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!
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!
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.
The population of lions in the Limpopo-Shashe TFCA is coming under pressure from an unsustainable level of “disappearances” on the fringes. Snaring along the Shashe River is a problem, along with the ever present threat from livestock farmers on the western and southern boundaries. We need to know exactly what is happening to these lions in order to be able to effectively protect them and safeguard their future. We have a radio-collar on one male lion, and we know he is still within the safety of Mapungubwe National Park, but we desperately need to fit GPS collars onto him, and other lions, so that we can prove exactly where they go and what happens if and when they move out. Unless we can take unequivocal proof to the powers that be, we struggle make our voices heard. This is Kipling’s world of “the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees,” where lions used to roam in safety. If we don’t do something now, in a very short time, there will be no lions left.
As part of the work to assess the movement of carnivores across the borders of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area, we were able to fit a readio-collar onto a young male Lion in Mapungubwe National Park. We thought at first he had come over from Botswana, but closer inspection of his whisker pattern showed that he is unknown to the Lion researcher there.
We have been trying to find an opportunity to fit a radio-collar to a Lion in this area for some time, but struggling to find a suitable animal. While doing spoor counts in the National Park, we were lucky enough to stumble across a beautiful young male who seemed very relaxed. As luck would have it, a vet from South African National Parks was on his way to us, so we sat tight with the lion. When the vet arrived, he was amazed at how relaxed the lion was, and how easy it was to dart him. Once he was immobilized, we were able to have a good look at him, and found the Lion to be in absolutely fantastic condition, verging on fat, and without a scar on his face.
The unexplained disappearance of young male lions has been a concern in the area for some time and so we are hopeful that the information gained from this collared lion may go some way towards solving the mystery.
The population of Wild Dogs on the South African side of the TFCA swelled enormously recently with a visit from a pack from the Tuli Block in Botswana. The visiting pack, numbering in the 20’s, came across the dry Limpopo River and spent a few days on farmland, some time on Mapungubwe National Park, and a short spell on De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve. They were within a few kilometres of the remaining members of the Venetia Pack, but as far as we can tell, they did not meet up.
The Tuli pack went back across the border to their normal range, but this visit shows how important the expansion of the protected areas is. Same sex groups of Wild Dogs break away from the packs of their birth when they become sexually mature and disperse in search of other dispersing groups looking to form packs. By having the space to do so, much less management intervention will be needed in order for the population to firstly stabilise and also to grow. While the population on the South African side is currently low, we are very optimistic about the future of Wild Dogs in the region as a whole.
I had a phone call from Azwifarwi, my field assistant, early one morning recently to say that there was a Cheetah stuck in his garden. Somehow it had come through the fence and could not get out. We are desperately trying to catch a Cheetah to fit a radio-collar, but this just was not the time. By the time a vet had arrived from town, an hour and a half drive away, we could not be sure the Cheetah would not be long gone, and valuable money would have been wasted. On top of this, the risk of free-darting a moving Cheetah is just too high. The risk of injury is great if the shot is even slightly off target. You have to shoot for the muscle on the rump, which is not a big area on a cat like a Cheetah, and as Cheetahs have very low density bones (to assist with speed), they are very susceptible to breaks. The dart guns that the vets use are powered by gas, which is adjustable in pressure. The problem is that you have to find the perfect trade-off between accuracy and impact. If the pressure is turned down too far, the impact may be less, but you sacrifice accuracy as the shot may arc through the air and be moved off course by the wind. On the other hand, the higher pressure required for an accurate shot means the dart hits the animal hard, and may cause injury if it is off target. It is not a job to be taken lightly, and we only use vets experienced in this work to help us.
It seemed like a perfect opportunity, but the welfare of the animals is paramount, so we are continuing with our trapping efforts.
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.
Our scent stations are taking a serious knock as we carry on with the work in Mapungubwe National Park. Swept areas of sand with scent pads in the middle to lure predators in for a sniff, and so leave evidence of their presence have been highly successful in counting carnivores in some areas, but we are struggling. High densities of gamebirds, elephants and now baboons are ruining our experiments by either trampling the scent stations and so obliterating the tracks before we get there, or by providing entertainment to passing groups of elephants and troops of baboons.
Squares of carpet fashioned into hair-snares are set out, and are now having to be retreieved regularly from the bush surrounding the scent stations, where they have been played with and left.
A little known fact…it seems elephants are particularly partial to catnip!
We are experiencing very cold weather at the moment so sitting on the front of the vehicle in the tracking seat is proving to be quite a test of endurance. The spoor counts on Mapungubwe National Park are proving to be very interesting and showing marked differences in predator densities compared with on Venetia, which is just across the road. With the fences due to come down in early 2009, it will be interesting to repeat our surveys over the next few years and see what changes occur.
Towards the end of July we will be repeating the call-ups on Mapungubwe National Park in conjunction with Northern Tuli Predator Project, our neighbours from just over the border in Botswana. It seems that there is some movement of lions between our study areas and we are hoping to track down what is going on. Our lions on the South African side are fairly stable, but they are in decline on the northern side of the Limpopo, in large part as a result of snaring along the Shashe River, which forms the border with Zimbabwe. There is also hunting of lions in Zimbabwe and due to the current political situation there is currently little control over the wildlife and hunting sector, potentially opening doors for abuse of the system. By fitting some radio-collars, we hope to be able to gather the information and proof that we need to address the issues and protect the lion population.
The meeting in Zimbabwe to discuss the predator management plan for the new transfrontier conservation area, covering the corners of Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa where they meet, was highly productive. It seems that March next year is the date that we will see the fences beginning to come down, which is a huge triumph for the conservation of this region. Without the fences animals can move more freely and so the populations need less management, and the freedom of movement of herbivores can reduce the unnaturally high pressure on some habitats that is forced by fences. Looking at the predators in particular, it will be of most notable effect with the Lions and Wild Dogs who will be able to form contiguous populations with the residents on the other side of the borders. The cheetahs, as we have seen, seem to be moving quite freely anyway, and trees along fences form easy paths in and out of reserves for the leopards.
One of the single biggest issues in conservation in Africa is the pressure on land and the contraction of habitats, so by expanding conservation areas, we are taking huge steps in the right direction. This process is something I am extremely proud to play a part in.
The following map shows the area that will be incorporated into the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area