They say you should never say never when it comes to animals, and this could not have been more true recently. We have been trying for some time to fit some radio-collars onto Cheetahs, but have struggled to catch any. Cheetahs are notoriously difficult as they do not come into bait like most of the other carnivores, so opportunities to dart or trap them are greatly reduced. One evening while baiting and playing calls of a buffalo calf to draw in a male lion so that he could be darted and have his collar changed, we all learned an important lesson in keeping an open mind. Expecting the Lion to come out of the bushes at any moment, we were surprised to see a coalition of male Cheetahs instead. These animals that “do not eat carrion” fed happily on the bait and one was easily darted.
Cheetahs in this area are typically quite small, but this one was quite an exception. With a big head, and estimated weight of about 55kgs, he was quite a boy! They have been moving around over large areas since we have had the collar on, but have not yet left the reserve. They are still shy, but are gradually becoming more relaxed to the presence of a vehicle.
This is a very exciting development in the carnivore research in this area, and we hope to have more Cheetahs fitted with collars soon. Watch this space!
I am so pleased to be able to report that the male lion we collared in January has become a father! We have yet to see the cubs ourselves, but there have been reports from the game scouts of 2 small cubs moving with their mother, and sometimes with their father. Lions were previously extirpated from the area, and in recent years the Lions in Mapungubwe have been largely transient. This is the first time we have evidence of them settling in the area, and it is a really good sign for the Lion population in the Limpopo-Shashe TFCA as a whole.
A leopard seen at night seemed to be limping and on closer inspection had severely atrophied muscles on it’s hindquarters. It seemed to be moving, but with some degree of difficulty. We sent photographs to a vet who suspected it was caused by trauma, such as being hit by a car, that had damaged it’s nerves serving the hindquarters, so the muscles were simply wasting away. We found him by the tar road, so this certainly seems like a possibility. We put bait out to try to see if he could be helped by any veterinary attention, but sadly we did not see him again, and a few days later his distinctive tracks stopped appearing. While the area he was in is little used by lions, it is heavily used by Spotted Hyeanas, and we suspect that he may have been too slow to escape an encounter with them.
The fences between Mapungubwe National Park (at the point on the map where Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana meet) and De Beers Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve are due to be removed soon, which will hopefully help solve the problem, as animals often get trapped between the two fences, and panic when they see cars coming and run blindly, making them susceptible to being hit. With the removal of the fences will also come the arrival of speed bumps to slow the traffic, so we sincerely hope that this threat to our wildlife will be removed. It will not come a moment too soon!
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.
We were very lucky to see a male and a female cheetah spending some quality time together on Venetia recently. Adult Cheetahs of opposite sexes do not spend time together for any reason other than for making baby cheetahs, so we were quite excited by this development. With at least 3 litters having been born this year, the cheetahs in the area seem to be thriving.
We are trying to catch a cheetah to fit a GPS collar in order to track their movements, and thought this might be the perfect opportunity, and moved our trap to close to where the spotty couple were courting. Sadly, they were far more interested in each other and the trap remained empty. We are trying a new method of trapping, whereby we use scent from a female cheetah to bait the trap. Cheetah males are typically very interested in females, and females do not appreciate other females entering their range, so we are hoping this will attract them in and that curiosity may catch the cat. In this instance though, it seems they were far more interested in each other than in the scent of an unknown cheetah, and they moved on. We are keeping going though and will keep you posted.
I am very sad to have to tell you all that we do not have even one surviving member of this year’s Wild Dog litter. Every single one has gone, and we think they were all accounted for by lions. Our pack has dwindled to just two adult females and a male yearling. We know there are a few groups in the area, but by “area” I mean quite a vast expanse of space. We are hoping that these ladies will attract in a group of dispersing males from elsewhere who will establish a new pack in time for next years’ denning season.
Our hopes were for this years’ litter building the next phase of strength of the Venetia Pack, we are bitterly disappointed by this setback. We are listening out avidly for any sightings of dogs in the area and will keep you informed of progress.