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Monday, 22 November 2010

The Bellebenno Cheetahs - Trackers' Journal

Student interns Ryan, Aymeric and Sanne are doing a great job monitoring the four cheetahs that are participating in this stage of CCF's re-introduction research in Bellebenno. We are delighted to share their personal impressions here! As the Holidays approach, we want to remind you that this and other CCF projects are only possible thanks to your donations. Please consider putting the cheetah in your Holiday Gifts list! Now, through 31 December, your gift will be doubled as part of our Year-End Challenge!


Day 70: Tuesday, 9 November 2010

I’m back in Bellebenno to meet up with Aymeric and switch with Sanne (tracking on left photo). The girls had killed another adult red hartebeest in the morning and were now resting. When Aymeric took me to the girls, they were all spread out in the shade of several small bushes. The hartebeest was in the center of a sandy clearing with the sun beaming on it. Like all the adult prey items that they kill, the girls can never manage to drag the heavy carcass into the shade.

As the girls rested, Aymeric and I did a successful giraffe survey on Shilo and then later an unsuccessful one on Fiona. Fiona is very cautious around people and ran further away into the dense bush when we approached her. Since our presence was affecting her behavior, we decided to abandon that survey. Aymeric and I also found a small white hair in snare trap #2 next to the main black gates; collect sample!

When we returned to the girls, Chanel was already eating. As more shade was cast over the carcass, the Chocolates then came to feed as well. We observed Chanel’s usual aggressive behavior when the other three approached, but they all alternated feeding and by 18:30, all four were resting once again. The girls’ signal remained in the same general area of the carcass so we left for the night. They are definitely starting to show their independence.

Day 71: Wednesday, 10 November 2010

After a brisk tracking session, we found the girls at 06:30. After the red hartebeest meal from yesterday, we expected them to go to a waterhole and then rest all day, but instead they walked around all morning through open and dense bush and on the road. At one point the Chocolate sisters began to play, chasing and tackling one another while on the road! We watched some exciting behaviors such as Hershey climbing a tree, all four girls allogrooming each other simultaneously and playfully chasing several warthogs.

When they finally went to rest under the shade of a bush, Aymeric and I did hair snare checks (negative results) as well as one giraffe survey on DIB, a sub-adult male and one of my favorite giraffes in Bellebenno! After he finished feeding we got closer to him and he walked around a tree, hiding and then poking his head out the side to watch us! It was hilarious and charming.

We went to CCF to work on data entry until 17:00 and then back to Bellebenno. The girls were not where we left them, so we started tracking and found them about 150m away on a kill! They hunted down a young adult male eland and were feeding on it. After the girls moved away, we inspected the carcass and we were impressed by the size of the prey, hunted probably during the hottest time of the day! 80m later we stumbled upon another kill! It was the same age and size as the first one, but this was a female eland. We knew our girls killed it because of the marks on its neck. Meanwhile, the girls rested in a shaded area, minus Toblerone who got separated while walking in the dense bush. Once Toblerone began vocalizing they all met up back at this kill #2 and stayed near it. We left the cats lying down by 19:15. Despite our disappointments about not witnessing these 2 kills, it was still a very productive day. It is refreshing to know that the girls are capable of killing older eland and not just calves, which are not a year-long commodity. If these girls move to another farm or lodge, we know they can handle taking down larger prey.

Day 72: Thursday, 11 November 2010

We found the girls this morning around 06:10 feeding at kill #2. Aymeric and I witnessed the typical feeding behaviors of these cats: Chanel growls, hisses or slaps any of the Chocolates who gets too close; Hershey allogrooming every cat; Nestle’s submissive yet invasive nature that usually ends up getting her swatted on the head. Soon enough, the hot sun ruined the feeding and the girls took refuge in the shade. Throughout the day, they moved one more time (~60 more meters) to find the best shade, and slept the rest of the day! Meanwhile, Aymeric and I did our routine checks on the hair snares (nothing, no hair) and we also did a giraffe survey on Geoffrey.

