Big Cat Hunting Strategies
Big Cat Hunting Strategies
Africa's three big cats - lion, leopard and cheetah - all capture and kill their prey in much the same manner as a domestic cat kills a mouse. The body proportions, dentition and claws of all cats - from lions to lynxes - is basically the same. Body size, social habits and habitat preferences are what separates most members of the family Felidae.
Although the way in which large cats stalk or approach their prey differs, the actual method of killing is similar. The first objective is to bring the quarry to the ground, and for medium-sized prey this is achieved by grasping the hindquarters. With its feet firmly on the ground, a lion or leopard pulls an antelope to the ground by hooking its talons into its rump and tugging downward. If in pursuit of fleeing prey, cats reach out with their forepaw to trip their quarry. For very large prey such as buffalo, lions may jump onto the animal's back, using their own body weight to topple the victim. Once an animal is off its feet, the cat goes for the throat or muzzle, clamping its jaws tight to suffocate the prey. With small prey, a bite is delivered to the neck to sever the spinal chord.
Whenever a cat hunts and dispatches prey, it must minimise the chance of injuring itself - a sprained leg or broken canine tooth, could easily lead to starvation.
In many parts of Africa, lion, leopard and cheetah occur side-by-side. They are able to coexist because they have different habitat and prey preferences, which reduces competition. Different hunting strategies are employed not only by the different big cats, but also for the various prey species which they hunt.
The leopard is the most adaptable of Africa's big cats, with the widest range of prey. Large males can tackle quarry up to the size of adult Topi although they rarely take such risks. Medium-sized and small antelope, as well as warthog, are favoured prey in most areas. The leopard relies on its stealth and patience to approach its prey. Successful hunts usually demand that the leopard surprises its victim, pouncing before it can react and pulling it to the ground. Smaller prey, such as hyraxes, hares and monkeys may be chased and cornered before being clawed and bitten on the back of the neck or throat. In some parts of their range, leopard are almost entirely nocturnal hunters, but in other areas (notably the South African lowveld) they are active throughout the day. Individual leopards may acquire a preference for certain prey animals and develop particular hunting strategies. Warthog may be captured as they leave or enter their underground burrows, entailing a lengthy wait for a patient leopard. Catfish will be plucked from shrinking pools at the end of the rainy season by a leopard which ignores other quarry.
Lion are the only truly social cats and adult females typically hunt in pairs or groups. When hunting favoured prey such as wildebeest or zebra, lions usually stalk to within 30 metres before rushing at them. In most cases the lions will wait until the quarry has turned away or has its head down. Once it detects danger, the victim bolts but it may be too late. On rare occasions, (and invariably in daylight) lion may ambush prey, with one member of the pride lying in wait as its partner forces the quarry to run in its direction. The sheer abundance of prey can also determine hunting strategies. When great herds of migratory wildebeest are milling about, lions can simply rush into them and pull down one or more of the confused animals. When the same herds gather to cross the Grumeti or Mara rivers, lions simply wait at favoured crossing points and pick off the startled wildebeest. Although male lions have the reputation (quite deserved) of pirating free meals from hardworking lionesses, they are called upon when extra large prey is tackled. Several females may corner and threaten a buffalo, but it will usually take a big male to topple such a beast. In northern Botswana, some large lion prides have taken to preying on young and even sub-adult elephant, and this entails tight teamwork to separate their targets from defensive adults. In South Africa's Kruger National Park, lions appear to have become adept at killing giraffe by attacking them on tarmac roads where the tall mammals lose their foothold on the slippery surface. Lions generally have a higher success rate when hunting after dark.
Built for speed, cheetah hunt by day. They are less reliant on stalking than leopard or lion, but most successful hunts involve walking slowly towards their prey, and ‘freezing' their posture each time the quarry looks in their direction. Once a cheetah gets to within a range of 50 metres or less, it will sprint towards the prey, instantaneously singling out one individual. With its quarry in full flight, the cheetah's strategy is to catch up with it and strike out, clipping its back legs. The faster a gazelle or antelope is running, the more readily it tumbles. Such a fall may cause a broken leg, but within seconds the cheetah takes hold of its victim's throat and clasps its jaws tightly. Cheetah only have about 300 metres in which to catch their prey, because they cannot continue at full speed beyond that. Gazelles often evade cheetah by turning sharply, while animals which stand their ground are rarely attacked. Cheetah are less adaptable than lions or leopards, but some individuals may become adept at hunting in thick bushland where sprinting is impossible. At Kwandwe, in the Eastern Cape Province, some Cheetah have broken all the 'rules' and have taken to hunting on moonlit nights.
Watching any of the big cats on the hunt is one of the most thrilling elements of a safari. With astute and sensitive guides and an intimate knowledge of predator territories (as well as exclusive night drives in many localities), &Beyond lodges and guided safaris provide some of the best opportunities to witness this behaviour.
- Duncan Butchart -
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006