar to cat-like species. Each species has shown unique adaptations that allow it to be individually successful in specific environments and they have all out-lasted the dog-like species that had similar bone-crushing adaptations millions of years ago.

While not typically called a Hyena, the Aardwolf is classified in the same suborder, but is not a descendant of the same ancestors of its bone-crushing relatives. The name Aardwolf is derived from the Afrikaans words “earth” and “wolf” because it primarily feeds on termites rather than on large animals or plants.

The other three species in the Hyena family are known for their ability to crush bones, one of several specializations that evolved millions of years ago and allowed the ancestors of modern Hyena to succeed in varied environments and compete successfully with rival species in their region. Spotted Hyena have the strongest jaws of any mammal and are capable of exerting enough force (1140 lbf/in2 ) to crush elephant bones.

The Spotted Hyena, also known as the Laughing Hyena because of its trademark vocalization, is one of Africa’s largest predators and the largest of the four species in the family. Another interesting aspect is that Spotted Hyena females have high levels of testosterone which plays a role in the hierarchy of the clan as it is females that are dominant, with an alpha female taking precedence in the clan and taking the largest share of any group kill. Females also are typically the most aggressive and largest. High testosterone levels may also be responsible for the development in female Spotted Hyena of ambiguous genitalia.

Conservation Status & Threats
Injured female Spotted Hyena by the side of the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
Injured female Spotted Hyena by the side of the road in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Spotted Hyena and Aardwolves are listed as “least concern” by IUCN, with the Striped Hyena listed as “near threatened” and the Brown Hyena as “vulnerable.” Habitat loss may represent the largest threats to the Hyaenidae species, but pesticide use in agriculture and pest control also plays a role in harming Aardwolves which eats primarily insects. In addition, there is a lot of misinformation and folklore which harms the relationship between humans and Hyena, furthering beliefs that the animals are ugly and evil.

This mistreatment and misunderstanding has in the past been exemplified in South Africa where the Aardwolf has been mistaken by land owners as a vicious carnivore and killed to protect livestock. Incidentally, overgrazing leads to a suitable habitat for termites, which Aardwolves can then control through predation, without impacting the livestock. This mutualistic relationship has helped farmers understand the utility of local Aardwolf populations.

However predator persecution, demand for traditional medicine, and poaching-related wildlife crimes can still present a noticeable impact on local populations. In particular, scavenging vultures are being increasingly targeted by poachers, who know that circling vultures act as a beacon that there is a newly dead animal. Anti-poaching rangers use such insights from the environment and quickly respond to a potential threat. To counter this response poachers have been poisoning the remains of animals to intentionally target vultures, however the poisons affect all scavenging species in the ecosystem including Brown and Striped Hyena and juvenile African Sea Eagles.

Various Hyena species have been blamed for livestock attacks or theft but only Spotted and Striped varieties have been known to kill humans and potentially livestock. Whereas the Brown Hyena is more likely to have been found scavenging remains that it finds and not be the culprit. However scavenging behavior, including digging for recently buried remains, have made many people regard Hyena with suspicion and fear. But that hasn’t prevented some individuals, and even warlords, from keeping Spotted Hyena as guard animals or exotic pets. However due to the nature of the animals, this relationship does not work out very well and many adult Hyena become too aggressive to be domesticated and lack opportunities to manage its hygiene, impacting its long-term health.

In some areas the species are killed for their parts for use in traditional medicines. These practices are evident in many old cultures, including ancient Romans and ancient Greeks, where specific parts of the Hyena were believed to aid in fertility or protect against evil. Hyena also have negative associations in both Middle Eastern and African folklore and mythology, partly due to the perception of scavenging animals being evil or related to the occult because they interact with dead bodies. However with scavenger animals to “clean up” the remains of dead animals, even if they are rotting or toxic, their habitat and human habitats would be at much greater risk of disease.

Habitat & Life

Distribution of species in Hyaenidae family, by Craig Pemberton (CCA-SA3.0)

All species in the Hyaenidae family are capable of vocalizations, although some barks are more reminiscent of a laugh than others, particularly in the Spotted Hyena. All species also bear a similar shape, with the forelegs being longer than the rear. It’s thought that this trait allows the meat-eating Hyena to more easily pick up carcasses or bones and carry it to their den, which could be kilometers away, or stored in one of their hiding spots.

The Spotted Hyena and Striped Hyena have the greatest ranges, each dominating significant portions of Africa. The Spotted Hyena is found in most open plains, bushveld, and rocky areas of sub-Saharan Africa, with the exception of the majority of South Africa. Spotted Hyena can travel up to 80 km (50 miles) a night as they search for food or a new clan. The Striped Hyena is the only existing species of the genus found in the Middle East through to India, but also survives in North and East Africa. The Brown Hyena is confined to a much smaller area, but has ranges throughout most of southern Africa due to its hospitable bushveld and grassland. Aardwolf populations are divided between parts of East Africa and the majority of southern Africa.

Clans of Spotted Hyena rely on several hierarchies to establish dominance over one another. Females are at the top, but an alpha female leads the clan and may kick members out. Her female relatives are typically the other top members of the hierarchy. Males establish their own dominance hierarchy that may determine which male(s) are allowed to mate with females. Clans of Spotted Hyena may range from 2-10, but hunting packs are typically 2-3 individuals.