Day 73: Friday, 12 November 2010

About 1km after we began tracking on foot, we heard an unfamiliar grunting sound. We ran towards the noise and stumbled upon Nestle, crouched in the grass with her scowl facing us. We circled around to see what the sound was and found Toblerone, Chanel and Hershey surrounding a large animal. It was an adult red hartebeest (probably an old male). Nestle began charging at us; her head pointed downwards, and her eyes looking directly at us. She let out a deep growl, so Aymeric and I gave her space. Chanel had the hartebeest by the neck while Hershey and Toblerone were holding down its hindquarters. The hartebeest regained some energy and thrashed and turned tossing Chanel over its head and spooking Toblerone and Hershey. Chanel walked away, possibly because she got the wind taken out of her, while Toblerone continued with the strangulation hold. After five minutes the hartebeest was dead, and Nestle was the first to begin feeding, followed shortly by the others. The girls ate and slept the rest of the morning. But during lunch something happened that I have been waiting for a long, long time: IT RAINED! The downpour lasted almost 45 minutes with splashes of lightning and thunder. The girls stayed with the carcass throughout the storm.

Later we checked the hyena snares and the results were negative but we did manage to get good results for the giraffe project on Bullet, and adult female. It was a great day and the rain thankfully cooled everything down the rest of the afternoon. We left the girls as they continued eating in hopes that we would find them there tomorrow.

Day 74: Saturday, 13 November 2010

It was wet and damp when we found the girls still at the carcass. Chanel and Toblerone were picking at the bones while Nestle and Hershey were allogrooming each other. We watched as the four alternately fed on the carcass for about 1.5 hours. At 07:45, led by Chanel, they abandoned the carcass so Aymeric and I inspected it. To our surprise, almost the entire hartebeest was covered with grasses! Earlier, we observed Nestle and Hershey doing the awkward “pawing” behavior all around the carcass, but never before had they buried a carcass! This was so peculiar because once cheetahs abandon a carcass, they usually do not return, so covering it (preserving it or even masking the odor) seems pointless! It would be interesting to see if other captive-turned-wild cheetahs also perform this behavior. When we caught back up with the girls, we found Chanel and Nestle lying in a sandy clearing with many tunnels and holes dug by an aardvark. Nestle called for Toblerone and Hershey so softly and subtly as her eyes began to close and she was dozing off to sleep! Toblerone and Hershey emerged and slowly walked to Chanel and Nestle with Toblerone leading. As they approached, Hershey’s back leg slid down one of the tunnels, catching her off balance and forcing her to stumble a bit. This unexpected movement freaked Toblerone out, who jumped and then ran about 4m, which set a sleepy Nestle into utter fear. I have never seen an animal transition so quickly from quiet relaxation to hurried panic! She sprinted away into the bush leaving Chanel lying in a cloud of sand! It was hilariously adorable. When composure took over, all the girls laid together back in the sand. Soon it was brutally hot and Chanel got up and led the girls toward Sukkel Dam, stopping 500m shy of it to rest under the shade of a bush. At this time, Aymeric and I got to show the girls to some Babson Houser guests from Germany. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy hearing about the success of this project, especially knowing that part of the price they pay for staying at CCF’s Babson House is allocated to CCF’s programs.

The cats moved once more during the day to find better shade 100m away, until ~16:00 when they began to stir again. The clouds began to rumble in, getting darker and then the thunder started. It cooled everything and the girls started to walk, occasionally chasing warthogs en route. They led us to detour road where they started to fall asleep as sprinkles of rain came. All around us were sheets of rain and claps of lightning, but it only drizzled where we were located. Later the cats moved into the open bush and flopped beneath the shelter of some bushes. It was a refreshing day and night. Aymeric and I were surprised the girls never made it to Sukkel waterhole, but we think they had enough fluids from the carcass to supplement their thirst. We collected scat samples from both Toblerone and Hershey for later analysis.

