Siligi and her seven cubs

The sighting of a litter of seven cheetah cubs last year at the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya was cause for much cheer. Sadly, only two cubs remain, and therein perhaps lies the story of conservation gone wrong for a big cat that is unmatched in elegance and an “exciting spectacle” when it is on the hunt.

Published : Mar 07, 2020 07:00 IST

The five-year-old cheetah, Siligi, with her litter of an unprecedented seven cubs in the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya.

The five-year-old cheetah, Siligi, with her litter of an unprecedented seven cubs in the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya.

“S even wonders !” chorused the forest guards in excitement. A five-year-old cheetah had just given birth to a large litter of seven cubs in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The forest guards had named the cheetah Siligi, meaning “hope” in the local language. The sighting, in late 2019, of the rare “giant” litter had created much expectation. However, the survival of all the cubs was uppermost in the minds of all forest staff because they knew that the cubs were vulnerable to predators. Killing is inevitable, bound as it is by the law of nature, and a killing spree is common.

Female cheetahs are excellent mothers, but despite their diligence, many cubs die. They are killed by lions, spotted hyenas and leopards as well as aerial predators or birds of prey, observes Luke Hunter in his book Cheetah , which is based on authoritative research done in Africa and has stunning photographs by Dave Hamman.

Sometimes, females are forced to abandon their litter while hunting. Cubs thus abandoned may die of disease and malnutrition. If it is during the rainy season, the cubs are affected by pneumonia and hypothermia, says Hunter, an expert in the ecology and conservation of carnivores.

During his research of over two decades, Hunter came across a startling revelation: in the event of a female losing a litter, her oestrous cycle resumes almost immediately. “On average, cheetahs will be pregnant within 19 days of losing a litter.... Such rapid resumption of reproduction is thought to be yet another adaptation to high cub losses,” he writes.

A visit to Masai Mara and interaction with the forest staff gives one a clearer picture about cheetah litters. Usually there are three to five cubs or a maximum of six in a litter.This is the first documented sighting of seven cubs in Masai Mara, according to Dr Elena Chelysheva, Principal Investigator, Mara Meru Cheetah Project in Kenya, who has been involved in scientific studies of cheetah ecology for the last three decades.

About cub survival, she said that 74-76 per cent of cubs died within three months in Masai Mara. The Mara Meru Cheetah Project, which is affiliated to the Kenyan Wildlife Service, promotes the conservation of cheetahs through research, community involvement and education.

Why do predators kill cubs? Dr Elena Chelysheva attributes it to the competition for resources. There have been occasions when lions eat their own cubs. Lions kill leopard cubs as well. But cheetahs do not kill leopard cubs or lion cubs.

Siligi instilled hope among the forest staff. The patrol staff spotted her with her seven cubs in November 2019 in a remote area of the 520 square kilometre reserve. At that time, the cubs were more than a month old. James Sindiyo, chief warden of the reserve, immediately formed a team of guards to monitor the cubs and the mother.

Forest sources say that Siligi is now five years old. She came to Masai Mara from the Serengeti National Park in neighbouring Tanzania. In August 2018, she had two cubs. In November 2019, Siligi became a global sensation because of the seven cubs in one litter.

Dr Yaron Schmid, a veterinarian-turned-wildlife photographer who was among the first few to photograph the litter, said in an email: “At first I saw only two cubs on November 4, 2019. Next day, Siligi appeared with seven cubs. It was an incredible sight.”

The cubs were in a playful mood, charming everybody. “Then suddenly a lioness sprung in, roaring, and tried to grab a cub. But it was foiled when Siligi reacted with a burning look. The lioness retreated,” Schmid said. His photographs of Siligi and her cubs attracted the attention of wildlife enthusiasts, and that is when other photographers began to flock to Masai Mara.

Dileep Anthikkad and Sumesh Sankarathodi, based in Doha and Muscat respectively, were among the few Indians who got an opportunity to photograph the cubs. “I could go very close to the mother and cubs on December 5, 2019. They were in the lush green Talek area of the reserve,” recalled Sumesh, whom this writer met in Kochi. “The seven cubs were staring at me anxiously. I felt as if I was in a toyshop, with seven pairs of eyes sparkling like those of dolls. The cubs were identical and one could not distinguish between them,” said Sumesh. He added that the cubs were in a playful mood and stayed close to the mother. Siligi guarded her cubs vigilantly and kept looking around for predators. He said that he was able to observe them for nearly one hour.

The renowned wildlife photographer Daryl Balfour said over email: “I hope to see Siligi soon. When I think of Masai Mara, my heart goes out to Malaika, the cheetah that died in March 2018. [See “Cheetah bonding”, Frontline , August 2, 2019].”

Malaika had left an indelible impression in the minds of wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. “I followed her for nine long years. She was exceptionally relaxed when she came near game vehicles. She brought her cubs close to us as she felt that people in the vehicles were protecting her.” Malaika drowned in the raging Olare Orok river during the floods of March 2018. She was trying to get back to her cubs, Balfour remembered.

The sighting of Siligi with cubs was a splendid sight in the wild, recalled Dileep Anthikkad, who visited the reserve in December 2019 and accompanied the guards monitoring Siligi.

Speaking to this writer in Kochi in early January, he said: “While I saw her, she was warming, caressing and feeding the seven cubs. The backdrop was lush green and picturesque. The cubs were nearly two months old and were guarded by their extremely vigilant mother.”

