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Today’s post takes us back to Namibia.  The vast empty desert nation is the home to beautiful cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.  In fact Namibia has the greatest number of cheetahs in the world.  Namibia is also (now) home to heavily armed sheep farmers who make their living by raising delicious delicious sheep in the cheetah-haunted arid scrublands.  This mixture has led to…um…misunderstandings of all kinds.

Cheetah, Namibia

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune with desert landscape in back ground. Namibia.

There is no need to dwell on just what the hell German sheep farmers are doing in a vast African desert anyway (or whether their forbears committed terrible genocidal acts in 1894 to obtain their lands).  History is rife with…misunderstandings.  What is important is where we stand now.  Because of habitat destruction, disease, and hunting, cheetahs are fading from the world.  And here is where the heroic Anatolian shepherd comes in.

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Anatolian shepherds are huge powerful dogs which trace their heritage to Turkey at the dawn of civilization.  The first herdsman faced similar problems to today’s Namibian sheep farmers (namely unreformed wolves, lions, and leopards brazenly preying on their livestock).  These early farmers responded by breeding big bold dogs to bodily confront large predators.  However, as civilization moved onward, the nature and appearance of herding dogs changed too.

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An Anatolian Shepherd with a border collie

Most modern shepherd dogs are smaller than cheetahs.  German shepherds, collies, corgis, et cetera tend to have long coats for cold climates. They also react to threats by herding their flocks toward safety. This was not working in Namibia, as it triggered cheetah’s hardwired chasing instincts which lead to even further carnage misunderstanding.

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With short pale hair, ideal for the desert heat, Anatolian shepherds stand 69 to 74 centimeters tall and weigh as much as the largest cheetahs.  They are less “shepherds” who move flocks around and more “guards” who directly confront predators. This triggers the cheetah’s hardwired running away instincts.  As misunderstanding decrease, the cheetah population in the world’s most populous country (for cheetahs) is stabilizing.  Happy news for beleaguered cheetahs and farmers…and good news for the Anatolian shepherd too a big beautiful dog with a new (old) job.

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A Young Cheetah Threatens a Hat

Things have been a pretty grim here at Ferrebeekeeper lately, what with the inexorable takeover of the labor market by machines, the child-killing Christmas demon Krampus, and the death of the universe. To cheer things up as we go into the weekend, here is a post about baby cheetahs.  Some people may claim this topic is a cynical attempt to exploit the endearing cubs and drive up ratings.  To those naysayers I respond “baby cheetahs!”

Cheetah Cubs must survive by hiding (image from http://cutearoo.com)

Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus)are well known as the fastest land animal–capable of running at blazing speeds of up to 120 km/h (75 mph).  To run at such a velocity the cheetah was forced to forgo some offensive advantages possessed by other comparably-sized cats.  Cheetahs’ jaws are smaller and their claws are permanently fixed in place–which makes their slashing implements shorter and duller than the razor sharp claws of other hunting cats.  Because they concentrate on running prowess to hunt they can never risk a sports injury from fighting.  These adaptations make it difficult for mother cheetahs to defend their cubs from predators.  Naturally the tiny cubs can not rely on the mother cheetah’s best defense—her legendary speed.

A Mother Cheetah with her cubs at Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

Female cheetahs gestate for ninety to ninety-eight days and give birth to a litter of 3 to 9 cubs which each weigh 150 to 300 g (5.3 to 11 oz.) at birth.  Since they are so small and slow, (and since they impede their mother’s hunting) cubs suffer from high mortality.  Evolution however has utilized certain tricks to minimize the danger they face.  Unlike many feline cubs, cheetahs are born already covered with spots. They are adept from a young age at hiding within thorny scrub. Additionally the cubs have a remarkable adaptation to aid their defense.  Until they are near maturity, they possess long punk-rock mantle of downy hair along their neck.  These wild manes act like ghillie suits—breaking up the cubs’ outlines when they are hidden in dense scrub.  The mantles also mimic the Don King style hair of the honey badger (well-known as one of the craziest, bravest, angriest small animals of the savannah).  No animals want to mess with honey badgers since the angry badgers despise their own lives only slightly less than those of other living things and are thus extremely unpredictable.

Cheetah Cub

Honey Badger

When cheetahs reach adolescence they lose their mantles and acquire their extraordinary speed, but they still have a certain kittenish playfulness.  I was once in the Washington DC zoo on Sunday morning (when the cheetahs are each given a frozen rabbit as a treat).  The cheetah run in the National Zoo is long and narrow giving the animals space to build up full speed.  The male adolescent cheetahs were excited for their rabbits.  They were crouching and slinking back and forth faster than most people could run.  One of the adolescent cheetahs got too close to the powerful electric fence surrounding the enclosure and there was a sizzling “pop” as he accidentally touched his delicate nose to the wire.  The young male ran off and, because cheetahs are bred to the bone for the chase, his brother ran after him.  They ran faster and faster, becoming an exquisite blur.  The elegant forms left footprints of fire behind them until the first cheetah slid to a (10 meter) sliding stop and emitted an otherworldly angry chirp-yowl. The spectacle only lasted a moment, but compared to those cheetahs, all other runners I have seen–athletes, racehorses, greyhounds, rabbits–all seemed slow and awkward.

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