Author Archives: Paula

A big Thank You and a big race

We would like to extend our sincere thanks to all of you who have donated to us last month. In particular Theresa S. and Antonio Canella, but also to our anonymous donors. Your help is appreciated and we will keep you posted with the progress from the GPS collar once we have fitted it.

There was excitement all round and the usual emptiness of the bush was interrupted recently by the annual Bike for Beats Mountain Bike Challenge on Venetia. This bike race in aid of EWT pits riders from all over the country against gruelling conditions involving deep sand, vicious thorns and baking heat covering over 60km of beautiful scenery in the reserve. The population of elephants are unlikely to take too kindly to cyclists in their way so there is are Land Rovers at the front and back of the riders, and a helicopter above the course ready to step in if necessary. Should there be elephants on the track, the whole race stops until they have cleared the way. Thankfully, the elephants were again very well-behaved and no stops were made.

The race not only raises money for the EWT, but also gives riders the rare opportunity to explore this part of the world by bike. It was again a resounding success and we are all looking forward to next years race.

Update on the Cheetah family

Our next door neighbours were lucky enough to have a cheetah sighting on Sunday, close to their house. They only saw one Cheetah and said she was moving quite fast, but thought it was a female. They also commented on how dark she was, which was something we noticed about the female with the cubs, so it is possible that the mother and her cubs have crossed one of the tar roads onto the next door farm. Our neighbours only saw one animal, but in the thick bush we have here, it is quite possible that the others were there, and were simply hidden. The camouflage is amazing and it really does the job. Often when out tracking, I could pinpoint the exact spot where the cheetah should be at only 10m away, but could still not see it unless it stood up. My husband was amazed when we watched the cheetahs on the fence line at how quickly they disappeared. We could hear their distinctive chirping very close by, but the cats themselves quickly became invisible.

When out in the open it seems hard to believe that they can be so hard to see, as in the following photo of Dottie, one of my previous study animals.

Dottie

With a little bit of cover, spotting them becomes quite a different story altogether!

Cheetah in Mopane Scrub

Tough times for Barclay

Poor Barclay had a hard lesson on life in the bush this week. I am encouraging him to get out into the bush and to search around in the long grass, as he will need to do, and while he was out playing in the long grass in our yard, he had a run-in with a Mozambique Spitting Cobra. We found him with swollen eyes oozing thick yellow pus, as is typical of cobra venom in the eyes. It is a cytotoxic or cell destroying venom, which the snake uses to temporarily blind its attackers to allow it to escape. This snake is one of the most common here and Snoopy has also been on the receiving end of venom in his eyes, but made a full recovery on all occasions. We wash out their eyes thoroughly and apply an antibiotic and anti-inflammatory ointment into the affected eyes, and they soon get better. We can only hope that Barclay will have learned his lesson, and will know to stay away from snakes in future.

Searching with Snoopy

I took Snoopy out and we searched the road where the cheetah footprints were but sadly did not turn up anything. Snoopy and I are both learning as we go so I wondered if perhaps he was not searching properly, or was getting distracted so I decided to test if this was the case. I took him home, and went back out with a sample and threw it out of the vehicles window just off the road. I did not place the sample on foot as he may have picked up on my smell, and homed in on that. When we went back, Snoopy found the sample, suggesting he is searching correctly. This leaves me with two possibilities. Either, there really were no fresh scats there, which is a possibility because the cheetahs were looking very thin. With carnivores, they gorge themselves so at meals that you can gauge how full they are on a rating of 1-5. 5 is a very full, pendulous stomach on cheetahs, and 1 is an empty stomach that is sucked up towards the spine. I would have placed these cheetahs at about a 2, so they would have spent the past couple of days without a large meal. With this in mind, it is possible that there were no scats. The other possibility is that Snoopy is looking too specifically for the particular animals scats. My samples come from another project and are from only 3 individuals. Work in the US has shown that dogs can identify to individual level from scats. I do not think this second scenario is likely as we are both still learning and I do not think we are at that stage yet, but it is possible. To address this I will now introduce scats of different species and teach him to ignore them, and will try to source more cheetah scats from different cats.

