Cheetahs are the most successful cat hunters

Conservation of species in Africa: saving the cheetahs

This is a difficult endeavor with a predator that has no interest in bait. But cheetahs are really interested in something: the trees on which other species have left their scent marks. So the researchers erect walls of thorn bushes around these marking points that have only two openings. In each of them they then set up a special box trap: high-tech structures equipped with cameras that work fully automatically. In just 0.1 seconds, an image recognition system decides whether a cheetah has actually stepped into it. If so, the trap snaps shut so quickly that even the reflexes of the spotted cats will no longer allow them to escape.

News on the tree

The researchers captured more than 250 cheetahs in this way, anesthetized them and released them with a GPS device around their necks. They were then able to track each collar wearer for an average of two years and determine their exact position every quarter of an hour. "There is no such extensive data set for big cats anywhere in the world," says Jörg Melzheimer.

With the help of this information, he and his team discovered that cheetahs use their habitat in very unusual ways. The males' territories, about 380 square kilometers on average, are not directly adjacent to each other, but are relatively evenly distributed over the landscape at a large distance. In each of these areas there are areas that are crucial for the communication of the spotted cats. These cover approximately 25 square kilometers and are 20 to 25 kilometers apart. In these zones, the district owner places scent marks such as urine and excrement on trees, rocks or termite mounds.

"For conspecifics, these positions play a very similar role as social media do for us," says Melzheimer. You go there regularly and see what's new. The females, who roam large areas of around 650 square kilometers, come here in search of mating partners. And even for young males who have not yet conquered a territory, these points develop an almost magical attraction.

About two-thirds of the males are so-called "floaters" who are constantly exploring, alone or with a few allies. You wander through huge regions which, at around 1500 square kilometers, are twice the size of Hamburg and in which there are several territories. Is there one whose owner is weak? Can you take it off if you wait patiently? Is it even worth a fight? Or is there at least a female around whom one could convince of her own qualities?

The animals can answer such questions with the help of the scent tags. No wonder then that the territorial males feel the need to check the news as often as possible. If they see no chance for amorous or career-enhancing encounters at a news center, they often run straight to the next. Accordingly, there is a lot of activity in these communication centers. Even if they only take up about ten percent of the area, this is where most of the cheetah activity is concentrated in a region. For the IZW team, however, this was not only an exciting finding from a scientific point of view. A new solution to the problems between farmers and predators also emerged. Because where most of the cheetahs are, the risk of cracking livestock is greatest. So maybe it would help to just let the endangered calves graze elsewhere?