Field Research and Conservation in Africa
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The Phantom – a rare spotless cheetah
By GUY COMBES
Back in December I was told about this incredible ‘morph’ phenomenon that has not been seen for over 90 years, and that there was a pressing need to monitor and protect it while raising awareness of the species as a whole. The last one recorded was shot in Tanzania in 1921.
By ‘morph’ this means a genetic colour variation, the most well known being the ‘King’ cheetah, specimens of which have only occurred in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The Mughal Emperor of India recorded having a white cheetah presented to him in 1608, saying that the spots were of a blue colour and the whiteness of the body also inclined to blue-ishness. This suggests a chinchilla mutation which restricts the amount of pigment on the hair shaft. Red cheetahs have dark tawny spots on a golden background and some desert cheetahs are very pale to be more camouflaged in their environment. There are also reported cases of melanism or albinism, but the latter does not apply to this cheetah. The only reported cases of this morph which scientists believe is a recessive gene like the king cheetah, have been in East Africa from the subspecies, acynonix jubatus raineyii.
I was hooked from the first moment I heard about this, and needless to say I immediately wanted to get reference, but the prospect of finding it seemed incredibly remote. The only hope I had was that the cheetah, a male, was still with his mother and occupying the same area before he reached the age of independence. This time was fast approaching so the need was urgent to find him. Apparently he already showed small signs of conflict with other male cheetahs trying to get to his mother who had come into season again. Here is an account of my search:
I was at home at Soysambu when I got the call that a window of time was open for me to have a vehicle and a spotter plane available to search the 100,000 acre area in which the cheetah was believed to be. That’s quite literally the equivalent of a needle in a haystack. So I made my way there there with not a great deal of optimism other than I thought I would get some good background reference. …
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