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What Killed the Cheetah?

  • 07/17/08
  • Paul

One thing is certain: when you're in the bush, you never know what's going to happen next.

Shivani and I were sitting in her car by the Ewaso Nyiro river, catching up on our field notes. (And she was betting me that I couldn't sit still for 20 minutes without talking. I won't tell you who lost.) Then she got a call from a ranger in neighboring Buffalo Springs National Reserve saying they had discovered a dead cheetah. In addition to studying the lions in this region, Shivani is monitoring the cheetah population, so she's notified about any incidents like this.

We raced through the reserve to meet the ranger at his post, and he took us out to the cheetah. We found the carcass lying in the hard dirt, under the sun, out in the open. It was such an empty sight.

Dead cheetah in Buffalo Springs NR

Not the African plains you'd imagine: a dead cheetah discovered in Buffalo Springs National Reserve, Kenya.

"If this boy had a brother," Shiv said, "he's probably still around, staying close to the body. Cheetah brothers are like life partners."

We inspected the cheetah, which was intact. Perhaps dead two days, it didn't have any visible wounds from a fight, nor the dramatic bleeding from orifices that is seen in anthrax victims. There was some clotted blood coming from its nose and ears. A few patches of fur had sloughed off on its flank, a normal sign of decomposition.

What had happened? It almost looked as the though the cheetah was crossing the plains and simply lay down to die.

Because anthrax broke out in the region in 2005 and remains a serious threat to wildlife in this area, we wanted to be sure. Shivani called Dr. Steven Chege, a vet with the Kenya Wildlife Service, who worked with AWF and others during the anthrax outbreak. He advised us not to touch or move it, and that we should guard it until he could arrive the following morning to perform a necropsy and take tissue samples.

I never thought I'd say "yes, let's camp by the dead cheetah." But anything goes out here. Luckily we had some rice and carrots rolling around in the back of the car for dinner, and I had a sleeping bag with me. That night we took turns with a couple of rangers to keep scavenging lions and hyenas away from the cheetah.

Dr. Chege arrived around 8 a.m. and quickly prepared for the necropsy. He started with the head, peeling back the skin and immediately noting a thin crack snaking down the cranium. He cracked through the bone, and blood spilled out. "Cause of death: brain hemorrhage."

Shivani and Chenge examine the cheetah

Shivani and Dr. Chege perform a necropsy to determine how this cheetah died.

Seems as though our fallen friend received a swift kick right to the head. We looked carefully around the cheetah and found zebra tracks. It's likely that the cheetah was in mid-hunt, pursuing a plains or Grevy's zebra, and the zebra delivered a powerful kick at just the right time, giving a winning point for Team Zebra.

Dr. Chege finished his necropsy, examining the cheetah's organs and other parts. It was really quite gross, but I was thoroughly fascinated by such a unique opportunity to see the inner workings of a big cat up close.

Dr. Chege packed up and we left the cheetah carcass for the maggots, hyenas, jackals and other scavengers. And off we went, wondering what we'll discover next.

About the Author

Paul began with AWF based in Nairobi for a year, before moving to Washington DC. Paul has worked at the Madrid Aquarium and at The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands outside San Francisco. He was born in New Zealand but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Paul received his B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. He is a member of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leadership initiative and is working on a conservation campaign to combat the illegal trade of Asian pangolins. Paul enjoys photography, travel, hikes in the woods, music, and nyama choma.

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