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Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Latest on CCF scat dog!


Dear Friends,


Hi. I want to share the latest news about our new dogs helping Cheetahs at CCF.


In February we got a new member of our CCF ecology team, a 2 year old Border Collie, Finn. I wanted you to meet Finn and know more about our new cheetah friend! Finn came from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie with Chris Bartos, one of the Philadelphia Zoo curators, after looking actively for the right dog for CCF's research. Chris is a search and rescue dog trainer and she and I began making this plan about five years ago when we first met at the Philadelphia Zoo. After selecting Finn, Chris trained him for the next two years to sniff out cheetah scat (poop), so we can use his help in Namibia to track individual cheetahs through DNA.


Search dogs have proven to be a highly effective tool in wildlife studies. And we felt that the use of a trained dog 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.


CCF is testing 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. This data will prove invaluable in developing the most appropriate conservation strategies and management policies for cheetahs on Namibian farmlands.


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.


Our project starts with an 18-month study and involves three stages: controlled trials in large, natural enclosures; utilizing the extensive cheetah holding facilities at the Cheetah Conservation Fund research base in Otjiwarongo, Namibia. field tests around CCF's research area where known and unknown cheetahs range; and subsequent DNA analysis of scat collected in the field.


Finn and our other search dog in training (Isha, a year old Anatolian Shepherd) are now detecting cheetah scat as they are taken on repeatable transects through the area. We are then able to determine their scat detection rate and any evident biases. Scat from other sympatric carnivores on the Namibian farmlands, such as leopards, caracals and jackals, will also be collected, however the dogs are trained to only tell us when they find cheetah scat by sitting when they find it.


After the performance of the search dogs has been evaluated and calibrated in these controlled conditions, our field trials will be initiated, combined with spoor stations (which employ camera traps), to determine the viability of this technique on the Namibian farmlands. DNA will then be extracted from the scat samples collected from the transects in our Applied Biosystems Genetics Lab. 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.


So, I just wanted to share all this with you as we are very excited!!


Thanks for all your continued interest and help with spreading the word and helping us in our work to save the wild cheetah.


Laurie








CCF scat team (photo, L-R, Dr. Laurie Marker, John Hunter, Isha, Chris Bartos, Finn and Dr. Anne Schmidt-K√ľntzel).


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