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The Apex Predators

All life (unless you live in the deep sea!) starts with the sun. This golden globe powers the process in plants that converts carbon dioxide and water into sugars for the plants to grow, and the very oxygen that we breath. These plants feed the herbivores. The longest and toughest grasses are grazed by zebras, who leave the shorter, more nutritious grasses exposed below for the wildebeest. The small plants and shrubs left behind are eaten by the smaller herbivores like the steenbok. In this way, such vast numbers and diversities of herbivores are able to survive off these limited grassland resources and, on them, feast the predators.

The flow of energy from the sun through plant forms and into animals is known as a food chain, which is made up of various ‘trophic levels’. Sitting at the top of any food chain, in the prime trophic level, is the ‘apex predator'. For the sake of simplicity, it is often said these lucky ones have no natural predators (although this statement is very much subject to debate). What isn't up for debate, however, is that they don't provide much value as a food source. Despite this, they are still immensely important in their ecosystems. Apex predators control the populations of their prey, whether that be herbivores like zebra, or meso-predators like African wild cats. In the absence of these apex predators, you would quickly get what is known as a ‘trophic cascade’, where the populations of those that sit below them on the food chain grows unhindered, with devastating impacts. For example, too many herbivores in an African landscape could lead to desertification - ruining the ecosystem for everyone.

But what is stopping the apex predator’s populations from sky-rocketing? For a long time, it was assumed that these populations were controlled by prey availability. This makes sense, given that without prey, there would be nothing for them to feed on and they would soon starve. However, strangely enough, this assumption isn’t backed up by research, and new data shows that their populations are rather self-regulated. This is thanks to their ‘slow reproductive rates and development, extended parental care, sparsely populated territories, and a propensity towards infanticide, reproductive suppression, single-parent care and cooperative hunting’, meaning that their numbers should theoretically never become too great for an ecosystem to support. At the Natural History Film Unit, we are lucky enough to spend most days with an apex predator or two, despite them being so hard to find. Why? We specialise in the biographical storytelling of Africa’s most iconic animals, many of which are, coincidentally, carnivores. In this blog, we’ll work through a little of what makes each of them so unique and important to this ecosystem - and why we work so hard to bring them to your screens.

Let’s start with the African wild dog. You might know these fantastic hounds by a different name, from cape hunting dogs, to the direct translation of their scientific name (Lycaon pictus), meaning ‘painted wolf’. True to these names, African Wild dogs are famous for their mottled coats, each as unique as a fingerprint, their untamed nature, and rather infamous killing techniques. Working as a pack and led by their alpha male and female, African Wild Dogs have a success rate of killing their identified targets of nearly 80% (quite impressive, when you compare that to a lion’s 30%!) – one of the highest of all mammalian predators. They are famous for their ruthless hunting, so much so that the San hunters of Botswana would traditionally smear the Wild Dog’s blood on the soles of their feet, believing that in doing so their own hunts would be rewarded with such success.

African wild dogs strategically use the dawn and dusk hours to hunt. Setting out in their large packs, they detect prey using their brilliant eye-sight and radar-like ears, before sneaking up on the target silently. Then, they rely on speed, endurance and team-work. Remarkably, wild dogs can maintain speeds of up to 37 miles per hour for over three miles while pursuing prey, aided by their long legs and large lungs which keep them going. Working as part of a highly coordinated team, they can achieve the extraordinary feat of taking down prey species nearly five times their size. If successful, everyone gets a bite, even those who were too old or injured to participate in the hunt themselves. The youngest feed first, followed by the rest of the pack. If the alpha’s have any pups or pup-sitters stationed the den, then the hunting party will return and regurgitate some of their hard earned meal for them too.

The next apex predator of the African bush up for discussion is the leopard. Although abundant, these elusive creatures are notoriously difficult to find. Botswana’s Okavango Delta is a myriad of habitats, from ancient ebony forests to mopane scrub, wide open Savanna to marshland, in which a leopard simply melts into the background. While lions lounge in the shade of a termite mound for hours on end, leopards lurk in the canopies above and investigate forest floors below, always alert and always active. The rosettes on their dappled coats breaks up the outline of their body, allowing them to thrive, relatively undisturbed. Even as far back as the fossil record over 1-million years ago, leopards were the most common large predator to live on Africa’s soil. By the 1700s, leopards were widespread throughout Southern and northern Africa, the middle East, Eurasia and Asia.

