The Predator's Pursuit - Part 3 - Strategy & Execution
All predators rely on the consumption of meat as the primary source of their nutrition. This relationship between predator and prey has seen to diverse advancements in the weaponry, strategy, and means of execution in the predator's arsenal. Each predator, whether terrestrial, arboreal or aquatic have mastered their own hunting, killing and feeding methods.
Certain closely related animals may share basic methods of hunting, however, the sheer diversity of predators and their corresponding prey ensures an array of hunting techniques to achieve their goal. This can be unexpected and quick, or it may involve long chases or even arduous and terrible struggles. To shy away from these natural phenomena is to blind oneself to the reality of what it means to be predator or prey. However, when perceived unbiasedly is simply another awesome spectacle of the natural way.
Part 1 focused on the weaponry of some terrestrial predators. Part 2, on the strategies of hunting and execution of African canines. Here in Part 3, the emphasis will be on African feline species and their interaction with prey.
|Strategy and Execution|
Hunting strategies are diverse and primarily dependent on the particular species of predator and consequent prey, their evolutionary lineage, their physiology, and social organization among a few other factors. The environment also plays an important role in terms of terrain, vegetation, weather and more. In this section, various hunting strategies of predatory felines will be discussed. Part 4 will have a more in-depth look at African reptilian carnivores.
Felines are certainly the most prolific of African predators. A variety of cat species call the continent home, from the small black-footed cat to the iconic and powerful lion. As with the canines, many hunting tactics of felines are shared, especially that of ambush predation. Variation in strategy exists based on specific lineage, social organization, size, geographic location, and a few other factors. This segment will take a look at the variation in hunting strategy and execution methods of the African lion, the leopard, and the cheetah.
Perhaps the most iconic of the African predators is the lion. These mighty beasts are at the top of the predatorial hierarchy and generally avoided by all other large predators. This is due to their size, strength and social organization. Their power as individual lions and of the pride together allows them to take down the larget prey animals, including giraffe and less commonly elephant. Compared to most feline species, lions are the most social cats of all, with some prides of females and young at times exceeding 50 individuals, although this is very rare. An average pride of lionesses numbers between two and five individuals excluding the young. Males are either single or found in coalitions of related males that rarely exceed four individuals. Higher numbers have been reported, such as the infamous Mapogo coalition of the Greater Kruger National Park, and the pride of King Notch also known as Kali of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. Though their size and gregarious nature allow for the ability to take down large prey, their success rate when hunting is comparatively low when compared to other large terrestrial mammalian predators. This is even lower when hunting individually.
Contrary to popular belief, male lions are just as efficient hunters as females, however, when in the presence of females on the hunt will most likely let them expend energy to hunt and then dominate the kill as the first to eat. One possible reason for the male to dominate the kill of females is to ensure ample strength in case a competitor male wishes to expand their territory. If a competitor is successful in defeating the defender, it will kill the cubs and even lionesses who defend them as they are not of his genetic lineage. Although, when males lions are not in the presence of females, they prove to be just as efficient hunters who with increased strength have less difficulty taking down larger prey.
In terms of strategy, lions are deemed opportunistic hunters who will take advantage of easier targets or moments as they arise. Lions are also scavengers and will steal the kills of other predators if convenient. In fact, certain regions in East Africa report higher numbers of hunting conducted by hyenas, and lions consequently acting primarily as scavengers. This is not a regular occurrence in most of Africa's wilderness though. When hunting, lions employ a combination of stealth, short chases, and group tactics. Due to their gregarious natures, lions do not rely as much on ambush hunting, nor chasing the prey for extended distances. Also, comparatively, they are less camouflaged than a leopard and have significantly less stamina than canine species. Thus they rely far more on their strength to bring down larger prey species along with group hunting tactics.
Execution of the prey animal can be slow in larger prey species. The animal is normally pulled down to the ground by overwhelming it. Lions would generally grab onto the less defensible rear of the animal, creating drag and difficulty of movement. When an opening arises to the neck and throat, it is quickly seized with a bite. This helps to bring the animal down from the front, while also lowering the risk of being attacked by horn or tusk. Bitting the neck helps suffocate the animal, increase blood loss and shock and may also damage neck vertebrae which could paralyze the prey. If the prey is hardy, it is suffocated by biting down directly on the snout, covering the mouth and nose to prevent respiration. These events are true spectacles as such a fight with large prey and mass predators may last the better portion of an hour. When hunting averagely sized prey such as a wildebeest or kudu, the death is more swift.
As with most feline species, these stealthy creatures are solitary animals. Since it does not rely on group social organization as the lion does, they rely instead on patience and stealth to procure prey. These are by far the most elusive of large predators of Africa. They have exceptional rosette patterned camouflage which, when motionless, has them meld with any rock, tree, shrub or patch of grass. They have a very high strength to weight ratio, making them brilliant climbers who habitually seek refuge in trees and rocky outcrops for safety. These features provide the leopard with an almost ghostlike reputation.
Due to their solitary nature, they are shy and would avoid a confrontation when possible to avoid injury. If the leopard is injured, it could mean starvation, as their ability to hunt is jeopardized and no companions are available to hunt for them. Odd cases of a leopard hunting alongside their sub-adult offspring have been documented, however, this is rarely seen and seems to lean more to teaching the offspring how to hunt, instead of being a hunting habit. Since, once the offspring is an adult, they leave the safety of their parent to live a solitary lifestyle. This is risky as the leopard is lower on the predatorial dominance hierarchy, below lion, spotted hyena and brown hyena due to its smaller size and solitary habits. Prey is thus easily stolen from them by stronger predators, hence their habit of placing prey in trees or thickets for safe consumption. This also means that scavenging habits are very rare for leopards as carcasses are normally dominated by lions and hyenas.
