Carol Kaufmann

Writer, Editor, Etc.

Mama Cat (National Geographic magazine, January 2006) September 24, 2009

Filed under: National Geographic — carolkaufmann @ 3:45 pm

Growing Up Cheetah @ National Geographic Magazine

By Carol KaufmannPhotographs by Anup and Manoj Shah

Vigilant mother cheetahs in Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve must fight the odds—and stronger predators—as they raise their cubs on the run.

How do you stay alive in a landscape filled with stronger predators, where lions or hyenas will kill your offspring, and jackals or vultures will steal your food? You keep moving. Binti, a new mother, gently nabs one of her ten-day-old cubs by the scruff of the neck. Although mother and cub are protected from human harm in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, they must still combat a harsh world. Binti, whose name means “daughter” in Swahili, learned maternal skills from a peerless teacher—her mother, Amani. “Amani’s practical, cool, efficient,” says Anup Shah, who documented and named her growing family over three years.

Binti owes her survival to Amani’s faithful routine. At about six months Binti actively began learning how to hunt. So will her offspring. Cheetahs like a fresh kill and must pursue and catch their prey. Cubs are good observers, watching their mother whether she’s scouting for prey, sharpening her claws, or stalking potential dinner.

When the family needs to eat, Amani climbs atop a nearby termite mound to survey the undulating plain. A Thomson’s gazelle has strayed from its herd. Amani focuses her amber eyes. The gazelles continue to graze. Amani crouches, shoulders hunched, ears flat back, frozen. A few steps propel her into a run. Her speed builds, and within seconds she reaches full sprint. She sails across the savanna, often airborne, a symphony of speed and grace.

But the gazelle has a head start. Clocking speeds nearly as fast as the cheetah’s 60-plus miles (100 kilometers) an hour, the gazelle makes quick turns intended to throw Amani off. Despite being the world’s fastest land animal, a cheetah snags such prey only about half the time. This is one of the good times. Amani trips the gazelle with an outstretched paw. With one last bleat, the gazelle goes down. Amani goes for the throat, her bite suffocating the prize. Over the next several months the sharp-eyed cubs will try to emulate Amani’s behavior—and fail miserably, mainly because their prey notices their awkward approaches. So mother makes them practice, over and over.

“Successful mothers seem to produce really successful cubs,” says Marcella Kelly, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University who has tracked female cheetah lineages for up to eight generations. “They’re nervous, excitable, vigilant. In the wild they need to be jumpy. Cubs most likely pick up these traits.”

Once young cheetahs are on their own, it can take months for them to become skilled hunters. Some adolescent cheetahs start out hunting impossible prey, including buffalo. Those who learn from their mistakes survive. Among Amani’s successes is her daughter: Binti had her five cubs in the same area where Amani gave birth to her.

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