Striped Hyena are more solitary than other Hyena and typically live in monogamous pairs and it’s the responsibility of the male to defend the den and young while the female forages for food. Alternatively they may hunt or scavenge in a family unit along with their young for one or more years.

Brown Hyenas may create a clan out of a family unit of many young, or organize into a small group of males and females with one alpha male dominant. Foraging may take individuals upwards of 50 km in a night as it looks for something to scavenge. Because kills are not always abundant, Brown Hyena may prey on rodents, eggs, and even eat fruits and vegetables to significantly supplement its diet.

Relatives

“Aardwolf taken at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.” by Greg Hume (CCA-SA3.0)

The Aardwolf (Proteles cristata), an insect-eating species that looks similar to the Striped Hyena, is also in the Hyaenidae family, but is in its own subfamily (Protelinae), while remaining a part of the overarching Hyaenidae group because of many similarities to the common ancestors of the Hyena. The Aardwolf specializes in eating termites and is predominantly nocturnal, when it will digs holes into sandy soil or termite mounds and may eat two hundred thousand termites and larvae in a single night, but may leave the nest intact so as to preserve the population for future predation. There is evidence that the Aardwolf will also eat small rodents and birds to supplement its diet.

Aardwolves are notably smaller than Hyena, standing 40-50 cm (1.3-1.6 feet) at the shoulders and weighing only 7-15 kg (15-33 pounds). They can be distinguished from their Hyena cousins by their slender build, coloration, and the five toes on their front paws.

Identification

Brown Hyena. Source: South African Tourism (http://www.southafrica.net)

Striped Hyena and Brown Hyena are about the same size, but their different markings make them easy to distinguish with the shaggy hair of the Brown Hyena very distinctive among the Hyaenidae. In Brown Hyena the males are typically a little larger than the females. Both sexes have large manes, the largest of any Hyena species, with long guard hairs that can stand on end to make themselves look larger to potential threats.

Spotted Hyena females have ambiguous genitalia which can make identification between males and females difficult. However female Spotted Hyena are typically also larger than the males as well as more aggressive, particularly in keeping their fellow clan members in line. Both males and females lack a significant mane, which differentiates them from the Aardwolf and Striped and Brown Hyena.

Comparison (Figures are approx.)

Attribute Brown Spotted Striped Aardwolf
Head and body length 1.1-1.3 meters (3.6-4.2 feet) .95-1.65 meters (3.1-5.4 feet) 1.0-1.1 meters (3.2-3.6 feet) .5-.8 meters (1.6-2.6 feet)
Shoulder height 64-88 cm (2.1-2.8 ft) 70-92 cm (2.3-3.0 ft) 60-95 cm (2-3.1 ft) 45-50 cm (1.5-1.6 ft)
Mane length 30 cm (1 ft) ~0 cm 20 cm (0.66 ft) ?? cm (?? ft)
Tail length 18-27 cm (0.6-0.9 ft) 25-36 cm (0.8-1.2 ft) 26-47 cm (0.8-1.5 ft) 20-30 cm (0.6-0.9 ft)
Male weight 37-45 kg (81-99 lb) 40-86 kg (88-189 lb) 25-55 kg (55-121 lb) 7-15 kg (15-33 lb)
Female weight slightly less than males 46-93 kg (101-205 lb) 25-55 kg (55-121 lb) 7-15 kg (15-33 lb)
Litter size 1-5 1-5 1-3 1-5

Sources

“Proteles cristata”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife” by Peter Alden, et al. (Copyright 1995 by Chanticleer Press, Inc.)

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

“Walker’s Mammals of the Modern World” Sixth Edition, Volume 1, by Ronald M. Nowak (Copyright 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press)

Further Reading

Hyena Conservation

 

Wildlife: Asian Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus)

The Asian Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) lives in the far east of mainland Asia extending from Russia through the Korean peninsula south into China as well as Southeast Asia and parts of India. A narrow band reaches along the more temperate areas immediately south of the Himalayas across to Afghanistan. The species also has historically existed on the island of Taiwan as well as the southern three main islands of Japan.

Bears have played an influential role in the mythologies of prehistoric people and are even recognized as the national symbols of both Russia and South Korea. Belief systems involving the Bear as one’s spiritual ancestor or kin may have led to arctolatry, Bear worship, which is still represented by the traditions of some indigenous cultures. There are also a number of Bear related folklore and myths in traditional Indian and Hindu cultures.

The Ainu people, who live on islands now belonging to Japan and Russia, have special ceremonies involving the release of the Bear’s spirit so that it might leave the world of man and return to the world of the gods. The Nivkh people indigenous to the Russian Far East have a very similar traditional ceremony which they still observe. The Ainu word kamuy, meaning “God” or a “divine spirit,” is also used to describe a Bear and in modern Japanese Kamui (カムイ) is one of the modern terms for a god or spirit.

Certain Japanese dog breeds of the Akita have been used to hunt the Asian Black Bear. Before the widespread use of firearms in Japan these hunts would have involved a group of several Akita taking down one Bear so that the hunter or community could make use of the Bear’s pelt, meat, and claws.

