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Cheetah photos at last

Well, the cameras have been out and we are starting to get a few photos.

The first one is on farmland where two male cheetahs are checking out the scent marks left by other cheetahs on this water pump. You may think of cheetahs as being typically diurnal species, but we have found that on farmland they are often active at night. I think this is because of the fact that on most farmland areas there are no lions forcing cheetahs to be active during the heat of the day when they are sleeping it off under a tree. Added to that is the fact that farmers often replace lions as the cheetah’s biggest threat, and they tend to be more active during the day.

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The second photo is the back end of a pair of cheetahs that have been active in a particular area all week. They were seen at the beginning of the week with Joan, our collared female, and have stayed in the same area. Sadly, the fact that Joan was fraternising with adult male cheetahs just a week or two after her expected due date suggests that she has lost her cubs and come back into heat. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise, and she will have her cubs in another 3 months at the onset of the Impala lambing season when food to feed her growing family will be readily available.

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Unusual find

It is very unusual that we come across a predator that we struggle to firmly identify, but just that happened this week. A guide brought in a dead cat to the research centre that he had found on the road, claiming it was a highly secretive Black-Footed Cat. Our interest was immediately sparked as this area is supposedly out of their range. Their normal range is in the Western dry section of Southern Africa, and as none of us come from there nor have seen these cats alive, we were a little unsure. Was it a Black-Footed Cat or an African Wildcat kitten?

We took extensive photographs and they were sent off to an expert at a museum within the heart of the range of the Black-Footed Cat, who confirms that it is indeed a member of this species.

This photo shows where the cat was put in a tree to prevent scavengers taking it overnight when it was brought in by a guide.

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On suspecting we had something unusual, we froze the specimen, and will now send it down to the museum for analysis and to be a record of the cats that exist in this far reach of their range.

This photo shows just how small the cat is.

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Something smells fishy

One of the methods we are using for our census is scent stations, surrounded by swept sand. The idea is that any animals passing by will stop to sniff the scent pad, thereby leaving their tracks in the sand to be recorded. In the middle of the scent stations we place a pad soaked in fermented egg, which to us really is as bad as it sounds, but the wildlife and the canids in particular seem to find it irresistible. At each site we have a central scent station with the egg mixture, and on either side is a carpet pad hair snare that is laced with a different scent. The scents were are using here are perfume, fish oil, and catnip.

A scent station with hairsnare:

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The problems we are finding is that many of the methods we are trying out are designed in places where the wildlife is perhaps less destructive than it is here. We have had elephants coming in and trashing our sites, Brown Hyaenas eating the whole scent pad, and of course the much discussed birds obliterating the previous nights tracks before we can get there to record them.

A hairsnare attached to a tree: 

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Mishaps aside, the method is looking promising, and I am particularly keen on it as it is cheap, repeatable easily and has very low impact on the animals themselves. A perfect combination!

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.

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.

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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

Introducing our new Hyaena…

Young Spotted Hyaena
Here is a photograph of one of the Hyaenas taken during our recent call-ups. It is a young animal and we think it is a male, though it can be hard to tell for sure on young animals. All our animals get an individual alphanumeric code to identify them, but we also give them names. This Hyaena is one that we have not photographed before and so I would like to ask Theresa S to name him for us, by way of thanks for your very generous support. We really do appreciate it, and it really does make a difference to us.

Training the conservationists of tomorrow

The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Conservation Leadership Group has a number of students who they train up as future conservationists, and we have created an internship opportunity on the project to help offer valuable practical experience. Azwafarwi is our first field assistant in this position and he is studying towards his Nature Conservation Diploma through UNISA. He has completed his theoretical work and is here on Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve to kill two birds with one stone, by providing me with much needed assistance, while gaining essential field experience in wildlife research.

Azwafarwi is a major asset on the spoor counts we are doing, and was quite happy to get stuck in with smelly pieces of rotten meat that we place in front of the camera-traps to slow the target animals just long enough for our cameras to take a photo. Carnivore research may sound glamorous, but more often than not it involves the by-products of predation: carcasses and droppings! The first time they have to deal with either of these hands on is usually a good indicator of the mettle of a new assistant, and Azwafarwi passed this test with flying colours.

One of the great pleasures in working with Azwarfarwi is the fact that he is constantly asking questions and suggesting new ideas for research, and sounding me out about things he may go on to do. His main interests are insects and frogs, rather than the large carnivores, but I have a feeling the world of conservation will not have seen the last of Azwafarwi when he finishes his placement here later this year!

Welcome to the carnivore frontier!

There is a beautiful wilderness area in southern Africa where three countries and two rivers meet. It is becoming the new Limpopo-Shashe Trans Frontier Conservation Area (TFCA) one of Africa’s most important Peace Parks. This blog is about conservation in this spectacular corner of Africa.

South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana meet at the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, which is important for large carnivore conservation including cheetahs, lions, hyenas, wild dogs, and leopards because it is one of the few areas of Africa where large predators still roam freely across land outside of formally protected areas.

The aim of the Limpopo Valley Carnivore project is twofold. Firstly we plan to test a number of different carnivore census techniques against each other to determine the most efficient way to census a variety of carnivore species, and secondly to actually census the predator populations and get an idea of population sizes in the area of the proposed TFCA. By collecting benchmark data with repeatable techniques, we will be able to track the progress of these populations in the years to come, and determine the benefit of the TFCA, and identify any urgent conservation needs.

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Camera traps allow us to ‘capture’ records of rare and secretive carnivores

The South African side of the Conservation Area is made up of Mapungubwe National Park, a number of private reserves, including De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve where my initial work is based, and privately owned game and stock farms. The potential for conflict with humans is therefore highly variable across the area, and the study hopes to examine the effects this has on the population structure of the carnivore guild as a whole.

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The Lion King gave hyenas a bad reputation, these carnivores may be critical to balanced ecosystem functioning

We are testing a number of different methods: from camera-traps to driving long transects and counting spoor, and even training dogs specifically to sniff out cheetah droppings so that we can take DNA samples. It may be the less glamorous side of carnivore conservation, but it is important work that will have important results that are widely applicable. Our team on the ground is headed by me, Rox, and I am ably assisted by Wendy; she is a volunteer at the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve where I am currently based, and is a huge help with her endless enthusiasm.

Last week Aswifarwi, my new assistant from the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s  Conservation Leadership Group came up to Venetia to join me. I will keep you posted on his progress over the next few months.

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An introduction to the project wouldn’t be complete without meeting Snoopy and Barclay, my canine assistants. Snoopy is a two year old Weimaraner cross who began life with me on a previous project I worked on, sniffing out cheetah kills in dense cover before the hyaenas could come in and clean them up and thereby remove my data! My husband jokes that he is a nose with a dog attached behind it. He is taking to his new task very well and will hopefully be ready to work on the cheetah scat rather than prey carcasses very soon. At only five months old, Barclay is the baby of the team. He is a German Shorthaired Pointer, very kindly donated to the project by Jaegersteig GSPs in Pretoria. He is currently still getting his basic training in obedience and how to behave in the bush, but is showing plenty of potential so far. He has a love of tortoises and sniffs them out all over the place and often comes back to me carrying or dragging one with him. All we need is to transfer that enthusiasm onto cheetah scats!”