Category Archives: Snoopy and Barclay

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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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.

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!

Speed kills

We had a couple of reports of cheetahs on the roads around Venetia a couple of mornings ago, which always poses some concern as roadkill is a major threat to them. One of them went through the fence onto a carnivore-friendly farm and so was out of immediate danger, but the news in the other location was more grim. The report was of two cheetahs, one of which was dragging its back legs. I headed up to where the report had come from with Snoopy to see if we could find it. The location of the report was quite hazy and we found a spot where they had come through the fence from Mapungubwe National Park, but could not find the cat itself. The people who had seen it were later able to go back to the exact spot where they had seen it earlier and found the cheetah, sadly already dead.

There was some doubt about whether or not it had been ill before it died, so yesterday we performed a necropsy on the carcass to see if we could determine the cause of death and the health of the animal prior to its demise.

The Cheetah was a young female, that I would estimate at being about 18 months old. She was very slim, with no fat reserves on her body anywhere, suggesting she was struggling to find enough food, but this is not unusual. At this age it is highly likely that she was newly independent of her mother, probably travelling with a sibling, and they may still have been fine-tuning their hunting technique. During this stage, it can be expected that they would be burning more energy hunting for the amount that they manage to eat than an experienced adult would. If her sister can hang on for a few more weeks, then the Impalas will be lambing and so meals will become alot easier to find for a young Cheetah.

There were thankfully no signs of disease at all, and there was a ruptured spleen and badly bruised lungs, as well as trauma to the lower spine, so it seems she was clipped by a car on her back end, and died from internal bleeding. It is tragic so see such a beautiful cat killed like this, but from the level of her injuries, it seems unlikely that she would have suffered for long.

The place where she was killed is a particular danger zone as there are high electric fences on both sides of the road between Mapungubwe National Park and De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve. The good news is that, thanks in large part to the dedication of the manager of Venetia, Warwick Davies-Mostert, those fences should be removed in the next few months to create a more open area. The tar road will still be a public road, but with strictly enforced speed limits and speed bumps will be put it. It is sad that it is coming too late for this little Cheetah, but is a wonderful step in the right direction that will benefit the carnivore populations in the area immensely.

Doggy bootcamp

We are lucky enough this week to have Louise Wilson, a specialist sniffer dog trainer from Wagtail UK Ltd, out to help with our sniffer dog programme. Having made good progress with Snoopy, I was struggling to get Barclay’s concentration and Louise has stepped in to help.

By assessing both the dogs and my training techniques, she has been able to help enormously already in just a couple of days. Snoopy is working better than before with more enthusiasm for the job and I feel more confident in what I am doing.

Scent-training with Snoopy in an enclosed area:

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When Louise takes in dogs for training, she typically assesses them quite quickly, and her expertise allows her to tell quite quickly if a dog will be suitable. A very particular character is required for a sniffer dog. Very often they are dogs that are so hyperactive and obsessive that they do not make good pets, and are often animals that pet owners could no longer cope with. Both Snoopy and Barclay fall into this category, but unfortunately Barclay’s obsession is with the many game birds in the area. He is a hunting dog from hunting lines, and it seems that this may be too strong an instinct in him to allow him to concentrate on the scat sniffing. Dogs mature at different rates, and even at a year old, he is still very immature, so there is a chance he may gain focus with age. We will continue with his assessment for a few more days, and try to build his motivation for the scat sniffing work before making any decisions. If Louise feels that he is not a candidate for the sniffer work, he will simply be found another job to do here on the farm. Our dogs have jobs, but are also much loved members of the family.

The surprise of the week so far has been than Louise has spotted huge potential in one of our other dogs. Minki is an 8 month old Miniature Dachshund who I had never even considered trying due to her tiny size, but she shows all the character traits required for the job. Louise has suggested that I train her up for two reasons. Firstly, it will give me more experience in this specialised form of dog training, and secondly we can use her to double check on Snoopy. Leopard and Cheetah scats can look very similar, so if we train Minki onto leopard scats, we can test every sample Snoopy finds before we send it off for expensive analysis. If he says it is cheetah and she shows no interest, we can be sure that it is. If however, we see a scat that we think is cheetah and he doesnt indicate on it, we can get Minki to check it out. To fully test him, we need to train with samples from cheetahs on mixed diets, and from males and females of ranging dominance, and from females that are in all stages of their reproductive cycle. Obviously this can be hard to get all the samples to cover all bases, so by double checking with Minki, we can make our system more efficient, and pick up a need for more continuation training with Snoopy as early as possible.

Minki, our new superstar team member:

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The scat sniffing is a relatively new field, but using a Miniature Dachshund as a sniffer dog I think is a worldwide first!

Minki enjoying a walk:

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Meet the team

While I head up the project, I have invaluable assistance from my fieldwork team and could not do without them. Azwifarwi is a student working with the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Leadership Group. He originally came on a six month internship but we are very happy to announce that he is going to extend his stay with us for another six months. As in my previous post, he is going to be doing his Diploma research project on the Wild Dogs, while he continues with me. Much of our work at the moment involves spoor counts, which have to be conducted in the early morning to allow for the low angle of the sun to make the tracks in the sand more visible. By late morning when the sun is getting high, the tracks just seem to disappear. This means that Azwifarwi has free time in the afternoons when he can go out and study the Wild Dogs.azwifarwi.JPG  

Wendy originally worked on the Wild Dog project during the last research project which was focussing on the provisioning of puppies by adults. The data was hard to collect for just one person and so Wendy came on board to help with that. The data collection for that project has now finished and is being written up, so Wendy was able to come across to the Carnivore Census Project and share her excellent knowledge of the reserve and the wildlife with us.  

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As Snoopy was my dog before the project began and lived alone with me, he is very much a one person dog and is reluctant to work for anyone else. I want to avoid this pitfall with Barclay due to it being more useful to have a dog that can be worked by one of a number of handlers, and so Wendy is going to be working with Barclay as well. We hope to be able to use the dogs on projects elsewhere and it will be ideal if at least one of them is not dependent on my presence to perform. As long as we are consistent in our commands and praise, I think Barclay will have no problem in working for different handlers.

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.