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Friday, 22 October 2010

The Bellebenno Cheetahs - 40 days of freedom!

After a nice break from the bush, I was more than looking forward to return to it along with seeing the cats. While I was away, they only killed a duiker and now have not eaten in three days. When Aymeric took me to where the girls were, I was very surprised. They are in a new area that is the farthest northeast they have ever been. The bush here is excessively dense, especially considering the wall of thorns these bushes make. The cats slept until 17:10 but while they slept, I did some paperwork for a while and after lunch Aymeric and I decided it a good time to clear a plot of land for Brown Hyena hair snare trap #2.We raked and dug  up any rooted grasses or loose branches in a triangular area between 3 large acacia bushes. We also had to cut off any intrusive branches (about 1m off the ground) from the bush. When it was cleared at about 16:05 we drove back to the girls to find them in the same spot. At this area it was extremely dense but the ground was sandy with no grasses. Eventually all 4 decided to get up. Aymeric and I followed closely because it was much easier to lose the girls in such thickly dense bush. We walked and walked and walked SSW behind the girls. At one point a large owl flew right over our heads in this one vast sandy clearing. Here laid so much sand and tall dead trees that poked from the grainy surface. This place could have been a beach if there was any water nearby. But the girls did not stop or rest or scent-mark; they just walked. The Chocolates did casually chase some zebra, but it was not a hunt. As the girls walked and occasionally got separated, they would frantically vocalize until they caught back up. This happened to Chanel once, Nestle once, and Toblerone once! It was not until 19:00 when Aymeric and I decided to go back to camp and leave the girls, who were still walking at this point. It was getting dark, quickly and we still had a 3.5km walk back to our vehicle (now the Mahindra). While we cooked dinner, Aymeric noticed an orange glow that came from over the Waterberg Plateau. We drove to check on the girls and called CCF to ask about the fire in the distance! We got a signal for the cats between two points and then we were told not to worry about the fire, for they are common this time of the year. The cats, from what our telemetry equipment told us was that they left the dense bush and returned back to their usual area of open bush closer to the main entrance of the Bellebenno Camp.

Day 38: Friday, 8 October 2010

Today started with an invitation from Chanel. She was on the side of the road bordering Frans Indongo property, sitting at the base of a termite mound and as we approached her, she just watched us before casually and slowly walking into the bush, following the Chocolate sisters. It was a refreshing sight to witness at 6:15 and even more refreshing to know that our presence does not seem to affect their natural behaviour too much. The cats walked Aymeric and I for about 2 hours before deciding to flop down in the shade. There were some scent-marking behaviours such as intense neck rubbing performed by Hershey, Chanel and Nestle. We also saw Toblerone scratch the base of a tree. Other than this, the cats slept in the shade all day, occasionally moving only to find more shaded areas.

Giving the cats more space now, we met up with CCF’s Senior Research Assistant and responsible for Ecology, Matti. We spent a couple hours with him and he taught us many different species of acacia trees. We requested for the giraffe surveys we will be doing in the near future. The botany lesson went very well and we learned a great deal. We even tried some pre-mature acacia gum for an Acacia leckii plant, but it was too bitter. Matti said that this was due to how early before the rains it was.