As for hunting technique, leopards are the perfect stalker and ambush predators. Due to their relatively smaller size and solitary habits, the prey they most commonly hunt is small to average sized, such as duikers, impalas, and bushbuck. Larger or tougher species such a kudu and warthog are not uncommon prey animals, especially for larger male leopards, though they may prove difficult to kill at times. Although a leopard's speed is impressive, they do not possess the stamina of canine species and would reserve chasing after prey unless they are within reasonable distance. Instead, the leopard patiently stalks its prey, moving to strategic areas with cover and keeping perfectly motionless when required. Compared to other predators, leopards show more awareness of wind direction to prevent their scent from revealing their location.
Once the prey is within pouncing distance at ideally 5 meters, it would take the animal by swift surprise. If the animal is further away without a good location to stalk and get close, it may chase for short distances which rarely exceed 50 meters. This method of hunting requires patience and is comparatively less successful than that of other predators, especially by day, although success is markedly increased at night. Once the prey is within range, the leopard swiftly pounces and tries to bite key areas on the prey's body. This is most commonly the neck and throat in order to stop breathing, blood circulation to the brain and to paralyze the animal with a break of the neck. The sharp claws of the leopard dig into the prey as it attempts to bring it down to the ground to prevent escape. Some cases document leopards using their claws to rake an animal, increasing blood loss and shock. This is especially so when a leopard attacks a baboon, as the back legs are known to cut up the stomach, though this is not common when hunting antelope. Once the animal is dead, the leopard tends to drag the carcass out of sight or into a tree for safe consumption away from other predators.
Cheetah are known as the most specialized of African large predators due to their unique design and function. Unlike most cats in the Felix or Panthera genus, the cheetah alone belongs in the Acinonyx genus. This is due to genetic lineage and key physiological differences between them and other feline species. Comparatively, cheetah have less mass and strength than other big cats. They are built to be slender, with long thin legs, relatively smaller paws and non-retractable claws which aid in increasing its overall speed. As with canine species, their claws are used for increased grip while running and are consequently less sharp than that of other feline family members. Due to their frail build cheetah are at the bottom of the predatorial hierarchy, below lion, hyena, and leopard. Some cases report them even being chased away from carcasses by more fierce jackals. Even so, their average success rate when hunting outweighs that of lion and leopard. Due to these factors, they are the least likely to scavenge.
Cheetah have mixed social structures. In general, females tend to be solitary or can be found with sub-adult young of a few individuals. The males, however, may be solitary or commonly form coalitions of related males. For this reason, they are sufficient solitary hunters and only increase their success rate when hunting in small groups. Due to their relatively small size, their primary prey targets consist of average to small sized prey, such as springbok and Thomson's gazelle, however, may hunt larger species when in groups. In such rare cases, they may attempt to catch wildebeest or zebra size prey, though these are most often ignored for easier targets.
When hunting, cheetah use high vantage points such as termite mounds and pushed over trees to survey an area for potential prey. When prey is located the cheetah approaches in the best way possible which may be variable depending on cover, distance, and alertness of its target. For example, if the prey is unaware of the cheetah and adequate cover is provided by grass and shrubs to get closer, the cheetah will stealthily approach until within sprinting distance of ideally 50 meters or less. If the prey is slowly making their way in the cheetah's direction, it will simply lay in wait until the prey moves close enough for pursuit. In other instances, the cheetah openly walks or trots towards its prey. This may alert the prey that the cheetah is there, however, the curiosity of the prey animals often have them draw in closer for a better look. If the prey then approaches to within adequate sprinting range, the cheetah would begin its pursuit. Younger, sick or injured individual prey items may be approached with an open trot from a distance of 500 meters or more before chasing at closer distances.
The design of the cheetah, including its slender shape, longer legs, and fixed protruding claws hails it the fastest land mammal. The top speed has been known to exceed 110 kph, however, this speed is rarely required or utilized. This speed is the cheetah's primary reason for hunting success as no prey animal is capable of such rapid movement, however, it cannot be sustained for long as its body overheats quickly at such speed which could cause severe damage to its system, in particular, the brain. Thus if an agile animal evades the cheetah for long enough, the cheetah would give up its pursuit to cool down.
When the cheetah manages to get within striking distance, they perform a signature swipe to the rump, back thigh or legs while at high speed. This trips the animal to bring it to the ground, which at such high speeds may cause broken bones in the prey. Some argue that the spotted markings of the cheetah are not for camouflage purposes, but to encourage the prey to see it and run so that this signature trip at high speeds can be performed. If the animal was stationary, however, the cheetah would hook its sharp dew claw into the prey's rump and swipe it down onto its side. As soon as the prey is down, the neck is immediately targeted with a latching bite which closes the windpipe, causes bleeding and may even break neck vertebrae. After the prey is dead, their bodies are dragged to a hiding place close by to keep other predators and scavengers away until the cheetah had its meal before moving on.
To conclude, we can see that a myriad of hunting and execution methods are utilized by the large predators of the African continent. These methods vary according to the species of animal, their physiology, social dynamic, preferred prey and more. Some use stealth, others stamina, strength, group tactics, intelligence or trickery to name a few. Never the less, the act of hunting to procure prey comes with challenges and dangers which may bring either good results, or may be fatal when the prey fights back. This relationship between predator and prey, and also predator against predator has seen to the evolution of truly unique and wonderful natural creations. And, although it might seem grim at first, this wild feature is solidly built into the natural way of life, of death and of evolution.