Conservation Status & Threats

Hunting Asian black bears in British India by Samuel Howitt
Hunting Asian black bears in British India by Samuel Howitt

Many countries, including China, have laws protecting Asian Black Bears and other species from being hunted. However many countries overlook similar protections for the habitats which leads to deforestation causing habitat loss and insufficient food supply being one of the largest threats to the Asian Black Bear and other Bear species in parts of China and Southeast Asia.

In Asia the main threat of predation seems to be from humans either from hunting and poaching or due to human-wildlife conflict when bears raid farms for sustenance and are killed by property owners (sometimes proactively). In Russia, Japan, and India the Bear is illegally hunted, typically for its skin and body parts that are in demand in the Asian market, however Indians prize the gall bladder. Meanwhile in China and Korea Bear farms have been legalized so that parts demanded by traditional Chinese medicine can be harvested.

Wildlife conflict also sometimes occurs, particularly in the northern part of their range adult Asian Black Bears have been known to be predated on by Brown Bears and Tigers. In Southeast Asia young Asian Black Bears have occasionally fallen prey to Leopards.

Formosan Black Bear eating fruit. Photo by Abu0804 CCA-SA3.0.

Due to the omnivorous nature of Bears and the ability for the Asian Black Bear to adapt to and survive in a variety of climates, it’s important that their normal food sources, succulent plants in the spring; fruits and insects in the summer; and high-fat and high-protein nuts in the autumn, having sustainable vegetation is important not just for shelter, but also so that they can survive hibernation during the winter in northern latitudes. Asian Black Bears in warmer climates do not need to hibernate, but are still susceptible to habitat loss through logging, slash and burn, and changes in agricultural land usage in south Asia.

Note: This section on the conservation status and threats to Bears in Asia is continued at the end of the article.

Habitat & Life

Asian Black Bear distribution. Data from IUCN Red List. (by Chermundy; CCA-SA3.0)

Like its American relative the Asian Black Bear is omnivorous and occasionally eats large prey. But its diet will vary based on the season and region that it lives in, particularly if it lives in a climate where hibernation during cold winter months is mandatory. Asian Black Bears that do not hibernate because they live in warmer climates will forage year round to supplement any large prey that becomes part of their diet. During the spring, particularly for Bears just coming out of hibernation, the diet will primarily consists of seeds and nuts, then shift toward insects and larva during the early summer to supplement a diet inclusive of meat from large prey. Fruits and vegetation make up a large part of their diet during summer months and explains their desire to raid orchards and farms for food during this period.

Asian Black Bears live in dens, and if they live in cold climates will hibernate in their den from November through March. These dens also serve as a place for giving birth to young, of which there may be as many as four, but typically only two. They will learn to crawl before they are able to open their eyes, which occurs when they are about seven days old, and will be weaned after around 115 days. Cubs will stay with their mother for two to three years as they learn to be self-sufficient.

Asian Black Bear suckling its cubs. Photo by Abu0804, CCA-SA3.0.

Around this time the cubs will become sexually mature and will move off to find their own territory. Asian Black Bears in southern Asia tend not to travel very far each day, covering perhaps only a few hundred meters depending on the level of human disturbance to the area. In the expansive northern regions they may have territories of several square kilometers. This differs dramatically from large cat species that live in the same regions, such as the Tiger who has a territory of 20-100 km2 and the Leopard with a 15-80 km2 territory.

On average Asian Black Bears can live to be 35 years old in the wild, but their lifespan may more typically range between 25-45 years.

Relatives

Himalayan subspecies of Asian Black Bear (U. thibetanus laniger). By Joydeep CCA-SA3.0.

Due to the large historic range of Asian Black Bears, and the subsequent isolation of some of their populations on islands of Japan as well as isolated areas of China and Russia, a total of nine subspecies of Asian Black Bear emerged. Two species native to Western Europe and the Eastern Europe/Central Asia area are extinct, leaving seven subspecies today all located in Asia.

The American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) is a separate species that descended from the Asian Black Bear more than 4 million years ago and has historically lived throughout Canada, the United States, and parts of Central America. American Black Bears can be a similar size or much larger on average than their Asian counterparts and adult males can weigh 115-270 kilograms (253-594 pounds).

The Sun Bear, while inhabiting some of the same regions as the Asian Black Bear, is classified as being in a different genus than its relatives and is exclusively found in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.

Identification

Male and female Asian Black Bears are significantly different in size, demonstrating sexual dimorphism. Males typically weigh between 110-150 kg (242-330 lb) while females weigh 65-90 kg (143-198 lb), with as much as an 85 kg (187 lb) difference between the smallest female and largest male.

The Asian Black Bear is also called the Moon Bear because of the white, V-shaped marking on its chest. The Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus) has a similar U-shaped or V-shaped, typically reddish marking on its chest and occupies similar regions in Southeast Asia. However these two species are very easy to tell apart due to their size, with the Sun Bear weighing less than half of the Asian Black Bear’s 135 kg (297 lb).

Comparison (Figures are approx.)

Attribute Asian Black Bear Sun Bear
Scientific name Ursus thibetanus Helarctos malayanus
Head and body length 1.2-1.8 meters (3.9-5.9 feet) 1.0-1.4 meters (3.2-4.6 feet)
Tail length 6.5-10.0 cm (2.5-4.0 inches) 3.0-7.0 cm (1.2–2.8 inches)
Male weight 110-150 kg (242-330 lb) less than 65 kg (143 lb)
Female weight 65-90 kg (143-198 lb) more than 27 kg (60 lb)
Litter size 1-4 cubs 1-2 cubs

Conservation Status & Threats: Bear Farming

Warning: This continuation of Conservation Status & Threats may contain disturbing or graphic descriptions.

