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New Theory on Cheetah Predation Gives Lions a Break

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Dec 02, 2013 05:47 PM EST
A cheetah observes the plains in Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya,  July 24, 2008
New research on predatory cats refutes the notion that lions are the main predators of cheetah cubs and that the big cats cannot exist in conservation areas. (Photo : Reuters)

New research on predatory cats refutes the notion that lions are the main predators of cheetah cubs and that the big cats cannot exist in conservation areas.

Researchers reporting in the Journal of Zoology found that lions were not the main predatory threat to cheetah cubs and that in Botswana's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, cubs were seven times more likely to survive than cubs on Serengeti Plains.

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Previous research done on the Serengeti Plains found that only 6 out of 125 (4.8 percent) cheetah cubs monitored from den to adolescence survived.

"The theory that cheetah cubs are at high risk from lions has impacted conservation strategies as it is believed protected areas may not be suitable for cheetahs if they cannot coexist with large predators," researchers said in a news release.

For the latest study, big cat researcher Michael Gus Mills and his colleagues visited the dens of six cheetahs to study their litters. In Kgalagadi the researchers found 55 percent of litters and 53.6 percent of cubs survived to emergence. Lions, the researchers found, were only responsible for only 6.7 percent of cheetah cub deaths.

In contrast, on the Serengeti, 78 percent of cheetah cub deaths were ascribed to lions.

The researchers contend that rather than being the norm, the situation on the Serengeti may be the exception. They point to the open nature of the plains making cubs more vulnerable to predators.

Cheetah mortality may also be attributed to the availability of prey, the researchers said. On the Serengeti the cheetah's primary prey, the gazelle, is migratory. While on the Kgalagadi, the steenbok population cheetah's prey upon is sedentary and represents a constant source of food.

"Our study has shown that, contrary to popular belief, cheetah cub mortality may not always be inordinately high, and that lions are not necessarily their major predator," Mills said. "Cheetahs can coexist successfully in protected areas with other large carnivores."

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