Legolas was a record-breaking large male cheetah that, during his life, managed to endear himself to both cheetah conservationists and the farmers who can often be a cheetah’s biggest threat. The staff at Cheetah Conservation Botswana recently discovered Legolas shot to death on the side of a highway.
First spotted on camera traps at a Dqae Qare area farm, Legolas was part of a trio of males known as the Ring Brothers. Named by public vote, the trio was comprised of Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli, after the beloved Lord of the Rings saga characters. Later on came Bilbo, another male in the social group. The four were trapped and fitted with tracking collars so they could serve as ambassadors and study subjects for the little-known field of cheetah social behavior.
Of the four, Legolas was the first caught. An astonishingly big boy, he weighed 153 pounds, making him 16.5 pounds heavier than any other cheetah that CCB had captured in twelve years of work with 100 cats. Legolas was so large that he broke the trap used to capture him and then went on to break the metal pole used to weigh him, bending it in half beneath his bulk. He had a massive head, too big to be measured by calipers, and his chest was four inches wider than any other previously trapped cats. When CCB spoke to other researchers in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, they realized that Legolas was not only the largest cheetah they had ever captured, he was the largest one collared, period.
The Ring Brothers had a territory that stretched over fourteen farms in the region, including the farm of Dudley Barnes. The farmer had been reporting an unusually high number of livestock lost, and upon seeing the size of the brothers, was sure that he had found his culprits. CCB was equally convinced that the brothers weren’t to blame—they merely used the farms as an extension of their territory, leaving livestock well alone. By analyzing cattle that had been killed and droppings left by the cheetah, CCB was able to determine that leopards were the real livestock hunters, and that the Ring Brothers were not to blame.
The day the Ring Brothers were captured and collared, Dudley Barnes’ son Sheldon was present. He was amazed by them, even petting one anaesthetized brother. The CCB staff members suggested hopefully, “Maybe you can convince your dad not to shoot these guys?”
Enthusiastic and still awed, Sheldon responded, “No one is going to hurt MY cheetah.” In that moment, Legolas and the Ring Brothers became true ambassadors for their species, showing that even farmers who had previously vowed to hunt them down could grow to love them.
Unfortunately, Sheldon wasn’t able to protect his cheetah from all threats. Legolas’ body was discovered on a stretch of highway between Ghanzi and D’kar. He had been shot and subsequently died of internal bleeding. Because he was discovered alongside a road with the shell case of the bullet still lying beside him, CCB believes that Legolas was shot opportunistically, rather than in retaliation for preying on livestock. The incident is being treated as a poaching case and being reported as such, but even finding the culprit will not ease the sting of the loss. Not only was the data captured on the tracking collars priceless, providing data on cheetah social hunting techniques and territorial behavior, but Legolas himself was an icon. His size and his majesty managed to sway even hardened hearts, as he stood as a symbol of cooperation between cheetah conservationists and farmers.
Learn more about Cheetah Conservation Botswana’s work with farmers, or support their efforts to save cheetahs like Legolas.
-Written by Elizabeth Rogers