Category Archives: Cheetah

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

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.

Finding cheetah signs

cheetah-tree.JPG

This photo is of a cheetah scent marking tree. It is one of the cheetahs under the tree. I wanted to point out the type of vegetation these cheetahs are living in too.

leopard-walking.JPG

Here you can see how high game fences force animals to walk along the fences, therefore making it likely that spoor density is higher here.

Rather exciting news on the Cheetah front! I saw tracks of two adult Cheetahs a couple of days ago and now, in the same area, someone was lucky enough to see two male Cheetahs, very relaxed, going about their business and scent marking a tree. Cheetahs have particular trees in their ranges that they scent mark to let other Cheetahs know of their whereabouts, and this will provide an ideal place for us to set traps when we try to fit radio-collars to a few. It is an exact location where we know the Cheetahs go! On top of this, it is an ideal training opportunity for Snoopy and Barclay as I can take them out into the field and let them search, knowing that they will come across what we are looking for. It gets even better; knowing that Cheetahs use this area, I can set up camera-traps in the hope that we will get some photographs of these elusive felids. I will keep you posted.