Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Three Cheetah Brothers of Lewa

At Lewa Downs Conservancy in northern Kenya, game rangers carefully track the animals and protect them from poachers. Sometimes scientific research is done there so once in awhile you will see a radio collared animal. One thing different about visiting Lewa Downs as opposed to other game parks is that when you see animals at Lewa, the rangers are likely to know the history of the animal. In the wild, you generally only know generalities, such as "young and female."

On my first night drive at Lewa, we encountered three cheetahs sleeping in a row (two are in this frame). They were seven when I saw them, and that's remarkable, as their mother died when they were four months old. Unlike other bi cats, cheetahs rely heavily on learning hunting skills from their mothers for about two years before going off alone. Generally they are solitary. These three cheetah brothers of Lewa were orphaned, yet they managed to survive, on their own, and they stuck together. They are able to compete with lions and leopards and get enough food, and stay out of harm's way. They are also very striking, beautiful animals, and since their story is unusual, they appear in many Lewa photographs and marketing materials.

About a year after I saw them, I was watching a program on Animal Planet and saw these cheetahs featured, referred to as the three cheetah brothers of Lewa Downs. I noticed on the nature shows that many of the animals I have met and the places I have been are featured. There are so few amazing and wild places left in the world that you can see African big game. In a way it's cool that I can recognize the actual cheetahs I saw in person on TV, and in a way it's sad - I wish there were thousands more of them and I was seeing others on TV. Cheetahs have a tough time, and at one time were almost extinct. They have very little genetic variation, and a high rate of abnormal sperm, likely due to past inbreeding. Some suggest that at one time the cheetah breeding population was down to about 50 animals, so all the cheetahs alive today have DNA from those 50. While that number is debatable, there is no question that there was a bottleneck in the species in the past and that all cheetahs alive today have very little genetic variation.

Cheetahs are endangered, with less than 12,000 in the wild. They do not breed well in captivity. Cheetahs do not threaten humans and they are easily tamed. I had the chance to pet a few of them at the Nairobi orphanage. They were about two years old, and I was surprised at how rough their coats were - sort of wire haired. They have a great purr that is very loud and sounds almost like a growl at first. They are like dog sized cats - they love belly rubs, attention and petting, and I was completely in love with them and wishing desperately that I lived in Africa and could take in an orphan in need and raise it so I could be close to such a majestic and incredible animal for years and years. (I recommend the movie Duma if you like cheetahs).

If you are wondering why all the African animals lately, well I'm looking forward to going back to Kenya in a few months, and sort of fearing Uganda a bit safety-wise. Thinking about how amazing Africa and its animals are helps me to conquer any fears for my own safety, and also to stay motivated to exercise and try to shape up for the long journey. (I hate exercise, as a general rule, but I can force myself if I have a greater goal). I have a hard time putting into words how amazing the last trip was, but I am enjoying sharing little pieces here and there.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund, based in Namibia, has a great program for cheetah conservation. In addition to working directly with cheetahs, they work with farmers and train guard dogs to protect livestock and scare cheetahs off so farmers don't kill them. For more information, or to donate to a worthy cause, visit their website.

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