Cheetah Identification

In November 2011, I found a family with two sub-adult dependent female cubs in Mara. Watching the family I thought that the mother could be one of females I observed here 10 years ago. In 2001, after working closely with cheetahs for seventeen years in Moscow Zoo (Russia), White Oak Conservation Center of Endangered Species (Florida, USA), Cheetah Conservation Fund (Namibia), I received a position as an assistant researcher at the Masai-Mara Cheetah Conservation Project. One of my duties was to identify cheetahs we had seen and photographed during field work in the reserve and adjacent areas. After our first fifteen days, we had 20 sightings of 37 individuals, and I had more than 100 photos to work with.

I declined not to use cheetah faces because it was difficult to use small spots and distinctive tear marks from unclear pictures. In addition, face expression affects the position of spots and tear marks. Pictures of one animal either hissing or relaxing can look different, while two images of different hissing animals can look very similar.

One cheetah (left and middle images) and another cheetah (right image)

The spots on cheetah face and chest are relatively small and are only well seen from a short distance. In captivity the method of recognition of a cheetah by face marks is obviously more common, for the animals are of limited number and are always close to an observer. However, in the field, the animal is often too far from the observer and even with high-resolution equipment it may be difficult to spot the details.

I tried to use only the torso, but I found that on the pictures taken from an angle the whole pattern of the skin was distorted, and it was difficult to compare them with those taken perpendicularly to the axis of the body. Looking through the images, I realized that the only parts of the body that had almost stable pattern visibility were tail and limbs. One female had a distinctive "flower" on her right front leg. With that approximately 2-old female we called Resy (because of the Research Station we had found her nearby), I have started to use limbs and tail for identification.

Pictures of Resy (left and middle) and another cheetah (right). Distinctive “flower” pattern is marked. There were no visible changes in the patterns of the tail rings and limbs spots (circled) seen on a pictures taken even up to an angle of 45 degrees

This method was successfully used for the identification of all observed individuals in the study area. For the best results we needed clear pictures of body profiles taken from both sides. We prepareв the photo catalogue of all identified cheetahs which helped us to compare already identified individuals with new ones, even if new pictures had been taken only from one side of its body, or it was sitting, or only part of its tail and/or front/hind leg was visible.

In July 2011 looking through cheetah pictures taken by professional wildlife photographer Federico Veronesi (www.federicoveronesi.com) in 2008, I found Resy with three small cubs, from which she successfully raised one male. She was 9 years old at that time. She had not been since then. Watching the family in November 2011 I realized that it was Resy with two sub-adult cubs. She must be 12.

Resy in 2001 (left) in 2008 (right) and 2011 (below).

Resy with her son in 2008 (left photo by F.Veronesi);
Resy with two daughters in 2011 (right photo by E.Chelysheva)
Unique colour patterns circled
 

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