In China, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam the Asian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus), and Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) are captured or killed for their parts for use in traditional medicines or are served as delicacies. Some of these countries have alleged efforts to curb illegal hunting and the decimation of the species through the use of farming. However there is little interest in creation of captive breeding programs so that Bears are being bred on the farms. Instead most Bears seem to be coming from the wild and thus these farms contribute to depleting the wild population, not protecting it.

In China Bear ranching has been legalized so that Bears can continue to be actively farmed for their parts. South Korea also has laws protecting the farming of the Asian Black Bear for both bile and paws. According to the Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2,700 kilograms (5,940 pounds) of Bear paws, a modern delicacy, were exported from just one Chinese province in 1990.

A bile bear kept in captivity so that her bile can be extracted. The image was taken by the Asian Animal Protection Network in Huizhou Farm, Vietnam. The bear has since been removed from there and is living in China. (Photo by Asian Animal Protection Network; CCA3.0)

In folk medicine Bear bile has been used to treat a variety of illnesses, including muscle ailments, hemorrhoids, sore throats, and even epilepsy. While Bear bile has been shown (warning: graphic images) to possibly have medicinal value there are synthetic and herbal medicines available to treat virtually every ailment that Bear bile allegedly cures.

To farm bile Bears are stored in small cages, some so small that they are forced into a permanent prone position. A catheter is used, or a hole created, to drain bile from the gallbladder. This extraction of bile is thought to occur once or twice a day, but only provides a small amount of fluid. Due to the generally poor conditions that the Bears are subjected to their health, and overall life expectancy, is considerably reduced. However some Bears are fitted with vests to prevent them from killing themselves because of the pain. Malnourished and without adequate living conditions to prevent severe illness these Bears have been recorded showing severe psychological stress and physical problems. In one instance a mother Bear escaped its cage and killed its cub before killing herself. After several years of living in these conditions Bears may not be able to produce adequate supplies of bile and are then killed. Their paws and meat are then sold as delicacies.

The American Black Bear is also targeted by poachers who sell the gallbladder and other parts to practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine living in the West or is shipped to Asia.

Sources

“Ursus thibetanus”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Mother bear kills cub and then itself” on AsiaOne.com

Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Ed., Vol. 1 by Ronald M. Nowak

Further Reading

End Bear Bile Farming (PDF) at AnimalsAsia.org

Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan (PDF) by Christopher Servheen, Stephen Herrero, and Bernard Peyton. Hosted at CarnivoreConservation.org

Wildlife: Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)

The Cheetah is the most uniquely adapted big cat species in the world and has an incredible history to its lineage. Due to its distribution the Cheetah has acquired a number of names based on identification by different cultures. Its name in English is derived from the Hindi word cītā, which comes from Sanskrit citrakāya which carries a variety of meanings. During the British Raj the Cheetah was called a “hunting leopard,” but during contemporary times is referred to as the Indian Cheetah, while in nearby Iran the species is known as the Iranian Cheetah. As a whole Cheetah in these regions are sometimes called Asiatic Cheetah as it was thought that they represented a unique sub-species.

“Hunting of Blackbuck with Cheetah” by James Forbes in South Gujarat. Oriental Memoirs, Vol. I, 1812.
Conservation Status & Threats

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) are listed by the IUCN Red List as vulnerable or critically endangered based on region and assumed sub-species. A variety of factors have contributed to the decrease in Cheetah population worldwide:

Cheetah are highly adapted for specific environments that allow them to use their incredible speed to chase down prey. They are unable to adapt to regions with woodland or jungle, and therefore habitat loss likely contributed significantly to their long-term success as a species. As well predators such as Lions and large eagles will kill Cheetah cubs and it’s estimated that roughly 50% of offspring survive their first three months.

While poaching Cheetah for their skin is virtually unheard of today, compared to the much more popular Leopard, the species has been subject to being killed for their skins in the past. Additionally, royalty during both the Mughal Empire and later periods in Indian history have used Cheetah as hunting cats. There is also a history of Cheetah being kept as exotic pets and there has recently been a resurgence in the Middle East of individuals buying Cheetah cubs as a status symbol. Predator persecution by landowners in southern Africa incorrectly thinking that Cheetah prey on their livestock has contributed to a decrease in regional populations.

Genetic problems compound the struggle for survival as an increasing number of cubs are born with genetic defects as habitat loss since the ice age 12,000 years ago have greatly impacted the areas that can support Cheetah and allow them to find mates. Ultimately this influences the species’ ability to retain genetic variation. Research has found that . It’s been speculated after some DNA tests that every Cheetah in the world, whether wild or in captivity, is a first-cousin of every other Cheetah due to unavoidable inbreeding over the millennia.