This enormous range is testament to the adaptability of these streetwise cats. From cityscapes to mountains, rainforests to desert, the leopard has conquered them all. This is largely thanks to their less-than-fussy dietary requirements. Keen vision, hearing, smell, ultra-sensitive whiskers and specialised cells in their eyes allow them to detect movement in the dark and are all part of their murderous tool-kits. They prowl along the ground towards an oblivious victim and lie motionless, waiting for the perfect moment, before bursting into speeds of nearly 40mph and pouncing, gripping their victim in their claws and suffocating it with a bite to the throat. In cities, they are the silent assailants of sleeping dogs, but elsewhere they must survive on anything from dung beetles to frogs, snakes to birds, and even cheetah cubs and genets.

Next, we move on to the lions, the kings and queens of the Kalahari. Like the African wild dog, lion hunts typically involve an element of team work, with the pride coming together to take down large prey. It is the lionesses who are responsible for most of the hunting, reaching 30% faster speeds (up to 45 miles per hour!) in comparison to their male counterparts. That doesn’t, however, stop the big guys from coming in straight after a kill and claiming the whole thing as his own. Lions use a strategy somewhere between the leopard and wild dog, but despite this have a success rate of just 20%. It is assumed that lion prides actually evolved as a means to improve the hunting capabilities of lions – I dread to think what it was before!

If it’s a small prey, the lioness will stay hidden in the long grass, its body perfectly camouflaged amongst the African savannah, and wait for her prey to come closer. Then, she begins her stalk, slowly and silently inching closer. Finally, she breaks out into a short and rapid charge before either pouncing on her target or knocking it over. Like the other big cats, lions kill their prey with a suffocating bite to the throat as they clamp their huge jaws around it, sometimes breaking their victim's windpipe in the process. With a large prey item like a Cape buffalo, however, everyone needs to pitch in. The pride doesn’t hide this time, and instead run straight at the herd, intentionally creating chaos and separating out the weakest targets. As that target starts to slow, the different pride members attack from all sides and angles, eventually exhausting it to the point of collapse.

Finally, we move on to the cheetah, but it’s actually up for debate whether to include them as an apex predator at all. Cheetahs are the underdogs of the animal kingdom, and sit on the bottom rung of the hierarchy of big cats. Even a relatively small female leopard has no shame in chasing a pair of male cheetahs off, and cheetahs fall prey to lions, leopards and hyena when the opportunity arises. However, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line as we’ve heard of wild dogs killing leopards, leopards killing nearly fully grown lion cubs, and buffalos killing lions. So, we’ll give credit where credit is due since cheetah, like all the other individuals mentioned in this list, play an invaluable role in regulating prey populations, using their well-known title as the fastest land mammal in the world, to take down prey at lightning speeds.

Cheetahs can go from zero to a whopping sixty-two miles per hour in just three seconds, and can reach maximum speeds of seventy-six miles per hour. This sudden burst of speed is aided by a flexible spine, enormous lung sacks that can take in huge quantities of oxygen, non-retracting claws that provide traction, and a long, strong tail that functions as something of a rudder. This strategy requires a huge rush of energy which inevitably takes its toll on the body, meaning that cheetahs can only sustain these speeds for around 1,500 feet. This means that they require wide, open spaces to successfully hunt down prey, which they achieve between 40% - 50% of the time. Another disadvantage of their strategy is, however, that they require long periods of rest after a chase, which leaves them at risk of being robbed of their carcass. All of the big cats will have a go at a cheetah’s kill if they can find it in time.

The apex predators of the Okavango Delta are some of its most important inhabitants. That is why we bring their individual stories to your screens around the world. We want you to fall in love with them, in the hope that you’ll do your part to save them. Apex predators are some of the animals most at risk of human persecution, largely because the animals that we have been domesticating for centuries provide such easy prey for them. Retaliatory killings are devastating for these animals and in areas of high human-animal conflict, their numbers have plummeted. There is, however, hope. Numerous organisations work with these farmers to give them alternative tools to keep their animals safe or by translocating problem animals. Cheetah Conservation Botswana trains up dogs to keep livestock safe. Botswana Predator Conservation Trust plans to use wild dog scent markings to keep packs out of human areas. Leopard ecology and conservation works with a village on the frontline of human animal conflict, supporting its school and providing affordable clothing, solar stoves and lamps, and a library. Check out the work being done by organisations like this and think about what you can do to help save Africa’s apex predators today.

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