“I learnt from the guards that the bigger the litter, the greater the task for the mother to shield the cubs. When there are cubs, it is a trial by fire for her because she has to feed them, hunt for herself as well as keep a round-the-clock vigil against predators.”

The tall grass provided the perfect cover from where the mother cheetah looked around as the cubs played with each other. Watching the cheetah, its elegance and gait reminded one of the observations of George Schaller, a pre-eminent U.S. wildlife biologist, who devoted half a century to the study of wildlife around the world. Big cats, especially in Africa, had greatly influenced him. Schaller visited in India in 1965 to study the tigers of Kanha. His magnum opus, The Deer and the Tiger , is the first scientific study of the tiger and prey in the Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, and inspired succeeding generations of wildlife biologists.

“With its small round head, trim waist and long slender legs, the cheetah is the most atypical of the cats, an animal built for speed, a greyhound with the coat of a leopard. The hunt of the cheetah is surely an exciting spectacle in Africa,” he remarked.

And then, even as Dileep was watching the mother and cubs, it happened. With a sudden explosive sprint, the mother struck at a Thomson’s gazelle. Throttled, the animal died, and Siligi dragged the body across to the cubs. For some time, she rested but remained vigilant. Later, she opened up the ventral portion of the kill and began to eat. Slowly, the cubs joined her and scratched at and ate the flesh.

Then Dileep recalled an incredible moment. Eating had left bloodstains on the cubs’ faces. The mother licked their faces clean of bloodstains. It was an unusual scene. The guards said that the bloodstains would attract jackals, which have an acute sense of smell. Such was the extreme precaution taken by Siligi to protect her cubs. The mother trains the cubs in both hunting and eating. After 18 months, when they are fully grown, they separate from the mother and live on their own.

One of Siligi’s cubs was killed by a predator, presumably a leopard, on December 23, 2019. The entire staff of the Masai Mara reserve was deeply disappointed, although they knew that the loss was inevitable. There was a pall of gloom. The team swung into action to locate the predator.

During their search, they located a sneaking leopard. Observing its furtive look and deceptive body language, the guards concluded that the leopard was the killer. Dileep said that he was able to get a photograph of the killer. A little distance away, the mother and cubs were huddled in a bush. The leopard may likely have been sneaking around for a second kill, which the guards foiled. From January 13 onwards, Siligi lost four more cubs at different locations. The forest staff said that they may have been killed by lions and hyenas.

At the time of writing this story, Siligi is left with only two cubs. Niels Mogensen, senior scientist with the Mara Predator Project, confirmed this in an email. Apart from predators, the cause of death could be diseases and injuries, he said.

Impact of tourism

Niels added: “We have shown that mass tourism has a negative impact on the number of cubs a cheetah can raise to independence. In other words, cheetah cub recruitment is negatively correlated with tourism abundance.”

A document titled “The impact of tourism and habitat on the survival of cheetah cubs”, prepared by Femke Broekhus of Kenyan Wildlife Trust in June 2018, reveals that cheetahs have experienced drastic population decline. Only 7,000 cheetahs are left in Africa now. The number of cubs that survive to independence is crucial for the population growth. In the Serengeti, less than 5 per cent of the cubs reach independence. On an average, females spotted in high tourism areas raised only one cub to independence as compared with more than two in low tourism areas.

Tourism abundance has a negative impact on cheetah cubs. So the report recommended, among other things, that not more than five vehicles be allowed at a time at a cheetah sighting. Other recommendations included ensuring that no vehicles were allowed near a cheetah lair, that vehicles maintain a minimum distance of 30 metres at a sighting, and that noise levels be kept to the minimum.

The cheetah population is facing extreme challenges to its survival. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has red-listed the cheetah as endangered. Sarah Durant, British cheetah expert and the lead author of a paper titled “Disappearing spots: The global decline of cheetah and what it means for conservation”, said: “Cheetahs face increased pressures from widespread human-wildlife conflicts, prey loss caused by overhunting and bushmeat harvesting, habitat loss and fragmentation, and illegal trade.”

While cheetahs in Africa have been extirpated from 98 per cent of their historical range, the Asian cheetah is critically endangered in Iran, currently numbering only 50. From 1950 onwards, the cheetah has been completely wiped out from India.

Cheetah in India

The Supreme Court of India has, however, allowed the government of India to introduce the cheetah in India from Namibia in Africa. The court order dated January 28, 2020, says: “It is not desirable that action of introducing the African cheetahs into India be left to the sole discretion of NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), but we consider it appropriate that NTCA be guided and directed by the committee of experts in the field who would carry out the survey for the best location of introducing the African cheetah in India and take a careful decision about the viability of introducing this animal on a large scale. The expert committee shall supervise the entire process and NTCA should be guided to act in coordination with the expert committee”.

The experts are Dr M.K. Ranjithsinh, former Director of Wildlife Preservation in India; Dr Dhananjai Mohan, Chief Conservator of Forests, Wildlife Administration, Uttarakhand; and the Deputy Inspector General (Wildlife), Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India.

In April 2013, the Supreme Court had nullified the government’s project to introduce the African cheetah into India. The court said that the government had not carried out any scientific studies. Subsequently, a revised study was done and submitted before the Supreme Court.

George Schaller says that at present, the cheetah in Africa is the most endangered large cat and unless more stringently protected, this gentle and elegant cat will surely follow its Asian cousin towards extinction over much of Africa.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal andEnvironmentNewsBureau of Mathrubhumi Kochi.

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