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The leopard is strongest climber among carnivores. And they spend mostly their days inactive, draped over tree branches. So, to see them, set your sights to treetops. You are further advised to take your game drives very silently and watch out at rivers and water holes. The leopard is a stalking predator and lies ready to pounce at such places where prey would seek food and water. Some lucky people also come across leopards basking on rocks early in mornings.
The cheetah is smallest of big cats of East Africa. It can reach up to 1.4 m in length; males can weigh up to 55 kg and females 40kg. For inexperienced, it is difficult to tell apart from a leopard. But you can distinguish it by long teardrop-shaped lines on each side of nose, from corner of eyes to mouth. It also has protruding and streamlined neck and thin legs. This animal is specially adapted for speed and it is indeed world's fastest mammal.
From a resting position, cheetah can reach a speed of 80 km/h in less than 3 seconds. It can run a stable speed of 105km/h, compared to a man's 37km/h. But take heart, it is not a man-eater. The cheetah lacks stamina to be more than a short distance runner. It is not a very social species and lives either singly or in small groups. Females are ready to procreate from about age of 2 years and after a gestation period of about 90 days give birth to up to 6 cubs. Hunting by day only, this solitary hunter relies on its famed speed and keen eyesight. It technique is to stalk stealthily and then take a short killer dash when prey is within 30 m.
The cheetah is mainly found in grasslands, woodland savannas and semi deserts. It survives best in vast ranges where prey is plenty. This cat has never enjoyed wide geographical distribution or high densities. And numbers have drastically fallen over last few decades. Today not more than 12,000 remain worldwide, mostly in eastern and southern Africa. In East Africa, only areas where you can easily spot cheetahs are Maasai Mara in Kenya and Serengeti in Tanzania. But cat is also present, though in fewer numbers, in Tsavo in Kenya, Mkomazi in Tanzania and Queen Elizabeth in Uganda.
Scientists have classified cheetah as an endangered species and think that it faces possible extinction. Only one species -jubatus remains today. The lack of genetic diversity, possibly caused by inbreeding, is yet another handicap in ensuring long-term survival of this cat. In its daily life, cheetah faces competition from other carnivores such as lions and hyenas. In some areas, Maasai Mara of Kenya for example, instances of lions killing cheetah cubs are very common; hyenas too eat them. The lion kills cubs only to destroy and never eats them -an extremely disgraceful show for an animal that would be regarded as king.
Cheetahs are active only by day. In East Africa's game sanctuaries, tourists interrupt critical activities like feeding and suckling of young. There are incidences of mothers abandoning their cubs under pressure of human curiosity. Considering challenges facing species, conservation options are yet limited by fact that cheetahs do so poorly in captivity and almost never breed unless free. Spare a thought today for cheetah, whose future is so uncertain. If you want to do more, talk to Cheetah Conservation Fund (www.cheetah.org). And hope that such glorious days as when it was honored as a cat-goddess in ancient Egypt will yet come again.
East Africa is a year round safari destination. The rains come around April- May and November-December. This does not however, much affect travelers' ability to get around. In general best time to go on safari to see big cats is over drier months when grass is short and sighting animals is so much easier. But in areas such as Maasai Mara, animals are so plentiful that you are going to see lots of them regardless of season. The peak tourist season falls around January to February and July to August. April to June is low season and prices for accommodation in lodges can be as much as 40% lower than in high season.
Accommodation on safari varies from basic camping to luxury lodges and tented camps. Out there in bush, you will be pleasantly surprised that there is a variety of East African safari lodges:-
- Kenya Hotel & Lodges
- Tanzania Hotels & Lodges
having all trimmings of 5 star luxury. But if you want to rough it out, you will find campsites in almost all game reserves and national parks. It is generally recommended to take an escorted safari package:-
- Kenya Safaris
- Tanzania Safaris
that includes transport, park fees and accommodation. The reason for this is that tour guides are usually well versed about animals, where to find them and how to get there and have other such useful local knowledge. But if you have a lot of time and need more freedom as you get around, then taking a rental car is an option.
On safari, wear light cottons and linen. Warmer clothing is needed for evenings and for your early morning game drive. Some rainwear is advisable between March and June and October and December. You should bring along a decent pair of sunglasses. The glare you experience in bright tropical light is a new and uncomfortable experience for most. It is also a good idea to carry a pair of binoculars. They are very useful for spotting animals and will earn you envy of your less knowledgeable traveling companions.
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Andrew Muigai is editor of AfricaPoint Insider online newsletter. It is part of AfricaPoint.com- the Africa travel website that has helped thousands of travelers discover Africa. You can view more info on Tanzania safari and tours at the website.