Cheetah family reunited!

The Cheetah family that had become split up by one of the cubs finding its way through the reserve boundary fence has been reunited.

On our way to the area where they were last seen calling to each other through the fence, we picked up the tracks of the whole family walking along a road. They are all now on our farm, and outside the boundaries of the formally protected areas. We carried on to see where they had crossed onto our farm, and found holes pushed through the fence very close to where the first cub came through. The tracks on the Venetia side of the fence has been largely obliterated by guinea fowl, which come out to forage in the early morning, so we think they probably crossed over yesterday evening.

The family of cheetahs are safe here, but they are unlikely to stay for long. The fence surrounding the De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve is an electrified predator fence that is designed to keep predators from crossing it, but often these animals have different ideas. Where the cheetahs crossed, they had simply forced their way through the strands of wire, rather than the more usual method of using holes dug under fences by warthogs. Our fence is not electrified on the three sides that do not form a boundary with Venetia, and so the family will have no trouble in moving on.

My main concern is actually not for their safety with other farmers, but rather their safety on the road. Two boundaries of the farm are with tar roads, and while there is thankfully very little traffic, the traffic that is here tends to be going very fast.
Last year there was a tragic case just south of here where a mother cheetah was killed on the road, and her well-grown cubs, a few months older than these, all stayed around and waited by her body. In a short space of time all three of the cubs were also killed in the same way as their mother. It was tragic. By the time I got a call about it and set off, it was too late. The carcasses were picked up and I tracked two down to a local taxidermy, and the others remained a mystery. Cheetah parts are important for local traditional medicine, and I think they were most likely taken for this.
Cheetahs are very difficult to trap or catch and I do not think hunting for this purpose poses a threat to cheetahs, at least not in this area. Roadkill is, however, a major threat, with our neighbour directly to the north having picked up a dead cheetah outside his gate three months ago.

We need to know what is happening with these cats. As I have mentioned in previous postings, our habitat here is much thicker than typical cheetah habitat, with the bush being too thick in many places to hunt in the normal way of chasing down quarry with a burst of high speed. We need to know how this affects this size of the areas they cheetahs use, what they are eating, and what their survival rates are. GPS collars allow us to plot their movements accurately without habituating them, and we can even use them to collect data on what they are eating. In my experience on a previous project I worked on with cheetahs, they keep moving in the morning and evening unless they have just eaten and want to sleep off their heavy meal. By closely monitoring their movements, it should be possible to see where we think they may have eaten and respond by taking Snoopy to the site and sending him to look for the carcass. He started his career on finding the carcasses left by cheetahs in thick bush, and can be a great deal of use with this as well as looking for scats. I am going to take him out now to walk the road where the cheetahs walked this morning to see if we can find any scats. I will let you know what he turns up.

The GPS collars we need are so essential to this work. Wherever possible we make our equipment ourselves and manage with the cheapest workable options we can find, but in this case we simply do not have the knowledge and technology required and will have to buy in these collars. Any help will be very much appreciated and will have a very positive impact on the work we are doing in this area.

Cheetah family split

I am in the lucky position that my husband’s farm lies directly adjacent to the De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve and falls within the greater boundaries of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area. We have myriad wildlife species on the farm, but also farm on a modest scale with goats. Obviously there can be conflict where predators and livestock, particularly small stock like sheep and goats, are concerned but we try our best to mitigate these issues with responsible farming practices. All our livestock comes into pens at night where it is safe from nocturnal predators, and during the day when the flock is foraging, they do so under the watchful eye of Pego, our Anatolian Shepherd Dog. This is a breed that was specifically developed in Turkey to guard sheep and goats from wolves and bears, and is being successfully used in Southern Africa to guard against predators. Pego’s job is not to attack predators, but rather to scare them off and send them in search of unprotected natural prey species. Since Pego came to live with us, we have not lost a single goat to predation. Pego does not live with Snoopy and Barclay at our house, but lives his entire life with the goats. He was put with them as a young puppy, and so associates himself with goats more than dogs, which makes him good at his job.