Sylvester prowling around.
Sylvester, Cheetah Ambassador, prowling around.
Identification

It’s not uncommon to mistake a Cheetah with a Leopard which may live in the same environment, however there are a number of indicators which can be used to quickly and easily identify the species. Where Cheetahs typically have individual spots (in the King Cheetah the spots sometimes blend together into stripe-like marks), Leopards have groupings of spots along their backs and individual or tighter-grouped spots on their front and legs. Cheetahs have proportionately longer legs and smaller heads compared to Leopards, an adaptation that helps them sprint at up to 120 kph (75 mph) for short distances. However these long, agile legs are built for sprinting and not endurance or raw strength, which is an apparent difference in Leopards which are much more powerfully built for climbing trees and taking down large prey.

Cheetahs have proportionately longer legs and smaller heads compared to Leopards, which is an evolutionary advantage that allows them to run faster that most land animals. Leopards are much more powerfully built and use their strength to climb trees to keep away from danger or drag the carcass of their prey to a safe height away from other predators.

While Leopards are among the most solitary cat species, Cheetahs are much more social and may be found in coalitions with other Cheetah and hunt in pairs. Like Lions, Cheetahs use superior numbers to their advantage to single out prey and then chase it down, usually getting to within 10-30 meters (33-100 feet) of their prey before making an attempt.

Cheetahs also have smaller heads than other big cats, with trademark tear stains on their face. They are also notable for being the only large cat species with semi-retractable claws, making track identification easier. Cheetah and Leopards both have long tails to keep them balanced in their respective environments, however the Cheetah’s tail tends to be 65-80 centimeters (2.1-2.6 feet), within the lower range of a Leopard’s tail which might be anywhere from 58-110 centimeters (1.9-3.6 ft).

Cheetahs are the only species of big cat to purr like a domestic cat (and for the same reasons). Leopards can make a sound similar to purring, but is not a true purr and is not used for social meetings between cats.

Comparison & Statistics (Figures are approx.)
Cheetah (top) and Leopard (bottom), roughly to scale.
Cheetah (top) and Leopard (bottom), roughly to scale.
Attribute Cheetah Leopard
Head and body length 1.12-1.5 meters (3.7-5 feet) 0.9-1.91 meters (3-6 feet)
Shoulder height 0.67-0.94 m (2-3 ft) 0.45-0.78 m (1.5-2.5 ft)
Tail length 0.65-0.80 m (2.1-2.9 ft) 0.58-1.1 m (1.9-3.6 ft)
Male weight 30-70 kg (66-153 lb) 37-90 kg (80-200 lb)
Female weight 21-45 kg (46-100 lb) 28-60 kg (60-130 lb)
Speed 120 kph (75 mph) 60 kph (38 mph)
Litter size 1-8 cubs (typically 3-4) 1-6 cubs
Relatives

The Cheetah has a historical range throughout much of Africa, the Middle East, and southwest Asia. While the Asiatic Cheetah has in the past been defined as a separate entity it is not currently believed to represent a genetically separate species or sub-species. Therefore the closest relatives to the Cheetah are believed to be the Puma genus which is represented by the Jaguarundi, a small wild cat native to parts of Central America and the majority of South America, and the Cougar (Puma yagouaroundi), native to most of the Americas.

Big cats that live in the same habitat as the Cheetah include the Leopard whose habitat may overlap in Africa, and historically India, as they can coexist in similar environments. Lions can also live and hunt in parts of Africa which may be populated by Cheetah.

Habitat & Range
Historical range of the Cheetah. (Public Domain)

The Cheetah has evolved to be extremely well adapted to grassland areas which give them ample room to make use of their incredible sprinting speed to catch slower prey. But due to this incredible skill set they are poorly suited to operating in woodland, rainforest, and terrain types that prevent them from using their speed advantage. Additionally, habitat loss due to changing climates and ecologies across Africa and the Middle East has restricted them to isolated regions that still have grasslands. Cheetahs have also become increasingly threatened by habitat loss and human developments. The most poignant example being the few dozen Cheetahs left in isolated patches of Iran and Pakistan.

Female Cheetah may have 1-8 cubs (3-4 typically), but there are a number of threats to Cheetah within their habitat, including competing predators such as Lions and Hyena which will kill Cheetah and their cubs to reduce competition for food. Large eagles prey on small cubs and between predation and competition the likelihood of Cheetah cubs surviving their first three months drops to about 50%. Presumably without predation, as was found in a sampling of captive Cheetah, these cubs would still have a 29% mortality rate.

Successful Cheetah cubs will begin to accompany the mother on hunts or stay nearby and be brought to recent kills. When the cubs are six months old the mother will bring them live animals to practice chasing and killing. This instruction is imperative for the cubs otherwise they may never learn how to hunt for themselves. At 18 months old Cheetahs are sexually mature and males may seek a territory of their own along with up to two other males. This group, called a coalition, helps to ensure the success of the individuals against attacks by other Cheetah or competing predators. The most dominant male in this group typically achieves the most mating opportunities.

Cheetahs hunt around dawn and dusk to avoid temperatures that would overheat their body as well as other predators. Hunting typically involves stalking up to prey while remaining concealed, using its spots and coloration to camouflage itself against the natural colors and lighting of its grassland habitat. Within a few dozen meters one or more Cheetah will go after the target prey and attempt to chase it down. Without the power of a Leopard or Lion, Cheetah must hunt smaller prey such as Impala or Gazelle unless attacking in a group against a medium-sized species. In a chase a Cheetah will attempt to knock over or trip its quarry, then quickly set on its throat. Despite apparent success, there is always a risk that other predators may attempt to steal their kill, chasing off the Cheetah and forcing them to hunt again.