Later, we checked on the cats who have moved to a different tree. We marked their new location and left for lunch. Afterwards, we checked on hyena hair snare #1, but there were no tracks or hair caught on the barbed wire. When we got back to the girls later they have moved again! We found them about 10 minutes later and they began to move. They led us down the road near Frans Indongo’s property and eventually back into the bush. This area was nice and open. When the girls found a warthog family of 3, they sprinted towards it. The Chocolates would chase, and then be chased as the two adult warthogs protected their one and only piglet. Chanel was not too interested in the matter and just remained watching the scene from afar. When the Chocolates retreated, the warthogs would rejoin until Toblerone would chase after them again. She seemed very insistent on getting this warthog piglet, possibly because they have not eaten in four days. Usually when the girls chase warthogs, they do so in a playful manner, but today seemed different. Toblerone went after the piglet at least 4 times, but each chance led to being chased off by the defending adults. She kept persisting and finally we heard intense squealing. Hershey ran towards the noise only to be passed by Toblerone with the piglet in her jaws. The adult warthogs kept busy by trying to ward off Nestle and Hershey. As Nestle was being chased by one of the adults, Chanel and Hershey joined Toblerone, who had made a perfect cheetah kill. I was proud of Toblerone and happy the girls are feeding. It is also beneficial that they got a warthog because they are overpopulated here in Bellebenno. The girls started to feed and about 5 minutes later, Nestle joined, but there was no room on the carcass for her, so instead she flopped about 2m away. It was not until Hershey finished that Nestle got the opportunity to feed. The girls ate surprisingly peacefully, especially considering how small the carcass was. I found this amusing because before when they down a large zebra they reacted so aggressively, despite the fact that there was more than enough room for all four to feed. Now there is a miniscule piglet snack and they manage to devour it without any slaps or hisses! These girls still amaze me! Unfortunately, we had to leave them that night as they ate due to how dark it was getting. This warthog energy supplement is great for the girls and will possibly give them enough energy to make a larger kill in the next couple of days!

Day 39: Saturday, 9 October 2010

New record! Due to some problems with our tracking equipment, we did not manage to find the girls until around 7:40! We went to as many as 15 or so points attempting to find the girls, but we did not get any signal from anywhere for any of them! There were no tracks to follow either. It was not until we went back to the same spots more than once when we finally got a signal. We were near Sukkel Dam when we found all four cats walking down an older-looking road. They ended up taking us directly to the waterhole, which is somewhat predictable the day after eating. While on the way, I noticed what appeared to be fresh leopard spoor, but our attention was diverted to Toblerone, who was sprinting after a duiker! She ran right past our vehicle at top speeds! The other three cats had no clue what was happening and turned around to watch the chase. But once she was out of sight, they continued towards the waterhole. Chanel and Hershey began to drink (photo) and Nestle was close behind them. Toblerone, meanwhile, was unsuccessful with the hunt and was returning back to the others calling at the waterhole and now all four were drinking. Then one by one they flopped in the nearby sand. This was great because this is Aymeric’s and my favourite spot to watch the cats. As they rested, a large oryx came by and the girls did not budge. It got within 15m of our cats and they were not interested at all. But once they oryx caught sight of us, it froze then ran away. Later, a vehicle from CCF’s farm Jan Helpman approached. The girls, unfamiliar with the extremely loud car, ran into the bush; we followed them about 1km until they found refuge from the sun under the shade of two large bushes. And here they remained until about 17:45. We left the girls a lot in the meantime because it was so hot; we knew they would not move. We helped Kate feed the Bellebenno cats, we cleared another area for hyena hair snare #3 and then we checked #1 for any hair: nothing. But when we returned back to the cats, they seemed hot as they laying there with their mouths slightly opened, panting in the shade. When they got up, the cats led us back to the road near Frans Indongo. On the way we saw Chanel spray a tree and also witnessed Toblerone scratch the base of a tree. Once on the road, the girls would flop then walk into the bush then back to the road and flop again. They also occasionally would inspect the fence and look through it. At one time, Nestle ran along the road as she looked to the other side of the fence. But once again, they all met up and flopped. We left the girls as Chanel, Toblerone and Hershey all laid by one another in the road with Nestle flopped in the grass about 30m away from them. Later that night we got a signal from them; a very good indicator that they were nearby.

When we drove back to camp we saw lots of wildlife: zebra, eland (photo), oryx, warthog and even two honey badgers drinking at Hog’s Heaven (the best sighting of my life!!!) and even an African wild cat; a wonderful closing to Day 39 at Bellebenno.

