A Hyeana casualty

A Spotted Hyeana carcass was found on the road recently, with its head, feet and tail all removed. In some areas people view Hyeanas with a  high degree of superstition and their body parts are often used for traditional medicine. It was badly mutilated and is was unclear if it had been killed on the road, and had its body parts removed in situ, or if the remains of the body had simply been dumped there. Roadkill is a big threat in this area, and we suspect this was the cause, and that it was nothing more sinister. Plans for a project looking at the extent, impact and mitigation of roadkill in this area are underway.

Cheetah photos at last

Well, the cameras have been out and we are starting to get a few photos.

The first one is on farmland where two male cheetahs are checking out the scent marks left by other cheetahs on this water pump. You may think of cheetahs as being typically diurnal species, but we have found that on farmland they are often active at night. I think this is because of the fact that on most farmland areas there are no lions forcing cheetahs to be active during the heat of the day when they are sleeping it off under a tree. Added to that is the fact that farmers often replace lions as the cheetah’s biggest threat, and they tend to be more active during the day.

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The second photo is the back end of a pair of cheetahs that have been active in a particular area all week. They were seen at the beginning of the week with Joan, our collared female, and have stayed in the same area. Sadly, the fact that Joan was fraternising with adult male cheetahs just a week or two after her expected due date suggests that she has lost her cubs and come back into heat. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise, and she will have her cubs in another 3 months at the onset of the Impala lambing season when food to feed her growing family will be readily available.

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A new task for our conservation dogs

We have been diligently collecting Brown Hyeana scats as part of our census with a view to analysing the DNA to identify the individuals within the population. Being a less known and less studied species, however, little genetic work has been done on them to date, and we are not confident that the genetic markers currently available for the species will be enough to identify individual animals accurately. Once again, we are turning to the dogs for help. A study in Russia successfully trained dogs to identify individual Amur Tigers from their scats, using known samples. The dogs’ sense of smell is so good they can tell which sample comes from which cat, by matching them together.

We do not have known Hyeana scats, but we do have samples from other species such as the Wild Dog that we know exactly which individual they came from. We will use these samples for training and for testing, then run the trial blind on our Hyeana samples. This will give us a population estimate that we can compare with other census methods to assess it’s efficacy. If it is successful, it may well open alot of doors for cheap and non-invasive carnivore sampling in Africa, without the need for expensive DNA analysis.

 Police Bloodhounds have been shown to be able to accuractly discriminate between closely related individuals, but not between monozygotic or identical twins, so it seems there is a genetic component in the smell. Today is the first day of training for this project, so watch this space to see how we progress!

Getting to know you

By the very nature of his job sniffing out Cheetah scats, there is always a chance that Snoopy and I will come across wildlife that may be intimidating. Snoopy is a bush dog, born and bred, and is used to the sights and smells of many game animals, but I try to make sure that nothing will surprise him in the bush. I have taken him deliberately to see elephants, rhinos, lions and cheetah, to teach him that he must stay calm and certainly not bark on these occasions. He takes this all in his stride, and gets on with the job in hand. On one occasion we even disturbed a large male leopard in the bush, and Snoopy kept his cool. The leopard stopped to watch us from about 100m away, then slunk off into the bush.

The photo shows Snoopy as a youngster, the very first time he saw a live Cheetah. As you can see, he is alert, but not disturbed, and being “bushwise” like this really helps him in his work.

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The anticipation is mounting

It seems as though we are about to enter a carnivore baby boom, and we are waiting with much excitement! Stellar, the alpha female of the Wild Dog pack looks as though she will go to ground and produce her second litter of pups on Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve sometime either over the weekend or at the beginning of next week. The Wild Dogs have had a hard time over the past couple of years and we are hoping that a successful breeding season will see them bounce back to their former strength. Despite the pressure from lions taking their numbers down to only a few individuals, they are wonderfully resilient and look set to make a comeback. We cant wait!

A little later on, we are expecting cubs from Joan, our female cheetah who we reported fitting with a radio-collar by the end of August. We are not sure where she will hide her cubs, but photographic records show that she has been on the reserve since she was a youngster herself, and so we are confident she knows the lay of the land well enough to pick a safe refuge for her babies.

Our final expected arrival is to Pikkanin, one of the Lionesses, who is also due within the next couple of weeks, according to the dates she was seen mating with Blade, the dominant male lion on the reserve.

It is extremely exciting to wait for these new arrivals, and we hope that they will contribute to the continued persistence of these charasmatic species in this area around the Greater-Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area. I will post news as soon as I have it!

