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!
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.
We do not really hate birds, but they are certainly not helping us out at the moment. We have set up scent stations along our spoor count transects with delicous scent such as fermented egg and fish oil on a pad of cotton wool in the middle of an area of swept, watered sand. The idea is that animals moving along the transects will be irresitably drawn to sniff the enticing smell and so leave a record of their passing by way of footprints in the sand. We have had some problems with this such as Brown Hyaenas stealing the scent pads, and Elephants taking exception to our efforts and trashing our scent stations, but the biggest, most persitent thorn in our side is the birds whose track are obliterating the tracks of our predators before we can record what was there. The high rainfall this year has led to wonderfully large broods of game birds such as francolins and guinea fowl, but this means that large groups are out forgaing at first light and they are quite literally trampling all over my data. We are hanging crunched up tin foil above the trees but it is serving as no deterrent whatsoever. Any suggestions would be much appreciated!
Azwifarwi, my very able field assistant, is working towards his diploma in Nature Conservation and as part of that needs to complete a project on animal behavior. After much deliberation, he has decided to focus his study on the pack of Wild Dogs on Venetia. The pack are somewhat more skittish than usual after having to be darted twice each for their rabies injections, and so the extra hours Azwifarwi will spend with the dogs will help to regain their trust in having a vehicle present. Even in their more alert state, the Venetia pack is an exceptionally relaxed and well-habituated pack and so offer some of the best opportunities for tourists to observe Wild Dogs in their natural environment anywhere in Africa. Trips to see the Wild Dogs are hosted by one of the dedicated researchers and guests are often lucky enough to witness them hunting. As we come into the Southern Hemisphere Winter, it is approaching the time we expect the Wild Dogs to make their den and have another litter of puppies. We are confident that the alpha female, Stellar (so named for a white star on her coat), is pregnant. There should be some interesting data for Azwifarwi to collect, along with the data collected by Kristi, the Wild Dog researcher. Last year the den was only 10 metres from the fence line with our farm, right where the cheetah family crossed over. We can hardly wait to see what this denning season brings!
Spoor counts are the order of the day at the moment on the project. By driving along sandy roads and recording what footprints we see, we can get an estimation of the amount of activity of each species in the area. People have found in other areas that the level of this activity directly relates to the numbers of animals in the area, so we are giving it a try here.
We have to be out early for the spoor counts while the sun is still very low so that it casts a shadow on the prints and makes them easier to see. I sit on a specially made seat bolted onto the bull bar of the vehicle, while Azwafarwi drives. We have to drive slowly to make sure I can see as much as possible on the road. Interestingly, we have been seeing more activity from cheetahs recently, and Wendy was even lucky enough to see one earlier in the week. Unlike the open plains where much video footage for television documentaries is filmed, we are working in an area with dense vegetation in places, which makes the animals much harder to see, so we get very excited by some of our sightings! We know they are there, and we see signs of them, but often we miss the actual animal. The lions often sleep on the roads and they are much less wary of humans than the leopards and cheetahs, so we see them the most.
We will be catching cheetahs soon to fit GPS collars onto them so that we can track their moves, and hopefully follow them to find out what they are up to here, so hopefully they will become a little more accustomed to our presence. Watch this space to find out how we get on with our trapping efforts.