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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Dogs finding Cheetahs

Finn with CCF TeamWe are very excited to announce that Finn, a dog specially trained to sniff cheetah scat, has been with us for almost a month and is doing extremely well.

Finn is a border collie raised and trained by Chris Bartos of the Philadelphia Zoo, who stayed with us for three weeks. She was sad to leave Finn behind, but she knows he will working hard as he joins our cheetah census team (photo, L-R, with John Hunter, Isha, Chris Bartos, Finn and Anne Schmidt-K√ľntzel). He was rescued from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie by Chris, and has been trained to sniff out cheetah scat (poop) in Namibia so that cheetah movements can be tracked. Both Chris and Finn learned the tracking ropes at a detection-dog training program in Seattle. The location of the scat is recorded with a GPS device and is then collected. Geneticists analyze the samples to determine what the cheetahs have eaten and can extract DNA to identify individual cats, helping determine each cheetah's range.

Given the secretive nature of cheetahs, indirect census techniques are likely to be the only viable method of collecting useful population information. Indirect censusing relies upon the detection of signs such as hair, spoor or scat (faeces) of the target species, and has been used effectively to gain population data for a wide range of species (Kohn et al., 1999; Smith et al., 2001; Warrick and Harris, 2001). The efficacy of these census techniques is, however, potentially limited by the ability of human searchers to find signs (a particular problem in Namibia’s thick thornbush habitat) and incorrect species identification after signs are located (Gese, 2001).

Search dogs have proved to be a highly effective tool in the development of such wildlife studies: They were reported as being four times as effective at finding fox scats as human searchers, and demonstrated a 100% correct species identification record (Smith et al., 2001; Shivik, 2002). The use of these dogs in field studies could be of immense benefit to cheetah researchers, but it is critical to first quantify and calibrate their efficacy through methodical trials so that this technique can be utilized to maximum effect in the field.

Finn will help us test the efficiency of search dogs in detecting cheetah scat, with the ultimate goal of using the abundance and occurrence of cheetah scat in the wild as an index of population density and distribution. Significant recent developments in the field of DNA analysis mean that scat samples can be effectively utilized to extract DNA and provide some estimate of population size in an area (Kohn et al., 1999; Taberlet et al., 2001). These data will prove invaluable in developing the most appropriate conservation strategies and management policies for cheetahs on Namibian farmlands.

This program is important because it will help us work to implement suitable conservation strategies which hinge upon developing reliable estimates of population status and trends. While we are trying to obtain grants from various foundations, we need to raise funds to achieve our goal of US$100,000. This total includes all aspects of this research, from staffing to equipment and supplies. Please consider making a donation to help Finn make this project a success. Please visit our web page,, to make a donation.

Chris was recently interviewed by Public Radio International. Click here to listen.


Patricia Tricorache

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Namibrand maps - delayed

Sorry for the sudden silence on the map front, this is for a combination of reasons.  James, our star tracker is currently at CCF readying a new pair of females for joining Misty and Rosy down south, and is therefore unable to provide any detailed tracking reports.  With typical bad timing, we are also experiencing technical difficulties with the data downloads.  The collars are still functioning correctly and transmitting their data to Sirtrack's servers, but we are currently unable to download the data from those servers.  I have contacted Sirtrack (in New Zealand) and we will hopefully get the situation resolved soon.  


I'll be back in touch as soon as I know more.




Monday, 9 March 2009

Namibrand Boys - days 84-89 (Mar. 2 - Mar. 7)

It's been a bit of a tense week for those of us monitoring the boys, but it has now had a happy ending.  With the coming of the rainy season, the herbivores have scattered all over the place making it far harder for the boys to hunt. As of March 2nd, they hadn't successfully hunted for nearly a week, although they were spotted following groups of Oryx and Hartebeest towards the mountains.   On the 3rd, they (especially Mushara) approached so closely to the farmhouse that James had to chase them off, and still didn't successfully hunt anything.  On the 4th they became increasingly aggressive when James fed the girls, with Mushara again at the fore, but didn't bother trying to hunt for themselves.


Reluctant as we were to start feeding them again, it was obvious that they needed a boost and on March 5th, James located a recent leopard kill (a young Oryx) and placed it in the boys path.  The leopard had only eaten a little before leaving so there was plenty left.  James moved it far enough away so that the leopard couldn't find it again.  The boys tucked in and ate their fill.


The following day the boys spent a relaxing day, with Mushara spending time with Rosy and Ra with Misty.  They didn't leave the vicinity of the pens all day.


On March 7th, the boys again headed out onto the pan after spending only a brief period looking for the girls at the pen.  At some time around 6pm they successfully hunted a Springbok!  The last data point for this day is the kill site.




The satellite collars on both Mushara and the female have now switched over to their second (and final) duty cycle.  This means that instead of them recording GPS data every 2 hrs, and transmitting it back to us each day, they now record GPS data only every 12 hrs and transmit to us one a week.  This was a pre-programmed changeover that is set in the collars' memories just before fitting on the cats.  The reduced activity will extend the battery life considerably.



Thursday, 5 March 2009

Star Cubs growing up!

Just in from Namibia. Look how Soraya, Quasar and Phoenix are growing! They are now seven months.



Wednesday, 4 March 2009

NamibRand Boys - Days 81-83 (Feb. 27 - Mar. 01)

Sorry for the delay in getting the latest maps out.  Our Internet has been particularly slow these last few days.  Partly for that reason, and partly because we are beginning to scale back our monitoring of the boys, we plan to start sending maps out only twice a week from this point onwards, and weekly for the female. 


These were interesting days, with the dynamics of the group starting to change.  On the 27th, the boys all went for a long trek to the south following a herd of Oryx.  They didn't make any attempts to hunt them, but showed signs of particularly enjoying a cool breeze that had sprung up, often turning their faces into it.  A little after 6pm, they encountered the female and her cubs, but she wasn't interested in them and departed the scene.  The boys chased her briefly, but soon slowed back to a stroll.  


In the morning of the 28th, the boys split up with Ra staying put, while the others paced around the girls pen.  The girls stayed close to Ra, despite Mushara calling constantly for them.  In the afternoon, Kia had joined Ra, but as the girls were fed, all five joined back up.  They made no attempt to go and hunt despite not having eaten for a couple of days.


On the 1st, we discovered that Lindt was missing.  A search in the morning turned up nothing.  In the late afternoon, the four remaining boys abruptly headed northwest towards the farmhouse, when they returned to the pens afterwards, Lindt was back with them.  Since Lindt doesn't have a radio collar, there is no way to know whether he spent the time with the wild female, or doing something else.  After his reappearance Cadbury seemed especially pleased to see him again, but none of the boys moved much again that day.