Cameras and Canines

With the arrival of a shipment of much needed camera traps, I am finally able to start using Snoopy in another way to help with the carnivore census. Instead of simply collecting the scats for analysis, I have now set up some cameras at places where Cheetahs have been deposiiting scats and are likely to return. Cheetahs make use of so called play trees to mark their territory, so when we have found these, we can set up remote sensing cameras and wait for them to come back. This method of data collection is very non-invasive and leaves the wild animals to their own devices with no outside interference. We try to limit our impact on our study animals as much as possible, and when collecting scats, we only take a sample and leave the rest of the “signpost” in place.

Kings of the Castle

Here is a photo of two beautiful male cheetahs. The one on the right is the one we fitted with a radio-collar recently. They are using the whole reserve and I suspect strongly that they are the dominant coalition in the area.

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We are hoping to replace the radio-collar soon with a GPS collar, that automatically downloads the locations of the animal, so we can get a much clearer idea of the areas they are using, and how this is affected by cover, prey and other predators.

The nose knows!

While out and about today, Snoopy, our resident cheetah scat sniffing dog, showed us quite how easy it is for dogs to smell differences we cannot see. We are currently working on farmland and were driving transects to pick up footprints of animals that have passed by the night before, and saw a large predator scat in the road. There were no fresh tracks at all to identify it’s creator, so we offloaded Snoopy and asked him. Immediately he indicated strongly on it, staring intently at the scat, then back at me, waiting for his reward. Definitely a cheetah scat! We collected the sample for analysis later on, and continued on our way. Further on, we again slammed on the brakes for another promising looking sample in the road, and again offloaded Snoopy. This one looked pretty much identical to us, but Snoopy barely bothered to sniff it. I had given him his command to search, and left that scat to carry on looking. It was close to a river bed, which is typical leopard territory, so I am quite sure Snoopy was right and this was was not cheetah.

During the training process, he was offered a range of scats from different species, and only rewarded for indicating on the cheetah scat, so he wont waste his time on scats from other species as he knows they hold no reward. They may look the same, but a dog’s incredible sense of smell allows them to distinguish between the species. Dogs elsewhere have been trained far enough to identify individuals within a species. We are not quite there yet, but we are making great progress!

Cheetah cubs are on the way!

Yesterday saw us fitting our second Cheetah with a radio-collar, which represents a huge step forward in learning about the behaviour of these charismatic cats in this part of the world, where much of the range of the species is outside of protected areas.

Dr Gerhard Kloppers carried out the darting for us, and was able to tell that we are expecting cubs, using an ultrasound machine hooked up to his car battery. Her stomach was too full to tell how many cubs will be born, but his estimate is that she is in the early stages of pregnancy, and it may be another two months before they are born. This will be towards the end of the dry season when game starts to become more and more localised around water, so hunting should not pose too much of a problem for our mother-to-be.  This is fantastic news and we cannot wait for our new arrivals!

Dr Kloppers taking a blood sample from the immobilised Cheetah

The holding boma is in an area where there are many Hyeanas, both Brown and Spotted, and so we kept her in for one more night, to be sure that the effect of the anaesthetic had fully worn off, before releasing her this morning. We opened the gates first thing and walked slowly to the far end of the enclosure before spreading out to calmly drive her towards the gate. She was very relaxed, and saw the open gate immediately and loped off to freedom.

Cheetahs suffer from extreme persecution from some sectors of the farming community here, and the more firm data we can get about their habits and ultimately their fate in this region, the better equipped we will be so prevent this area from becoming somewhere where Cheetahs used to live.

An unbelievable capture!

The story behind our latest capture really is astounding. We have been struggling to catch Cheetahs to fit radio-collars for some time, and my recent post mentions our first success. Following this, we have been able to get our paws on another Cheetah, this time a female, in the most bizarre of circumstances.

Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve has a long running Wild Dog project, and as part of this, male dogs from outside were being bonded in a boma with two resident females. For his own safety, the yearling offspring of one of the females was kept in an adjoining enclosure. The plan was to release him first, and release the adult dogs the following day. The gate was duly opened, and fingers were crossed while we waited for him to head back to freedom. As he was stepping gingerly towards the open gate, a female cheetah rushed out of the bushes and in the ensuing scuffle, the Wild Dog ran into the bushes and the Cheetah ran into the boma. After months of fruitless trapping, all it took in the end was to simply slide the gate shut. What are the chances of simultaneously releasing one of Africa’s most endangered carnivores while catching another?

We have a vet coming in the morning to dart her and fit the collar. I will post photos!