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Sep 4, 2017 2:08 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Sightings From Africa: The Carnivores

A lioness and her cub, who has crawled inside the wildebeest carcass, feed on the kill made by the group of lions, or pride. MIKE BOTTINI
Sep 4, 2017 2:08 PM

Last week I discussed the wide variety of large herbivores encountered here in South Africa, from the smallest antelope called sharpe’s grybook (weighing 16 pounds) to the elephant, weighing in at five to six tons apiece. While all consume plant material, each species has a unique feeding behavior that prevents direct competition among them for food resources, part of each species’ ecological niche.Not surprisingly, these herbivores, in turn, support a wide variety of large carnivores. Topping the list of strict meat-eaters, in terms of size, is the lion (Panthera leo), with males weighing more than 100 pounds and females up to 75. Its prey includes all of the herbivores mentioned last week. This is our most social member of the cat family. Although it primarily feeds on ungulates, because it hunts in cooperative groups called prides, it is capable of bringing down a young elephant, rhino, giraffe and hippo.

The pride consists of adult females and their offspring and can number as many as 30 individuals. Adult males maintain territories that overlap one or more prides, and their roars are a signal to all that the area is occupied. We heard these deafening roars on many nights, and we were surprised to learn the next morning that the male was nowhere in our vicinity. Their roars are audible over a mile away!

The young males in the pride are driven away at two-to-three years of age, at which time these nomads scavenge for half their food and hunt for the other half until they are five years old, when they search for their own territory. The latter may involve challenging an older male for his turf, and many of these younger males die in their attempts.

The females do the bulk of the hunting, and that is done mostly at night, with the adult males only assisting in hunts that focus on particularly large prey, such as cape buffalo. Despite taking a back seat to the work and danger of the hunt, the adult male has first dibs on the kill. He will tolerate feeding with the cubs, but the other sub-adults in the pride, and the females that made the kill, wait until the male is satiated before feeding.

The next largest carnivore is the leopard (Panthera pardus), with males weighing in at 40 pounds and females at 20. Unlike the lion, which will utilize many different types of habitat provided there is suitable prey, the leopard is a creature of dense bush, rocky outcrops and riverine habitats. This cat is a solitary, stalk and pounce hunter that preys mainly on the smaller antelope species such as impala, duiker, and klipspringer.

The African bush is rife with scavengers, including lions and the very assertive hyenas, both the spotted hyena and the smaller brown hyena. The spotted hyena weighs 40 pounds and travels and hunts in clans led by a dominant female. They are mainly scavengers but are also capable of hunting by running prey to exhaustion. Clans can also drive lions from their kill, and even when there is little meat left at the kill site, the hyenas can derive nourishment from the bone marrow by crushing bones with their massive jaws. The clans are very vocal and we were fortunate to hear their eerie calls most nights.

The brown hyena rarely hunts for its own meal. Instead, it utilizes its excellent sense of smell to locate carrion up to a mile away. It also forms clans but is a solitary forager at night. Although weighing only 20 pounds, it is capable of taking a carcass away from a leopard. To prevent that, leopards will sometimes drag their carcass to the nearest large tree, and stash it on a suitable limb out of reach of the neighborhood hyenas.

The cheetah is another major predator, weighing 20 pounds, considered the most elegant member of the cat family, and often referred to as “the greyhound of cats.” Like the leopard, it is a solitary creature, but unlike the leopard, it prefers open grassland and savannah habitat and hunts during the daylight hours in early morning and late afternoon.

A thin and long-legged creature, the cheetah has a very atypical hunting technique for a cat. There’s no stalk and pounce, but a high speed chase. It first walks towards a group of potential prey, and at about 100 yards it will start trotting towards them. Once the prey takes off at a run, the cheetah accelerates to full throttle—50 mph—and the race is on. It can’t kill its prey with a spinal bite as the lion and leopard do, but relies on a strangling bite to the throat to subdue its prey.

Rounding out the South African meat-eaters are a number of species that I’ve never heard of—painted wolf (aka wild dog), that hunts small-to-medium sized antelope in packs—and four other members of the cat family. The latter are the caracal (Felis caracal), a 45-pound cat that is also referred to as a lynx and is capable of preying on antelope species; the serval (Felis serval), weighing up to 25 pounds and a rodent hunter; the African wild cat (Felis lybica), a 12-pounder that hunts rodents, birds and insects; and the black-footed or small-spotted cat (Felis nigripes), another small rodent specialist weighing less than 5 pounds.

Together, they are a nice mix of meat-lovers that helps keep the African bush herbivores in check.

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