Above: One of the Fast Five in Maasai Mara. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 24 November 2018
Within minutes of driving past the fenced lands of the Maasai and Sekanani gate, we’re in the great Mara. It’s phenomenal that the difference can be so stark. One side is people, cattle and fences where until a decade ago there were few.
Giraffes, tall and stately browse on the Balanytes aegytica dotted on the golden grass plains of the savannah. The iconic fig tree of the Mara is in flower after the rains but the grasses are turning coarse as the dry spell sets in. The afternoon game drive brings on the coalition of the famous five cheetah dubbed the Fast Five. They are sprawled on the road surrounded by tourist-filled vehicles.
Until the 1980s, cheetahs were thought to be solitary animals. I’m reading an article in Swara magazine (published the East African Wild Life Society July-September 2018) by cheetah researcher Dr Elena Chelysheva of the Mara-Meru Cheetah project where she explains the phenomena.
Cheetah siblings stay together after the mother leaves them. When they reach sexual maturity, the females and males separate. Research now shows that male siblings form a lifelong union called a coalition. It provides them with benefits like bringing down large prey like wildebeest. They are also better able to defend their territory and take care of each other. An example from a list of many recorded by the cheetah researcher is of a male cheetah that had a skin irritation. His partner licked the affected area until the cheetah healed in a month.
However no one had ever recorded a coalition of five. From Chelysheva’s article, cheetah studies in neighbouring Serengeti show that forming groups in an area where cheetah densities are high is a survival strategy. A single cheetah has less chances of survival in an area with many cheetah coalitions.
This is what has happened in the Mara where cheetah density increased slightly from 1.6 cheetah per square kilometre in 2015 to 1.9 cheetah per square kilometre in 2019. But in the coalition of the Fast Five, they are not all siblings – it’s a brotherhood of strangers.
The five came to the Maasai Mara National Reserve from the neighbouring Naboisho Conservancy in 2016 and since then they have charmed many with their tight-knit coalition, hunting as a group and looking out for each other. In 2017, Chelysheva recorded another interesting incident.
One of them got separated for the night. Early in the morning, one cheetah began to yelp, his sound carrying two kilometres around. He then went out in search of the missing cheetah and found him, bringing the group together again.
It’s really interesting to follow the dynamics of change in wild animals vis-à-vis the changing landscape and human encroachment.
For many people seeing five cheetah and so many wild animals might look like their numbers are increasing in the reserve. It’s not the true picture.
While animal densities may increase in an area, the actual population may be on the wane. Cheetahs have been driven out of 91 per cent of their historic range where they once roamed in Africa and Asia. Today Eastern Africa – that is Tanzania and Kenya – holds the second largest cheetah population in the wild. On the other hand, the Asian population is extinct in the wild, ironic for India the country that gave the cat its name now has non in the wild. The word cheetah is derived from the Indian word ‘chitra’ meaning spotted. The global population today is 7,100 down from 14,000 in 1975.
Driving out through the Talek gate to camp the night, it’s alive with the high-pitched laughs and crackling of the hyenas. It’s another interesting clan.
The Mara Hyena project out of Michigan State University started by Dr Kay Holekamp in 1988 shows that the burgeoning satellite town of Talek with its unplanned buildings, trash, livestock, motorbikes and tourist vehicles and camps — neighbours the most successful clan of hyenas. It is three times larger than the average clan — with 130 hyenas in an area covering 82 square kilometres, extending 12 km into the reserve from Talek.
The research reveals one reason — that while numbers of other large carnivores are declining around Talek because of human pressure, it’s created a vacuum that’s taken by the Talek hyenas. Preying mostly on livestock has not charmed them to the Maasai. With the strongest jaw in the animal kingdom, it hunts 90 per cent of its food – and people think of them as scavengers.
In the circle of life, we need the hyenas (and the vultures), for without them the Mara would be littered with carcasses, the rotting flesh creating a stink and spreading diseases.
The underdog of the savanna needs more respect just like every other creature on the planet.
Log on Mara-Meru Cheetah Project -http://marameru.org/
Mara Hyena Research -https://www.facebook.com/MaraHyenas/