Cheetah feeding ecology in the Kruger National Park and a comparison across African savanna habitats: is the cheetah only a successful hunter on open grassland plains?

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Wildlife Biology





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The literature on cheetah Acinonyx jubatus ecology is dominated by studies on the Serengeti Plains (SNP) in East Africa. Because of this and the cheetah's hunting strategy it is generally considered to be a predator that prefers open grassland plains. However, cheetahs also inhabit a range of bush, scrub and woodland habitats. A field study using direct observations of radio-collared individuals in the woodland savanna habitat of the Kruger National Park (KNP), South Africa, and a literature review of studies across savanna habitats examined cheetah predation, hunting behaviour and habitat use in relation to prey composition, cover availability and kleptoparasitism. The cheetah's main prey is medium-sized herbivores, with a bias towards male prey. The group size and sex of the hunting cheetah may influence the results of prey selection studies as male coalitions tend to take larger prey than females. Cheetahs initiated more hunts and had a higher success rate in the open woodland savanna of the KNP compared to other available habitats with thicker bush, and in other wooded savanna areas they also prefer more open habitat for hunting. Although they appear to have shorter chase distances in more wooded habitats, hunting success appears to be slightly higher in open grassland habitat. Woody vegetation appears to obstruct the cheetah's high-speed hunting strategy, thereby lowering hunting success. However, cheetahs use cover for stalking prey and open habitats with bordering woodlands, or patches of cover are considered preferred cheetah habitats. In these habitats, cheetahs can stalk closer to their prey using available cover, but also successfully pursue their prey into available open spaces. Across African savanna ecosystems, cheetahs appear to be kleptoparasitised less in more wooded habitats. Therefore they may also prefer these habitats because they provide greater concealment from kleptoparasites. Our study suggests that the cheetah is more adaptable to habitat variability than is often thought and is not only a successful hunter on open grassland plains.

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