Words: Hu Berry
Lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and brown and spotted hyaena are large carnivores that attract many tourists to Namibia. The more secretive of these species are often difficult to find, yet all hold a fascination for wildlife enthusiasts. Hu Berry has had numerous encounters with these six carnivores during his career of 33 years in formal conservation, both when he headed the Etosha Ecological Institute and subsequently at the Namib Research Institute at Gobabeb. This is his insight into this remarkable group of animals.
Two Super Families represent our large carnivores, namely the cat–like (Feloidea) and dog–like (Canoidea).
Hyaenas are not members of the dog family as many think; they are grouped with the cat–like carnivores. Evolved from insect– eating ancestors, modern carnivores have had 65 million years of natural selection and genetic moulding to hone their present ability as expert hunters and scavengers. This is embodied in their chisel-sharp incisors, slashing canines and shearing premolars and molars (the so–called carnassial teeth that cut and crunch through the toughest sinews and bones of their prey).
Long–bodied and lithe, most carnivores walk on their toes, in keeping with their ability as either sprinters or long–distance runners. They see, scent and hear with acuity, boosting these senses with a finely tuned sense of touch via whiskers and other hairs (vibrissae) located over the entire body. Namibia’s six large carnivores collectively hold all these attributes, yet each species specialises in ways that carve out a unique niche in the predator–prey spectrum of our wild places.
The tri–coloured wild dog alias Cape hunting dog alias painted dog (Lycaon pictus) is the epitome of a social, co-operative hunter, so specialised that it can survive only by foraging in a pack numbering 10 or more, which depends on a single breeding pair to produce large litters of six to sixteen pups. This diurnal dog shares, with the cheetah, the distinction of hunting mostly in daylight. Unlike cheetah, the chase is an exercise in endurance, not speed, and the pack fans out in an easy lope that can last up to 5 kilometres. The end comes invariably with the exhausted prey being speedily disembowelled and dismembered whilst still alive.
This manner of killing led a naturalist in 1914 to write: “Let us consider for a while that abomination – that blot upon the many interesting wild things….. the murderous wild dog….. It will be an excellent day for African game and its preservation when means can be devised for some well thought scheme for this unnecessary creature’s complete extermination.” A hundred years later the painted dog is listed as an endangered species, in need of urgent conservation to prevent its extinction. Rounded estimates for Namibia are wide–ranging, between 200 and 1 200, reflecting the difficulty of censusing even large carnivores in their natural habitat.
Broad muzzled, robust bone– cracking teeth, pointed ears and a long, shaggy coat distinguish the carnivore that stalks the semi–deserts and beaches of Namibia. The strandwolf or brown hyaena Hyaena brunnea is essentially a carrion eater, judging from its scats, from which 58 different kinds of food have been identified.
On the Skeleton Coast the strandwolf is in its element, patrolling the windswept beaches on foggy nights in an endless search for marine offerings. It drinks seldom, the sea’s harvest providing it with sustaining moisture. It forms kinship groups, with an elaborate social system, enhanced by the possession of scent glands couched in an anal pouch. These marking tools secrete alternatively a thick, white pomade and a watery, black liquid that leave detailed messages for others. There are probably between 500 and 700 of these shaggy scavengers, mostly occurring at a low density.
Powerfully built, slope–backed, and endowed with dome–shaped molars which can crush bones that lions avoid, the spotted hyaena Crocuta crocuta uses its jaws and teeth like a hammer mill to obtain nourishing proteins and minerals from the deepest recesses of a prey’s skeleton. Unique amongst mammals, this wrongly named “dog of the devil” was thought to be a hermaphrodite, capable of mating with itself in a fiendish ability to reproduce. The cold light of scientific investigation shows, however, that the female mimics the male sexually by possessing an external, pe-nis–shaped clitoris that she can extend and erect at will. Moreover, her vaginal walls are fused and closed with fatty tissue, which closely resembles the scrotum and testicles of the male. This improbable combination is the result of high concentrations of the male reproductive hormones testosterone and androgen being fed to the female embryo during its development. Estimates of numbers range greatly: from 1 000 to 3 000, indicating uncertainty about the population’s status.
Sprint, trip and bite are the instinctive hunting traits of the most specialised cat, the cheetah Acinonyx jubatus. Its flexible spine allows all four feet to be clear of the ground as the cheetah covers eight metres between strides when running down its prey. Achieving 110 km/h within seconds is possible only because its wide nostrils, enlarged heart and increased lung volume push oxygen through the lithe body like a turbo–charger. Unless it closes on its quarry, normally springbok, within 300 metres, the cheetah’s respiration peaks at 150 per minute, its temperature soars to a near–lethal 40˚C and it reaches virtual “burn–out”.
Seldom scavenging, this sleek cat has undergone a “population bottleneck” in times past, when its numbers declined to the point that the modern cheetah displays very little genetic variation, making it vulnerable to a host of physiological and reproductive disorders. Namibian numbers are estimated at 2 000 to 5 000, with one optimistic estimate of 8 000. What is certain is that Namibia rates as “the cheetah capital of the world”, having up to 25% of the total global population.
Except for the domestic tabby, the leopard Panthera pardus is the most widely distributed cat species worldwide. From the Namib to the Arabian Peninsula and throughout Asia to Korea, wherever there is sufficient cover for concealment, leopards roam nightly. Secretive, stealthy and mostly solitary, the opportunistic leopard adapts to living in close proximity to humans, who are often unaware of its presence. A deadly predator and efficient scavenger, leopards subsist on a catholic diet, ranging from impala to mouse, plus any imaginable decomposing carcass. Namibia may be home of 3 000 to 9 000 leopards. The numbers of this elusive cat will in all probability never be known accurately.
Panthera leo needs no introduction. However, some people are unaware that the lion is the only truly social cat species in existence. The pride system is essential for survival and all lionesses in a pride are blood–related. Adolescent males are solely responsible for surviving expulsion from their natal pride and thereafter spreading their genes to other prides, from which they must first oust the reigning males. During this phase of their precarious existence, the inexperienced wanderers often succumb, either from hunger or severe injury inflicted on them by the resident males.
One other characteristic unique to lions, an obvious one, is that males are the only cat species to grow a mane.
How many lions live in Namibia? Although they are the most conspicuous of our large carnivores, estimates range widely from 400 to 900.
The common denominator for these six carnivores is the mounting pressure from people. As human numbers increase exponentially, carnivore numbers plummet. Carnivores are viewed by many to be dangerous to people and domestic animals and are destroyed without further consideration. Furthermore, the insidious spread of human development encroaches relentlessly on their natural habitat.
Humans usually win when they compete with other carnivores. I am reminded of an anonymous phrase I found framed in the house of an elderly conservationist whom I visited in Kenya. It said simply and tellingly:
“…and somewhere lions still roam…
…unaware in their strength…
…of any weakness…
This article appeared in the 2003/4 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.