Habitat selection and feeding ecology of the cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) in thicket vegetation: is the cheetah a savanna specialist?


Ric T. F. Bernard, Wildlife and Reserve Management Research Group, Department of Zoology & Entomology, Rhodes University, Grahamstown 6139, South Africa. Email: R.bernard@ru.ac.za


Habitat selection and feeding ecology of a reintroduced population of cheetahs Acinonyx jubatus were studied in a 16 000 ha game reserve in the Eastern Cape Province (South Africa). Seventy per cent of the reserve is characterized by very dense thicket vegetation (valley bushveld) and the remainder is open and savanna-like. The results illustrated a strong effect of sex and group size on the behaviour of cheetahs. The coalition (three adult males) killed significantly larger animals (55% of kills weighed more than 65 kg) than single female cheetahs (less than 2% of kills weighed more than 65 kg). Female cheetahs showed temporal and spatial avoidance of lions by hunting at dawn and dusk and positioning their home ranges [95% utilization distribution (UDs)] significantly farther from the pride of lions than did the coalition. The coalition hunted earlier and later than female cheetahs, and 46% of their kills were made in darkness. In addition, their home range overlapped that of the lions and they showed neither temporal nor spatial avoidance of the lions. The rates of kleptoparasitism were lower and the kill retention times were longer than those reported elsewhere in Africa, and it is suggested that this is a consequence of the cover provided by the thicket vegetation and prey size. The home ranges (95% UDs) of female cheetahs incorporated more thicket vegetation than that of the coalition, indicating that the coalition is less susceptible to predation than single females. These data suggest that cheetahs possess greater behavioural flexibility than previously reported, that they can hunt successfully in thicket vegetation, sometimes in darkness, that they are not restricted to killing small to medium-sized prey, and that they may not be savanna specialists.