Being an apex predator is tough and, for many species, most pursuits end in failure, while smaller hunters risk losing their hard-won meals to bigger beasts. But which is the deadliest animal and which predator has to work hardest to get a meal?
The lean frames and endearingly large ears of African wild dogs are deceptive – they are one of the most successful predators anywhere, with a kill rate per chase of more than 85 per cent. That’s not the whole story, however – they may lose half of their kills, ranging from small impalas to wildebeest 10 times their weight, to other carnivores such as hyenas and lions.
Black-footed cats are astonishingly active and successful nocturnal hunters – one scientist’s observations show they make a hunting attempt every 30 minutes, and are successful 60 per cent of the time, making them one of the world’s most efficient predators They eat a wide variety of prey, from gerbils and shrews to small birds and insects, and make 10-14 kills every night.
A study from the Serengeti in 2012 observed 192 cheetah pursuits, of which 114 ended in a kill – a success rate of 58 per cent. In order to stop larger carnivores from stealing their hard-earned meals, they move them to more secluded, shadier spots – even so, research suggests they are ousted 10 per cent of the time.
Studies carried out on leopards have revealed wide-ranging success rates, varying from 38 per cent for individuals in north-east Namibia to 14 per cent in the Kalahari. A female with cubs has been shown to have a kill rate of 28 per cent, while a lone male can only achieve one of 14 per cent!
A study of feral domestic cats, carried out by scientists in northern Australia, found they were made a kill in 32 out of 101 hunting attempts – a success rate of 32 per cent. This kill rate soared when they were hunting in open habitat to 70 per cent. Only 28 per cent of kills were actually eaten.
Domestic cats kill millions of small birds and animals every year, and they’ve been shown to cause significant ecological damage as a result. But what can you do to reduce your cat’s impact?
Lions are the archetypal apex predator, but their hunting success rate strongly depends on the number of lions involved – a single lion hunting in daylight has a success rate of 17-19 per cent, but this increases for those hunting as a group to 30 per cent. Of 1,300 hunts observed in the Serengeti, nearly half involved only one animal, 20 per cent involved two and the rest a group of (normally) between three and eight individuals.
In 14 separate studies of wolf hunts, the average kill rate for this species was 14 per cent, but there is much variation within this. Wolves hunting moose on Isle Royale (in Lake Superior in the US) were found to be successful just 6 per cent of the time, while wolves chasing white-tailed deer in Minnesota made a kill about 20 per cent of the time.
Polar bears mainly hunt either by ambushing seals in their snow lairs or when they come up to their breathing holes, or by stalking seals on sea ice – in both cases, research has shown that their odds of success are 10 per cent. Some individuals on Svalbard have been observed successfully hunting reindeer and – elsewhere – killing beluga whales that must surface through a small hole in the ice in order to breathe.
Based on observations made in Kanha National Park in India, US field biologist George Schaller reckoned tigers were successful only 5 per cent of the time, while tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar estimates 10 per cent. But studies of Amur tigers in Russia’s Far East, reconstructing predation events from tracks in the snow, give kill rates of a 38 per cent when hunting red deer to 54 per cent for wild boar.