Adaptation & Survival

The Cheetah has evolved to be extremely well adapted to grassland areas which give them ample room to make use of their incredible sprinting speed to catch slower prey. But due to this incredible skill set they are poorly suited to operating in woodland, rainforest, and terrain types that prevent them from using their speed advantage. Over the last ten thousand years the species has struggled with habitat loss as their plains and grasslands change into deserts and forests and as prey move to different regions with more plentiful plant life. As their habitats have become increasingly smaller, their gene diversity has decreased as suitable mates become harder to find within the areas they can inhabit.

In recent decades predator persecution of Cheetahs by farmers and land owners has added to the detrimental affect, thinning out their numbers and reducing the potential gene diversity. At present it is known that every Cheetah alive, whether in the wild or in captivity, is a first-cousin of every other Cheetah. Due to this many Cheetah cubs are being born with birth defects and stricken with hereditary illnesses which are further reducing their chances of survival.

Sources:

“Walker’s Mammals of the Modern World” Sixth Edition, Volume 1, by Ronald M. Nowak (Copyright 1999 by The Johns Hopkins University Press)

“The National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife” by Peter Alden, et al. (Copyright 1995 by Chanticleer Press, Inc.)

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

Safari in Botswana’s Chobe National Park

Chobe National Park, established in 1967, is one of Botswana‘s many national parks and game reserves with an abundance of wildlife and different ecological zones. The country has one of the largest concentrations of wildlife on the continent, though South Africa probably has a larger number of unique avian species. Chobe National Park is known for its large populations of Bush Elephant as well as its heavily-guarded population of Rhinoceros, which are slowly repopulating the region. However while the ecosystem is currently supporting the wildlife, they are also supported by the anti-poaching rangers and conservationists that operate in the area to protect and preserve areas that in the past have had significant problems with poaching. The surrounding areas monitored by other countries have very few Rhino and Elephants left in some areas due to continued poaching.

Chobe National Park Official Tourism Site

Map of Botswana, highlighting Chobe National Park. (Source: ChobeNationalPark.co.za)

The park is located in the northeast of the country and is bordered to the north by the Chobe River. On the other side of the river is a stretch of land owned by Namibia. The Chobe River is just a small part of the waterway that eventually runs into the Zambezi River which makes its way between Zambia and Zimbabwe and drops 111 meters, creating the magnificent Victoria Falls.

My journey to Chobe began in nearby Zimbabwe, where I had to exit the country, get a 1-day visa to Botswana (free for citizens of most developed countries), and then get picked up by the tour company. The trip officially began when the tour company dropped off all the tourists at a cafe for a quick, light breakfast.

To the boat

Above: The back of the cafe lead out to a pier where our tour boat was docked. This was a large, pontoon-style boat with two decks. Half the people were ushered up to the top deck and the other half on the bottom. People were asked not to get too close to the edges not only so that they wouldn’t fall in, but also to keep the boat’s weight distributed so we wouldn’t capsize. The top deck offered a nice vantage point, but really wasn’t any better than the bottom.

Chobe River
Chobe River, between Botswana and Namibia

Above: A view of the Chobe river and wetlands. Once we were all aboard and seated we were given a safety briefing and introduced to the tour guides that would be informing us about the animals. The boat moved slowly along the river and took about ten minutes to reach areas populated by all varieties of wildlife.

Vervet monkeys on the shore of the Chobe
Vervet monkeys on the shore of the Chobe

Above: A couple of Vervet Monkeys play safely by a tree along the shore. This species is quite common throughout southern Africa and can be seen living in relatively large groups of usually at least ten, but sometimes more than 50 individuals. Like several other species of monkey, Vervets share their parenting roles among all females in the group, making sure that the young are constantly attended and not targets of predation.

Crocodile sunning.
Crocodile sunning.

Above: This relatively small adult Nile Crocodile is sunning itself in the morning rays, perhaps preparing for an eventful hunt later in the afternoon once its body temperature has increased. Like many apex predators, Crocodiles don’t have to feed every day, and the Nile Crocodile will gorge itself by eating as much as half its own weight, and then go weeks between meals.

Elephant bull in the river feeding.
Elephant bull in the river feeding.

Above: Unlike cold-blooded reptiles, the African Elephant has no shortage of warm blood. Their body temperatures range above 48 degrees Celsius (120 F) and they frequently are working to stay cool. In areas with plentiful water, such as the Chobe river, Elephants will submerge the majority of their 4,800-5,800 kg (11,000-13,000 pounds) bodies in the cool water. Elephant males, called bulls, are more solitary by nature, so they are more commonly out in the water in the morning as soon as it starts to get warm.Elephant bull

Above: This particular bull is pushing down into the grass and ripping up large swaths to eat. First he has to get underwater and use his tusks like a pitchfork to rip up the grass. Note the African Jacana on the right, keeping out of the way of the powerful bull. These birds are built for wading into the water and have unusually long toes to help displace their weight on water lilies and tufts of grass. The African Jacana is particularly interesting as it is one species of bird that has parenting roles reversed: females court males and lay the eggs, then males incubate the eggs and take care of the young.

