Ecological Arms Race
In Zambia's South Luangwe National Park, we raised a
lioness called Shingalana.
Initially, as we hunted with her from our camp across
the flood plains and along the river, she was quite successful. Then the
kills dried up and we had to move further and further from our camp for
In short the prey animals, puku and impala near the
camp, had adapted to Shingalana's hunting techniques and had come up
with flight strategies to neutralize her.
The tigers Seatao and Shadow, now 21 months old, had
the same initial success hunting Blesbuck and Springbuck at Tiger
Canyons. No less than 6 Blesbuck and 5 Springbuck were captured in the
first 8 weeks of release.
Since then, not a single Blesbuck or Springbuck has
been captured. In short the antelope have learnt from the earlier
failures and adapted strategies to neutralize the tigers
Now the intelligence factor becomes crucial.
The tigers physical structure, limits their ability to
run faster or be stronger. Like the design of a racing car, the car
cannot go faster until they come up with a new more streamlined design.
The only thing that can change for the tiger, is its
accumulated intelligence. Through experience, they can come up with new
strategies to catch the antelope.
They have certainly tried a few. The first is hiding
in the water at the drinking points. Whereas the water can conceal the
tiger, it retards the speed of the tigers initial rush. On the land, a
tiger can be top speed within a pace or two essential to catch
The initial rush from the water is slightly slower and
the difference between success and failure can be millimeters or
fractions of a second. Ambush from the water needs a certain profile to
the river bank. The tigers cannot attack over a steep bank.
The antelope soon learn the dangerous drinking spots
and avoid them. The prey species have learnt that cover is the key to
the tigers success, so they simply avoid the tall grass.
The disadvantage for the antelope is that they must
drink and the water is in the wetland where the cover is.
However the Springbuck seem to be able to go for days
without water and the Blesbuck only drink every second day. The Blesbuck
have changed their drinking time to the heat of the day.
The tigers still have their winter coats and
consequently are unable to withstand the heat and are forced back into
the shade as the temperatures rises.
This exposes their positions to the prey.
Alternately the tigers go into the water, but as
explained this has its disadvantages.
As I sit in my jeep watching this fascinating
predator prey chess game being played out on the plains of Africa, I
have tried to construct what might have occurred many years ago in the
forests and plains of Asia.
We know that lion and leopard will regularly scavenge
kills but rarely cheetah. Could it be, that many tigers operating on the
fringe of grasslands, would have scavenged from cheetah as they hunted
the Indian Blackbuck, which was a prolific antelope, not unlike the
One day at Londolozi, I filmed a cheetah catch an
Impala. The cheetah look several minutes to recover from the exertion of
the hunt and before she could begin to feed a leopard appeared and stole
the kill. The leopard began to drag the dead impala towards a marula
tree, no doubt hoping to hoist it to safety. Two hyenas appeared on the
scene, robbing the leopard of its prize. They had just begin to feed,
when two lioness appeared. Bigger and stronger than the hyenas they
rapidly finished off the kill.
I had been fortunate to observe the full predator
hierarchy interacting at one time and place.
I couldn't help thinking that the fleet-footed cheetah
would change the dynamic for the tigers considerably.
The Blesbuck and Springbuck are well within the prey
range of the cheetah. The terrain is suitable to the hunting style of
the cheetah. The cheetah, low on the predator hierarchy, would easily
give up its prey to the powerful tigers.
Therefore the loss of the cheetah in theory, may have
been a severe disadvantages for the tigers in Asia. However the
homerange of the cheetah has long disappeared under crops to feed the
billions of human beings in Asia
It is an indictment against the Asian countries, that
not a single one of them that were blessed with cheetah, have been able
to restore it to the wilds.
The tiger too continues to decline in the face of loss
of habitat to the rampant rising human populations in Asia
It is easy to see how lions evolved to become tawny
co-operative pride animals on the plains of Africa. Once the forest
stops and grasslands predominate, a solitary predator is at a
disadvantage. Numbers become essential for success. Surround the prey
and close the net, is the crude but effective method.
In the Masai Mara in Kenya, I spent 17 years filming
lions and although single lions were occasionally successful, it was the
prides that had the real success.
At Tiger Canyons, there will soon be 6 tigers, 3 who
are able to hunt. The prey species include Blesbuck, Springbuck,
Mountain Reedbuck, Impala, Blue Wildebeest and Red Hartebeest.
The tiger have as cover, riverine bush, rocky
outcrops, low hills with scrub and open plains with mostly short grass.
Will the tigers like the lions come so the
evolutionary conclusion that their best chance lies in co-operating.
Alternatively, will their genetic map prevail and they will remain a
solitary hunter employing a stalk and pounce technique.
Tragically no one knows what the tigers relationship
was with other big cats like Asian lion and Cheetah. How did Tigers
survive in the Caspian Desert in areas of 200 mm rainfall. Some are
rumored to have abandoned their territories to give themselves more
flexibility to follow migrating prey animals.
Just how intelligent, how flexible is the tiger?
What is certain is the prey animals will be caught in
the early stages after the tigers release, thereafter they will counter
with flight strategies. To these, the tigers will counter with new
hunting strategies and so a mini ecological arms race will evolve at
This race begins on the 30th October 2007 when all 6
tigers walk to freedom and become free ranging self sustaining tigers.
I will keep you informed, every step of the way.