Day 40: Thursday, 10 October 2010

It was a busy day for me, but not so much for the cats. We found the girls at 6:30 walking down the road near Frans Indongo. We watched as Toblerone head-rubbed a tree and scratched another with her front claws about 1m from the base of the tree. But oddly by 7:30, the cats already found a place to lie down and started to fall asleep! They got back up around 9:00 and moved to find better shade. Then Nestle and Hershey left Toblerone and Chanel and found even more shade about 20m away from each other. Around this time, we met with Matt to gather some supplies as well as exchange Aymeric for Kat, a CCF ecology staff member. I showed her the cats, which she has not seen since the release! We also met with Alan, one of the first EarthWatchers to ever come to CCF in 1996. He was completely amazed with the transformation and evolution of CCF. Back then there was only one farm and one cheetah (Chewbaaka), now there are eight farms and 61 cheetahs!

Kat and I checked the fence lines for any warthog holes or re-opens (we found quite a bit!) and then we checked on the brown hyena hair snare #1 but found not a single track. We discussed the idea of possibly baiting or scenting the trap in the centre to force the hyena to go under the hair snare! Meantime, the cats slept all morning and afternoon. It was not until 18:30 that they followed Chanel’s lead of getting up and walking. They led us to some open bush and would walk, pause and scan the area, then continue to walk. At one point Chanel and Toblerone chased a small group of adult eland. Chanel got within about 5m of them, but Toblerone was much further behind! Unfortunately, they did not get anything… Later Nestle made a quick attempt to chase down some oryx but also with little success. It was getting dark, so Kat and I retreated to camp. We returned at about 21:00 to get a signal for the girls and found them sleeping in the middle of detour road! We let them be and went back to camp again. Today made me slightly worried about the cats. They slept almost the entire day! This behaviour was to that exhibited just before we had to intervene and feed them the 2 red hartebeest legs… Having to supplement their diet 40 days after their release is like taking two steps back; I would rather push the girls more because we all know that they know how to hunt! I hope that the vast amount of rest they got today will supply them with enough energy to make a significant kill tomorrow. The 40th Day of Freedom was represented with resting and sleeping. Today also marked day 1 of phase 2 of research into wild behaviours that should be seen in captive cheetahs in zoos.

Day 41: Thursday, 11 October 2010

After yesterday’s slow pace, Kat and I were hoping for some excitement. The girls have to be hungry because their last two kills (since 4 Oct 2010) have been a duiker and a warthog piglet, not very extravagant meals. So we found the girls on the road by Frans Indongo’s land and quickly after they went roaming into the bush, with Kat and myself following closely. They walked us almost all morning and would occasionally flop for a few minutes before getting back up. In most instances, the Chocolates get up quickly after Chanel’s lead! Around 9:20 the girls were all flopped in some sand shaded by a large tree. This is when I pointed out to Kat the oryx mother and her calf ~50m away from the cats and us. Within seconds Nestle’s ears perked as she got up and began to stalk. Then she runs forward, followed by the other girls as well as Kat and myself. As we ran to catch up, you could hear the groaning of the calf. We then saw Hershey biting the back of the neck of the oryx while Nestle, the first one to run, was sitting (then laying) in the shade of a tree! Then, before us, Chanel and Toblerone began to hunt down the mother oryx, as Hershey was already on the calf! They both chased after the mother for about another 50-70m! The attention was back on Hershey who was still awkwardly attempting to kill the calf. Suddenly with a quick yank of the head, the oryx calf was free from Hershey’s jaws. The young calf (~5-6 months old) charged at Hershey, who backed off and then turned to face the calf. As fast as she was thrown off, Hershey lunged herself back at the face of the calf! At this point, Toblerone came back to help her. With Hershey on the calf’s head, Toblerone tripped the oryx’s hind legs and now it was doomed on the ground. A minute later, it appeared that Hershey and Toblerone switched spots. Now Hershey was at the calf's rear and Toblerone had a proper neck-bite (strangulation hold) although she seemed to have a difficult time finding a comfortable position and had to re-adjust her grip several times. Eventually Toblerone retreated for some rest in the shade while Nestle got up and began to feed alongside Hershey and Chanel. The cats seemed outrageously hungry! They ate for about three hours and left the head, skin and bones! They devoured this carcass!

