Researcher: Femke Broekhuis
Region: Northern Botswana, Botswana
Previous research has suggested that lion and spotted hyaena have a negative influence on cheetah populations, and several studies have illustrated that cheetah directly avoid these predators. However, no fine-scale research has, as yet, focused on the influence of lion and spotted hyaena on the habitat-use and activity patterns of cheetah. This study aims to fill this gap in our knowledge.
In addition, this research looks at a multi-species approach, addressing individual species and the ecological interactions between them. Finally, it is the first time that any research on cheetah in Northern Botswana is being carried out.
The project aims to gain a better understanding of the complexity of the ecological and behavioural relationships between cheetah, spotted hyaena and lion, all carnivores that compete with each other, and to investigate the mechanisms that lead to their coexistence. This is being done by comparing the activities, habitats, home ranges and diets of cheetah, lion and spotted hyaena.
The main objectives of this project are to:
- Determine the extent to which habitat selection patterns of cheetah are influenced by the habitat use of lion and spotted hyaena.
- Determine if the activity patterns of cheetah are influenced by the presence and activity of lion and spotted hyaena.
- Determine the degree of dietary overlap in order to understand the role it plays in the coexistence between cheetah, lion and spotted hyaena.
- Establish general ecological parameters for cheetah in Northern Botswana.
GPS collars are being used to collect fine-scale location and activity data. In order to achieve these, 6 lion prides, 6 spotted hyaena clans and 4 individual cheetah, with overlapping home ranges, have so far been fitted with these collars. This provides data on the position of each individual in relation to the other collared individuals, which allows for detailed analyses of interactions between these species. The location data collected by the GPS collars are overlaid with GIS vegetation maps and maps of prey abundance, so that analysis on the spatial segregation in terms of habitat-use and prey availability can be carried out.
For a more fine-scale analysis of habitat use, activity and diet, collared individuals are located on a weekly basis and are followed by car for a minimum of one hour, cheetah generally followed during the day, with lion and hyaena generally followed at night. Throughout these follows, detailed notes are made on the animal’s behaviour and surroundings.
To date there has been no research conducted on cheetah in the Moremi Game Reserve. Determining the general ecology is important both to have a better understanding of the data when they are being analysed and to aid the management of this species. Whenever non-collared cheetah are seen, identification photographs are taken and compared to photographs within the database. At sightings, information on social organisation and litter size are noted. In addition, a survey requesting some basic information is made for tourists and tour operators to fill in whenever cheetah are encountered.
The research is being carried out in the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta, at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) and at the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT), formerly known as the Wild Dog Research Project.
Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) are negatively influenced by both lion (Panthera leo) and spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) (e.g. direct mortality and stealing of kills). However, quantitative evidence of the influence of lion and spotted hyaena on the behaviour and ecology of cheetah is scarce. This research, in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, investigates the spatial and temporal mechanisms that allow cheetah to coexist with lion and spotted hyaena.In 2010, the main focus of the project was to determine temporal patterns of segregation. GPS radio collars embedded with accelerometers were fitted on all three species to continuously record the animals’ activity. The results indicate that cheetah have different mechanisms to coexist with lion and spotted hyaena. For example, the data reveal that at dawn cheetah activity increases only when lion activity has significantly decreased whereas, during the same period, cheetah and hyaena activity overlap. Nevertheless, cheetah activity only peaks once hyaena activity has decreased .
Figure 1: Comparative plot of daily activity patterns for cheetah, lion and spotted hyaena. The dashed line is the activity threshold of 20 counts/5 minutes. Activity values below this threshold were considered inactive and above were considered active. The banded bar above the plot represent the different periods of the day (black=night, white=day, grey=dawn and dusk).
These differences in cheetah behaviour may result from the different threats posed by lion and hyaena. Lion are known to mainly kill cheetah whereas hyaena mainly steal kills. As interactions with lion could potentially be fatal, cheetah may seek complete temporal segregation with lion. On the other hand, hyaena are only a threat when cheetah are on a kill. This non-fatal interaction allows cheetah to temporally partially overlap with hyaena. Nevertheless, during these periods of overlap cheetah might adapt their behaviour in order to minimise scavenging events. It is likely that the peak of cheetah activity indicates hunting behaviour, which would suggest that cheetah only hunt when hyaena are no longer active.
Whether this peak in cheetah activity represents hunting events is yet to be investigated. The next step is to synchronise behavioural observations collected in the field with the activity data collected from the collars to determine the temporal distribution of cheetah foraging events.
Wilderness Wildlife Trust have accepted to fund the costs of the vehicle maintenance until the end of the project. The field vehicle is one of the most essential components of the project as this allows for the tracking and further behavioural research of the cheetah, lion and hyaena.
In addition, four further camera traps have been approved. Currently camera traps are strategically placed at territorial marking trees of cheetah. Based on the unique spot patterns of cheetah, photographs obtained from the camera traps together with sightings of un-collared cheetah allow for an estimation of cheetah density in the Moremi Game Reserve and the adjacent Wildlife Management areas. So far the six camera traps that have been set up have yielded some interesting results and therefore the further four cameras will allow for a more intensive study of cheetah densities.
Although sympatric carnivores have coexisted for thousands of years, cheetah are often negatively influenced both by lion (Panthera leo) and spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta), for example in the stealing of kills and direct mortality. In addition, as a result of human-induced habitat loss, species are being forced into smaller areas, increasing the frequency of competitive interactions. With less than 7 000 individuals left in the wild, the cheetah is scrambling for survival. Understanding the factors that influence cheetah population dynamics is crucial; this project investigates the ecological and behavioural mechanisms that allow cheetah to coexist with lion and spotted hyaena.
Research began in October 2008 and is being carried out in the Okavango Delta. To investigate coexistence, on both a spatial and temporal level, of cheetah, lion and spotted hyaena, all three species (in an overlapping space) were fitted with GPS radio collars which automatically collect location data. There are now GPS collars on six lion prides, six spotted hyaena clans and four cheetah individuals, two of which were funded by the Wilderness Trust.
Now that all the necessary collars have been fitted, next year’s focus is to collect field data on all three carnivore species. Density estimates of all three species will be carried out using camera traps for cheetah and calling stations for lion and spotted hyaena. In addition, herbivore and vegetation visibility surveys will be carried out. All field data will be combined with the GPS data.
With this research, cheetah conservation is being driven towards a multi-species, rather than the conventional single-species, approach. Understanding the mechanisms by which cheetah can coexist with other large carnivores in a natural system is important for developing conservation strategies in areas where these species are more actively managed.
There are currently five cheetah collared for study in the Moremi Game Reserve. There is one pride of lion involved in the study – two of whom are collared (one male and one female). The study also has three spotted hyaena collared from two different clans.
Over the next three months the plan is to replace the batteries on some of the GPS collars and to fit a few more collars. Efforts will be focused from the South Gate to Santawani area so that the study will have collared lion and spotted hyaena spatially and temporally overlapping with the cheetah.
This is the first time that cheetah are being researched in the Okavango Delta ecosystem – not only to establish the cheetah population and ecology, but to look at the way that cheetah co-exist with lion and spotted hyaena. This is something that has never been done before at these spatial and temporal levels.