Safari guide, Onesmus Irungu, photographed an unusual scene on a morning out in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve: a spotted hyena getting chased off its kill by a mother cheetah and her three cubs.
These three snapshots maybe the first time that such behavior has ever been caught on camera, and they upend stubborn misconceptions about Africa’s carnivores.
The hyena is often unfairly branded as nature’s cackling thieves and scavengers, but hyenas are actually very capable predators. Research suggests they kill up to 95% of the food they eat, and in this particular case, he had managed to take down a topi, one of Africa’s speediest antelopes.
Then, a female cheetah approached the carcass with her three 15-month-old cubs in tow. Outnumbered, the hyena had no choice but to abandon the topi, and the feline family ate for two hours.
Seeing the cheetah, famous for the high-speed chase, take the hyena’s food instead is surprising. ”Cheetahs have been seen stealing kills from other cheetahs, but to my knowledge there are no published reports of cheetahs actively stealing from any other predators,” says Femke Broekhuis, who, along with Irungu, described the event in a recent paper in the African Journal of Ecology.
When it comes to carcass theft, it’s usually the cheetahs who lose out. Their smaller size and mostly solitary habits make them vulnerable, and in some parts of Africa, more than 12% of their kills are commandeered by larger rival carnivores.
Such thieving tactics have earned lions and spotted hyenas a share of the blame for the serious decline in cheetah numbers, yet sightings like Irungu’s add to other evidence that these lithe spotted cats can cope with losing the occasional meal, and are flexible enough to adapt their behavior in order to survive. Scavenging, it turns out, might be one way they get by. Appropriating an unguarded carcass is one thing, but stealing it from a larger predator is a risky move, and it’s possible this cheetah mother took her chances because she had three extra mouths to feed.
For Broekhuis, who is the director of the Mara Cheetah Project in Nairobi, Kenya, the behavior helps us to see the predators in a different light. “Cheetahs are always portrayed as being very vulnerable, but the sighting of cheetah taking a kill from a hyena not only shows that they will scavenge, but also that they can confront other predators to obtain resources,” she says.
It also helps researchers tease out the real threats facing these cats, most of which can be linked to human activity: from habitat loss and disappearing prey to the illegal pet trade. ”Both lions and spotted hyenas are known to kill cheetahs and to steal their kills, but these three species have always coexisted and these interactions are all part of a natural system,” adds Broekhuis.
This might be the first time that a carcass-stealing cheetah has been caught on camera, but the team behind the Mara Cheetah Project hopes future observations will tell them whether it was more than just a fluke. The long-term project sees researchers tracking cats out in the field each day and recording their behavior.
“We currently have approximately 75 different cheetahs in our database, which allows us to follow individuals over time, so it is possible that we might observe this behavior again at some point,” Broekhuis says.
Happy Caturday =^_^=