Africa's animal kingdom Matira Magazin

Lair litters

Growing up is a difficult task for cheetahs. The females hide their newborn in inconspicuous lairs, guarding the tiny cubs with short breaks for hunting. Lions, leopards and hyaenas threaten the young and even big herbivores, like buffalo, might take any opportunity to trample them. So, as a tourist, leave the lairs alone, don’t break their "camouflage"!

Sensible: Lair litters

Reinhard Radkes column on African wildlife

Newborn antelopes need just a couple of minutes to get to their feet. Wildebeest calves are known to follow their mother hours after birth, keeping the pace of the herd easily in their first days. With newborn predators, it is dramatically different. They are blind, not able to thermoregulate properly or move in a coordinated way. They must be kept warm and protected, particularly as predators don’t hesitate to kill any competitor, given a chance. Buffalo, too, are well known to attack cats and kill even adult lions. So, cubs of cheetahs, leopards or lions are in mortal danger when a herd of buffalo spots their lair. Cheetahs suffer especially in areas with high lion densities. In the central Serengeti only five percent of cheetah cubs survive to adulthood. In Maasai Mara cheetah mothers have the additional burden of being tourist magnets. Their lairs should be left alone as good as possible.

This female gave birth to her litter in a small bush, with thousands of similar hiding places close by. From a couple of meters, no indication of any lair is visible. At the same time, the mother has a good view to react in time on any approaching danger.
Cubs are born blind and helpless. Six to eight weeks they must hide in lairs, until they are capable to follow their mother. The female leaves them in the first days just for short hunting trips.

In 2011, I filmed a cheetah documentary in the Mara. My guide Kasao Learat noticed a female with all the signs of motherhood: long soft fur along the belly, walking restlessly without any reaction to hunting opportunities. He was right and followed her over hours to her lair where four tiny cubs lay waiting. Kasao knew what to do and left her after a minute. We had a second crew with a separate car, so we could continue filming, with me watching the lair for days from a distance. We hoped for shots from the cheetah cradle, but didn’t want to create a mess of cars around them. Finally, we filmed a couple of minutes at the hiding place and stayed away otherwise. The task was to film her while moving the young to another lair, what in the end worked out well.

To avoid any telling smell, the cubs are meticulously licked clean repeatedly. Only after such a massage will they urinate and defecate. Nevertheless, after a week the lair is conspicuous from all the ruined brown grass.

With some support by the rangers we got her through the next weeks without any turmoil around the lair. Just one day the situation became critical: Young male lions decided to rest just 30 meters beside the hiding place. Stoically the female stood her ground, without making any conspicuous move. But when the lions noticed her it became clear – they will go and investigate. For a filmmaker, a difficult situation: You are there to film natural behavior, but of course you don’t want to witness the death of the beautiful cubs which had since long touched you. We had called in rangers earlier and they did not hesitate to chase the lions away from the female and the lair. Right or wrong? Should humans take side and interfere in such conflicts? At least to me it was pleasing at that time….

 

When hiding the cubs, the female must change the lairs several times, to have fresh and inconspicuous shelter. Moving the young bears many risks, as she should not be surprised by a lion.

 

That incident showed clearly, why we spend so much effort in hiding the litter from tourists. The desire to watch the cute little cubs would have brought the situation around the lair sooner or later out of control. Today many a lion or hyaena learned, that crowds of cars often indicate other predators with a good chance to share some spoils, thus making car assemblages attractive for them to investigate. For cubs in a lair this would have been fatal. I have seen many cheetah families (with older cubs), which fell prey to tourists: The resulting traffic jam sometimes flattened the grass around them on hundreds of square meters, just up to the bushes they were hiding in.

The protection of cubs in their lairs in the Maasai Mara was initially the reason for patrols like “Cheetah For Ever”. This doesn’t come without opposition, and I will make notes on that in another column. Back to “our” little family in 2011: After three weeks, we left them alone but they shared the fate of so many cheetahs. Passing the lair later by chance, we found it trampled and no sign of the young. Most probably buffalo had found them.

 

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