Pego

Pego’s skills may be put to good use in the next few weeks, as a female cheetah with cubs (as yet unidentified) on Venetia has been pacing our mutual fence line with two of her cubs. We watched them in the dwindling light this evening as she called onto our farm continually. Looking in the sand, we saw a clear set of small cheetah prints on our side of the fence, so one of them has come through. Further searching turned up the spot in the fence where the animal breached the boundary. A hole in the fence showed the pawprints on both sides, and the tuft of hair snagged in the barbed wire of the fence showed that the animal had come from Venetia onto our farm, but the high grass following this years good rain means that we could not follow his or her track for far. We agreed with reserve management to leave the hole in the fence for now, to allow the cheetah family to try to reunite. I estimate the cubs to be no more than nine months old, if that, and as such to be fully dependent on the mother for food. We have never lost a domestic animal to cheetahs, and we do not mind our predators eating the wild animals as it is what they are here to do, so if the whole family moves onto our farm, they will be welcome.

A significant part of our work here is to look at the difference in the success and survival of our subject species on protected land and on farmland, and to this end we plan to fit radio and GPS collars to a number of cheetahs to gain a better understanding of their movements across different land uses. Radio-collars are by far the cheapest option, but regular tracking quickly habituates cheetahs to vehicles, which is wonderful on protected land, but may well sign the animals death warrant on private farmland where some farmers do not tolerate the presence of cheetahs. A cheetah that has become relaxed enough around vehicles not to run off at the sound of an approaching motor vehicle, may well give a less tolerant land owner time to load and fire a gun, that he would not have if the cheetahs remained more shy. The small farm size in the area of an average of approximately 2000 hectares means that the cheetahs will cross many peoples’ land in the course of their lives, and tracking them becomes very difficult when you have to get each landowners permission.

This work with the cheetahs in South Africa is extremely important as it is thought that more of them live on private farmland than on protected areas, and so a full understanding of how they operate here is essential to devising long term conservation strategies for cheetahs in this country. We desperately need GPS collars. We have a permit to fit collars to five cheetahs, but only have funding for two GPS collars. We will be putting all donations, unless otherwise specified, towards these collars which are so essential to this work which I believe is it at the heart of cheetah conservation in the world in which we live today.

I would like to sincerely thank Andrew F for his generous donation, which we will be putting into our fund for GPS collars.

The demise of Dalerwa

It is with heavy hearts that we have to report the sad death of one of our Wild Dogs, an adult male named Dalerwa. We thought we had lost him earlier in the month when the dogs came across a group of Lions in thick bush. The pack, minus Dalerwa appeared unscathed and we assumed the worst had happened, but he happily reappeared with the pack in perfect health a couple of days later. As he does not wear a radio-collar, his whereabouts during this period is unknown.
A few days ago however, Kristi, our new Wild Dog researcher, was out with the Wild Dogs when a group of sub-adult Lions (the same group that showed up with the call-ups) appeared out of the bush. All the dogs ran in one direction, except for poor Dalerwa who made a dash for freedom in another direction. The Lions were onto him and broke his back instantly.

The conflict between Lions and Wild Dogs is well known, and having been born on Venetia which has a very healthy Lion population, Dalerwa would not have been naïve of the dangers. It is always sad to lose an animal, particularly one that has been well-studied, but we try to remember that it part of the natural process. As a subordinate dog, Dalerwa did not play a part in the reproduction of the pack, but was a notably good hunter and provided generously for the pack’s puppies. As we go into the season where the Wild Dogs will den and produce another litter of puppies to feed, it may be that his absence is felt by the adults of the pack, who have now dwindled to just 4 in number. Wild Dogs are extremely resilient and we will keep you posted on their progress.