Earlier in the day Kat and Aymeric swapped and we then checked the hyena hair snare – nothing! And after lunch Aymeric and I attempted to do a Giraffe Feeding Ecology survey on Cyclops (photo), a giraffe that hangs around this area. We need 15 minutes of recorded feeding from him and each tree he ate. Unfortunately, Cyclops ran away when a giraffe calf ran and spooked him. We ended up with only 9 minutes of feeding and this took about 40 minutes to accomplish. So attempt #1 failed.

Later that night we checked on the girls again using the aerial and receiver and got a strong signal where we left them! So we went back to camp for the night. I am so very happy the girls got a meal and now we do not have to worry about feeding them! Today was a very productive day, and we also got Jetson back; our 1972 Land Rover with a power steering! Aymeric has been teaching me how to drive it. It is a very intense and harsh (not to mention, loud) vehicle that requires every ounce of your individualized attention, plus some upper body strength.

When I left Kat, she mentioned how lucky I was to be out here and she is completely right. It has been 41 days and I always thing about how fortunate I am and how much I respect my position here at CCF!

Day 42: Thursday, 12 October 2010

It took us a while to locate the cats because of the equipment and tracks leading us in wrong directions, but when we did find them at 7:30 they were laying down! Hershey, Chanel and Toblerone were together in some open grass while Nestle was about 30m away, alone! As the sun begins to get hot, the girls move out of the open bush and lead us directly to the road bordering the Frans Indongo fence line. They briefly rested in the road before heading into the bush. We find them lying together under a large bush with the exception of Nestle, who is about 35m away lying by herself again! But she eventually got up and walked to the others while “CHIRPURRING,” a new word I made up that describes one of the cats’ vocalizations. It is not a chirp or a loud call, as if the cat has been lost of separated. It is also not a purr as if they were lying comfortably next to one another. It is the combination of both; the approach from one cat to another, possibly a greeting. It sounds like a (initially) high-pitched chirp that descends to a stuttering purr that rumbles throughout the cat’s chest. Nestle knew where the other girls were, so no need to call for them, but as she drew nearer, she let them know of her gentle presence with a chirpurr. Eventually, the girls needed better shade, so the instant Chanel stood up, the Chocolates followed her and they walked about 20m westward and flopped in the shade beneath a larger bush. The girls lay 1-2m and purred. Then it was time to exchange Aymeric for Matt so we went back to the camp. However, as we began to go back to find the girls, Jetson, our beloved vehicle broke down .

We walked back to camp (photo) to be picked up by Matti, the head ecologist. We had to go back to CCF to get a different vehicle. We ended up getting the Mahindra and went back to Bellebenno around 16:00. After failingly attempting to fix Jetson, we went to find the girls, who (when we got there) have only moved about 15m north of the spot we left them at about 10:30! The girls slept the entire time except for when a bird or something seemingly spooked Hershey and jumped to her feet, thus scaring the other girls up too, before they returned to the same spots and continued resting. After dinner, at 20:45, we went searching for them again and found them sleeping on detour road again! We let them sleep in peace. It was a disappointment that Jetson broke down again just as I was beginning to learn how to drive him… But the cats are good as they rested their full bellies all day. They walked almost 2km away from where they made the kill yesterday. I thought this was decently far considering how full they appeared last night!

More to come soon!



  1. Anonymous2:05 a.m.

    LOVE the blog updates and all the details. Thanks so much for taking the time to write them!

  2. Anonymous9:08 p.m.

    very cool. sounds amazing. i remember when cheetahs used to be my favorite animal as a child. So happy that my brother gets to be a part of their daily lives :) good job ryan, so proud of you!