Elephant bull

Above: In this photo the action of pulling the grass and reeds up becomes apparent. African Elephants can eat up to 450 kg (990 pounds) of food a day. While eating this much from the river can be somewhat destructive to the grasses, it also provides other species that live along the shore an evolving habitat that may benefit some species while being a disadvantage to others. Perhaps the African Jacana is one that benefits from being around this hungry bull.

Elephant in water, feeding and keeping cool. Botswana 2014.
Elephant in water, feeding and keeping cool. Botswana 2014.

Above: Elephants use their elongated nose called a trunk to grab things, to smell for potential threats, to touch other Elephants, and to breathe. This Elephant is demonstrating his “snorkel” ability, with his mouth underwater and the tip of his truck reaching above the water for a breath of air.

African Buffalo at the waterfront.
African Buffalo at the waterfront.

Above: A pair of Cape Buffalo (African Buffalo) also come down to the water for a drink before the day gets too warm. It’s late enough in the morning that most predators are seeking shade, not prey. Although many Buffalo will live in herds, these two appeared alone, the one on the right being an older male perhaps cast out from his herd for being too temperamental as commonly happens. However at the waterfront they are vulnerable to large Crocodiles.

Unidentified bird

Above: Two unidentified birds of the same species. These two are clearly waders as indicated by their long legs and relatively long, curved beak.

A Hippopotamus in the morning. Botswana 2014.
A Hippopotamus in the morning. Botswana 2014.

Above: Although they commonly spend a lot of time in the water to keep cool, just like African Elephants, this  Hippopotamus is resting along the shore, hidden by some bushes. Adult Hippos don’t have many natural predators and are very territorial and stubborn. They are known for entering the water from one direction and leaving somewhere else, only to make a circuit and eventually come back to where they started. This means that anyone that has seen evidence of a Hippo go into the water going one direction may be at risk of being attacked from behind. Because of this behavior, as well as their unexpected power and strength, Hippos account for the most animal-related deaths throughout Africa.

A pod of Hippopotamus in the Chobe River, Botswana.
A pod of Hippopotamus in the Chobe River, Botswana.

Above: A group of Hippo is called a “pod,” just like a group of Whales or Porpoises. These territorial creatures aren’t just dangerous on land, they can also be dangerous in the water. While these Hippo are clearly visible, they can easily walk on the bottom of lakes or rivers while holding their breath for up to 30 minutes. Then they push off the bottom and when they reach the surface take a breath of air before sinking back down to the bottom. They can cross open bodies of water this way, virtually undetected from land or air. This behavior is particularly dangerous to small boats and canoes which can be capsized by the 1,500 kg (3,300 lb) animals who will ruthlessly defend their territorial waters.

Hippopotamus on shore
Hippopotamus on shore

Above: Another Hippo illustrating a common symbiotic relationship seen among many of Africa’s large species and certain birds in a relationship called mutualism, where two distinct species benefit from working together. The Hippo gets a regular cleaning from the Oxpecker species of birds (seen on the Hippo) and the Oxpeckers get an easy and relatively safe place to feed on bugs. The Oxpeckers also serve another important purpose that greatly helps Hippo, African Buffalo, Giraffe, and other animals that they commonly perch on and clean: they give an audible warning if they spot a potential predator nearby. This warning can be for approaching humans, a stalking leopard, or other perceived threat. However the Hippopotamus is a large, powerful species that is so big it commonly rests its face on the ground to rest its neck! Hippos have also been known to kill large Crocodiles that encroach on their territory, so perhaps they don’t need much protection after all.

The Botswana shoreline as seen from the Chobe River.
The Botswana shoreline as seen from the Chobe River.

Above: The Botswana side of the Chobe River, as well as more Hippo.

Monitor Lizard finding some sun.
Monitor Lizard finding some sun.

Above: A Nile Monitor Lizard, one of the many species in the Monitor Lizard genus that can be found in many parts of Africa, parts of Asia, India, the South Pacific, and Australia. The Komodo Dragon is also in the Monitor Lizard family. The Nile Monitor species is among the carnivorous types, but will sometimes feed on Crocodile eggs and insects. It has a snake-like forked tongue for sensing smells and powerful claws, but its teeth become dull as it matures to adulthood and so they will swallow chunks of food whole. The specimen pictured above was about a meter (3 feet, 4 inches) long.

Blacksmith Lapwings & African Darter
Blacksmith Lapwings & (young?) African Darter

Above: Three Blacksmith Lapwings (left) and an African Darter (right). The Blacksmith Lapwings gained their name for the “tink” or “klink” alarm call they give when alerting other wildlife to predators. They typically eat small crustaceans, insects, mollusks, and worms. The African Darter is a very interesting bird due to its unique adaptations to its environment. Unlike most birds that have oily feathers to provide waterproofing, African Darters will submerge their bodies in the water and swim, with only their head sticking out. They will then catch fish by using their sharp beak to spear it, then flick the fish into the air and catch and eat it. Before being able to fly the bird must dry out its wings in the sun and wind, as the specimen in the photo above is doing.

African Fish Eagle scanning for prey or threats.
African Fish Eagle scanning for prey or threats.