Call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park

The call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park went well, though with a few unexpected responses. Like on Venetia, there was no response at all at the first site of the night, but the second site saw three inquisitive Spotted Hyaenas coming in to see what was going on. Further along, we heard Spotted Hyaenas whooping enthusiastically from across the Limpopo in Zimbabwe, but the river is flowing at the moment so they were unable to cross into South Africa. That part of Zimbabwe is communal land and it is heartening that these large and often unwelcome carnivores are hanging in there, despite the pressure. The next response was from an outraged Wildebeest bull, who came charging through the scene, snorting angrily. Perhaps we were interrupting his evening, or maybe he was responding to the plaintive wails of a distressed calf in the call-up recording.
On the far western side of the park we had two very quiet sites and one very active one, that we almost had to abandon. Almost as soon as we began playing the call, two very excited Spotted Hyaenas arrived on the scene, cackling wildly in the bushes around us. They were very skittish and would not tolerate the spotlight at all, so we were unable to take photographs of them. Behind us we heard a rather more concerning sound of the approach of some angry elephants who clearly did not appreciate what we were up to. As is often the case with vehicles that do a lot of work in rough conditions, our Land Cruiser needed some jiggling under the bonnet every time we wanted it to start, so there was no option of a quick getaway. We switched everything off and waited, and thankfully the elephants were content to break a few branches in show and continue on their way. We were able to complete the site, but the Hyaenas refused to reward us with any clear visuals.
Our last site of the night was near a pan where a pair of young lions have been seen recently. No-one is sure where these lions have come from, and we were very keen to get some identification photographs so that we could try to track them down, from records of other researchers in neighbouring areas. Disappointingly, the lions were nowhere to be seen or heard, and so their identity remains a mystery (for now!).

Canine capers

One of the pitfalls to avoid with training sniffer dogs is that the dog mustn’t be following the handlers scent to the hidden scent article. We may not like the idea of it, but to our canine friends, we smell very strong and it is very easy for them to follow where we have been. I first held Snoopy in the palm of my hand when he was about 24 hours old, and he is very much my dog. For the first year of his life, it was just the two of us, and we formed a very strong bond. We now live in a far more social setting, with my husband, daughter and four other dogs, but our bond remains. He could find my scent anywhere. He has been doing very well with finding the scat samples, and in his first open field trial, he found all the samples as well as the containers that I had brought them in. In order to test that he is looking for the cheetah scats, and not looking for something with my scent on, I set him up with a trial where I placed two identical pots out, one containing a scat sample and one without. I then sent him into the area to search for the scent. In 11 out of 12 replications, he went straight to the pot containing the sample, and with the remaining one, he quickly ignored the empty pot and continued on to find the real sample without any further prompting from me. This is all the confirmation I need to show that he is indeed looking for the right scent.

hard at work

As our bush is very thick, I wanted Snoopy to work with a bell on his collar to help me keep tabs on him, but for some reason he absolutely hates it, and so as a compromise, he wears an alarmingly red collar which shows up well in the field.
The bright red collar makes Snoopy more visible to me in the bush

Barclay is a little slower off the marks, due almost in entirety to his age. At about 7 months old, he is still very much a puppy and has a very limited attention span at the moment. I am giving him space to grow up, learn about the bush, and learn some basic obedience. He is passionate about tortoises and finds them often on our walks, so I have no doubt that his nose works. His other big passion is Nightjars, a small nocturnal bird, that has a dog-enticing habit of flying off only a short distance when startled before resettling on the ground. His nose works, and his will to search is there, so I don’t doubt that he will grow up to be a great dog. For the next month or so though, he will be busy just being a puppy.

There is always time for game-viewing. Snoopy finds a small-spotted genet up a tree

An unsolved mystery

Dead brown Hyaena, missing only its tailFrom time to time we come across animals that have died from unnatural causes, and we always make efforts to investigate these where possible. We keep records of roadkills and take hair samples for DNA to store for future use. This week has seen the sad demise of a Bat-eared Fox, which was killed on the road, and a much more mysterious death of a Brown Hyaena. It was called in as roadkill, but when investigating the carcass, it was apparent that the animals was in almost perfect condition with no sign any impact at all. Not even a rib was broken. The only thing not in perfect order was the tail, which was completely missing. Azwafarwi informed us that the tail of the Brown Hyaena is highly valued for traditional medicine by the Venda people, but we can’t see how anyone could have killed this individual. There was no sign of poisoning, and even skinning the animal showed no evidence of any bruising or punctures. It seems more likely that someone was driving past, saw the dead animal and took the tail as an unexpected bonus, than that it was killed deliberately, so the death of this hyaena remains a mystery.