As usual in Namibia, the weather patterns are nearly impossible to predict, but it was very comfortable having the cool protection of the clouds, saving us from the sun!

Day 75: Sunday, 14 November 2010

Another cloudy morning in Bellebenno, but the air was still hot, almost sticky. The girls were already on the move when we found them at 06:20. They walked on the road that borders the Dieckmann’s property. Toblerone and Hershey scratched/marked some trees along the way. This was the first time Hershey successfully scratched a tree rather than just putting one paw on it. She is learning! Nestle seems to be the only one who rarely ever scent marks. Toblerone and Hershey began to chase after a steenbok that was on the other side of the fence; their eyes facing the steenbok the entire 100m they ran! It was impressive that none of them tripped! Soon the Chocolates followed Chanel into the bush and even though they fed on hartebeest yesterday morning, they tried to hunt every warthog and oryx in their path; Chanel just watched as the Chocolates trotted and pounced their way to unsuccessful and clumsy kill attempts. Eventually Chanel joined and slowly began to stalk, carefully and very slowly placing one paw in front of the other. Only 30m ahead were two adult eland grazing on the yellow stalks of grass. Five minutes went by and the girls crept closer and closer but Toblerone got excited and began trotting to chase these massive eland, with the four ending up empty-handed. They walked more until 08:45 and went to sleep in the shade. Aymeric and I headed back to CCF and when we returned to Bellebenno, it was pouring rain with lightning and thunder, AGAIN! When the storm passed, we went searching for our girls. We looked and scanned for 2.5 hours with not a single signal. The weather may have been throwing off our equipment. After trying nearly 50 spots, it grew dark and we went back to camp. Tomorrow morning will most likely be a difficult one for Aymeric and I, considering we will not know where to start… However, we did have a great sighting of a large adult caracal.

Day 76: Monday, 15 November 2010

After a rainy night and with the clouds still rumbling in, we began our morning, and to our surprise we got a signal at the first place we attempted (Hog’s Heaven waterhole)! We could not believe it! So by 06:20 we found the girls. Chanel, Toblerone and Hershey were feeding while Nestle was lying 2m away and glaring at us. The carcass appeared to be a male kudu calf and the girls’ bellies were beyond massive! By the time we got there, Chanel and Toblerone were about done eating. They looked so corpulent and fat and wet and uncomfortable. When Toblerone flopped down she made a large grunting sound as if she just ran a marathon! Hershey continued to feed on the carcass, picking at the ribs and frequently crushing the bones. Nestle was so bloated that all she could manage was look at us with her belly rounded towards the sky! 35 minutes after picking at the carcass, Hershey (photo - left) began to “paw” at the grass! Like last time, she partially covered the carcass with loose clumps of wet grass. Eventually she was about 2m from the carcass, still scraping at the grass! She finally flopped and started to heavily pant as if the “pawing” behavior expended the last of her energy. Soon enough, they all started falling asleep with their heads still up, not wanting to put them on the wet grass. It continued to sprinkle here and there, but the girls managed to sleep through it. From personal observations, a wet cheetah is an unhappy cheetah! It rained almost the entire day and we sought shelter inside Jetson, our vehicle. The girls also found shelter under the thick canopy of some acacia bushes.

Our giraffe project is finally done! Our last subject to watch eat was Fighter, an adult male missing his left ossicone (horn-like protuberances on the heads of giraffes and other animals). Later we met with James to report on the girls’ progress. It was a great day, despite the gloomy weather.



  1. Wow! Wow! Love to hear these success stories. I remember these beautiful girls in the enclosures. So happy to know they are free to be who they were meant to be. Congratulations to all!

  2. This is so awesome to read.... Just one question: what's the difference between grooming and allogrooming?

  3. Hi Rob, it's really the same, except allogrooming is a term used only for social grooming (group grooming).