Above: Perched in a tree near the waterfront was this African Sea Eagle, also called the African Fish Eagle (you can read an in-depth article on the species here on RHA). These have a very similar appearance to the slightly larger Bald Eagle found in North America. As the name implies the African Fish Eagle preys on fish, but in cases where the fish is too large to carry while flying the African Sea Eagle has been known to paddle to shore with its wings while dragging the fish in its talons. On average, adult males  weigh 2-2.5 kgs (4.4-5.5 lbs) and females can be 60% larger at 3.2-3.6 kgs (7-8 lbs).

Part 2: Chobe National Park by Land

Disembarking at the same place we had started our cruise we then had lunch. While we ate the tour operators brought the tour vehicles over for the second half of the safari which would be on land, but cover a similar portion of the waterfront because that is the most popular place for the wildlife to hang out.

Chobe National Park by land.
Chobe National Park by land.

Above: Entering from a different side of the park, our first view of the river was from the hot, rather desolate-looking area pictured above. In the dry season many of the trees will lose their leaves while plants and grasses turn brown as they conserve energy and water for the months ahead. It’s not the most hospitable habitat in appearance, which emphasizes why these year-round water sources are so important to so many species of wildlife.

African Elephants in the marsh grasses.
African Elephants in the marsh grasses.

Above: More African Elephants in the river as the temperature reaches its peak. There are actually two species of Elephant in Africa: the Bush Elephant (also referred to as the Savanna Elephant) and the Forest Elephant. The Bush Elephant is the larger of the two and the largest living land animal on the planet. The Forest Elephant can be anywhere from .5-1.8 meters (2-5 feet) shorter and is only seen in parts of the Congo Basin.

African Elephant bull by the water.
African Elephant bull by the water.

Above: A Bush Elephant bull walking along the shore. Too big to be much threatened by Crocodiles or any other territorial or predatory animals, they spend their solitary days in a small range. But in Botswana with so many other elephants nearby, it undoubtedly encounters many fellow Elephants throughout the day.

African Elephant herds at the shore.
African Elephant herds at the shore.

Above: Further down the shore it’s crowded with Elephants on both sides of the dirt road. They are used to the presence, sounds, and smells of the vehicle and the humans on board, so these Elephants don’t seem bothered that we stopped to gaze at them.

African Elephants close to the road.
African Elephants close to the road.

Above: On the opposite side from the shore (and previous photo) we had a female and calf close to the road. Elephants practice allomothering, just like Vervet Monkeys, where any female in the herd might take care of young calves. Some females will even cross-suckle calves in the same herd to provide them more sustenance.

Leopard after feasting on an Impala. Botswana 2014.
Leopard after feasting on an Impala. Botswana 2014.

Above: Our tour guide cruised by a lot of the more commonly seen species in an effort to get the tourists a glimpse of a Leopard that had been sighted much farther down the road. The Leopard had killed an Impala, one of the most common animals in the continent, and had recently been feasting on it judging by its bloody mouth. Leopards typically only make a kill once every few days, but will guard it so that other scavengers can’t take it away. However this puts the Leopard in danger of being attacked by larger and more numerous species, such as a clan of Spotted Hyena or a pride of Lion that will kill other predators to steal their food.

South African Giraffes
South African Giraffes

Above: On the way back there were several Giraffe, either of the newly posited Namibian Giraffe sub-species or of the general South African Giraffe sub-species. Their differences are minor, but their spots may be one indication of how they differ from their cousin sub-species found in other parts of the continent. Giraffe are the tallest living land animals, with adults reaching up to 6 meters (20 feet) in height. While Giraffe are said to have horns, they are actually ossicones which are made of cartilage. These protrusions act like horns and carry some significance when males battle for reproductive rights with a female. This battle is called “necking” and involves the males slamming their neck against the other’s, until one cannot maintain a rigid posture or is potentially knocked down or killed. Ossicones, being made of cartilage, will become damaged from these battles, but grow thicker and stronger. Alternatively they may break. In such cases some Giraffe have been known to grow a third or even a fourth ossicone on the head or face, due to cartilage buildup from many blows to that area.

Giraffes in the dirt road. Botswana 2014.
Giraffes in the dirt road. Botswana 2014.

Above: These Giraffe were coming out of the mixed woodland and loitering on the dirt road between the woodland and the shoreline. Due to their unique proportions and size Giraffe have an interesting anatomy that prevents blood from suddenly rushing to — or away from — their head, causing a blackout. A series of valves in the veins in the neck prevent too much blood from entering the head when bending down. Their legs also have thick, tight skin to keep too much blood from sinking into the legs. Giraffe feed on highly nutrient-rich plants and have tongues that are long and rough which they use to wrap around a branch and then pull the leaves off towards its mouth. This also removes any potentially hazardous spines from the tree limbs which are designed to protect the trees from most herbivores. Like all ruminant species, including goats, the Giraffe has a four-compartment stomach.

Namibian side of Chobe River
Namibian side of Chobe River

Above and Below: Scenery along the Chobe River.

Wetlands of the Chobe River area.
Wetlands of the Chobe River area.

 

Sources:

“Actophilornis africanus (African Jacana)” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Anhinga rufa (African Darter, Darter)”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Loxodonta africana (African Elephant)”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife” by Peter Alden, et al. (Copyright 1995 by Chanticleer Press, Inc.)

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

“Vanellus armatus (Blacksmith Lapwing)” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Walker’s Mammals of the World,” Sixth Ed., Vols. 1 and  2 by Ronald M. Nowak