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Friday, 22 June 2012

When Bella caught a duiker in Bellebenno

This blog is from an American Working Guest, Bill Young


Photos:  Bill tracking Bella and Padme in Bellebenno, the wound on Bella’s shoulder from the warthog, Padme stretching on a tree, Bella getting a stranglehold on a duiker.


As all adventures must end I thought I would pass along the final chapter in my African adventure and oh what a finish it was!


During my final week at CCF located in Otjiwarongo, Namibia (Cheetah Capital of the World) I have been helping with a variety of different tasks around the centre.  Prior to one of the cheetah runs, where the cheetahs chase a lure around a pulley system on the ground, myself and one of the interns measured the course and timed how long it took the lure (rag) to complete the course. We were then able to calculate that the lure, along with the cheetahs chasing it, were doing about 45 MPH, which is about 3/4 speed for them.


During the week a field count was done in the "Big Field" also known at CCF as the "Little Serengeti". The massive field was once a corn farm but the farmer only had one successful year and eventually sold the land to CCF. The massive field has become a hot spot for many animals because of its vast vegetation and openness. The monthly counts are done on three consecutive days and they consist of three vehicles driving through the "Big Field". Two vehicles travel the exterior boundary roads of the field while one vehicle goes on the path that cuts through the middle of the field. The count consist of recording the species seen, how many in the group, gender and distance from the road. The data is used to see trends in the diversity and quantity of the animals that inhabit the area.


In addition to the field count we also conducted a 12-hour waterhole count. The waterhole counts are done at a different area of the CCF property and cover four waterholes. Waterhole counts are done for the same reasons as the field counts, to see trends in the quantity and diversity of the animals in the area. On the day we did the waterhole count we woke up at 4:30 AM for a 5 AM departure so that all four teams of two would be in their "blind" overlooking their waterhole by 6 AM. As we drove down the darkened path heading to my waterhole location at 5:30 AM we saw a leopard jump from the path back into the bush as he came into the beam of our headlights. The elusive leopard had been spotted!! (But alas would not be counted in the 6 AM to 6 PM count guidelines.) Sitting in the blind for 12 hours, I have a new appreciation for wildlife photographers that sit for hours in the cold or heat all in the hopes of getting that "perfect shot". The waterhole reminded me of a commuter train station with the animals arriving in the morning in what seemed like an organised pattern. The warthogs would arrive and drink and then they would leave and then another species would arrive and depart, and so it went. And then the whole process seemed to repeat late in the afternoon, much like the cycle of the commuters heading into NYC from Long Island. Of the many species that were recorded, my favourite was the giraffe with their contorted drinking position that they must assume in order to get their mouth down to the water. It is also when they are most vulnerable to predators so they are extremely nervous and frequently start to get into the position and then stop. Our blind had both an upper and lower station and I enjoyed viewing the waterhole from 25 feet in the air, it also provided a nice view of the sunrise.


The final three days of my adventure found me in the bush with Ryan who is in charge of the cheetah releases.  While cheetahs are in the soft release area they are monitored daily to evaluate everything from their hunting skills, to finding water and their general well being in handling being free. The two females that were in the soft release area were named Bella and Padme. During the first week that they were released both had made a successful kill of a steenbok, a small antelope. Neither had yet found water and it was being given to them every few days. About midweek Bella had a run in with an adult warthog, who she either had tried to kill or the warthog was protecting one of her calves and Bella got a nasty gash on her shoulder from the warthog's formidable tusk. The CCF Veterinarian prescribed antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory that were given to her daily in some meat chunks. The decision was made to leave her out in the soft release area but to monitor the gash. I arrived at the campsite on Saturday afternoon to track both Bella and Padme using the tracking antenna.


The cheetahs were equipped with collars with two antennas, one that sends a signal to a satellite that provides weekly information as to their movement, the other sends a signal that can be tracked using a handheld antenna. Tracking involves driving the small pickup to various locations and then getting out to use the handheld antenna to get a signal. Once the general area of the cheetah being tracked is located then you go by foot into the bush. The walks could vary from a couple of hundred yards to a couple of miles. Most times the cheetahs would be lying down and you wouldn't visually spot them until you were almost on top of them and you would hear them hiss at you. Walking through the bush varied greatly, in some areas the vegetation was just 3 foot high grass while in others it was tough sledding due to the density of bushes (most of which had thorns). Although the most treacherous part of the tracking were the holes that the warthogs dug, as they dig to eat the roots and bulbs of plants, as well as to take over aardvark dens for their night's shelter. I can't tell you how many times I turned an ankle or even took a face plant while tracking! If you were looking down all the time you'd either walk into thorn bushes or you would loose visual contact with the cheetah that you were tracking which then required you to get the tracking antenna out again. Female cheetahs are loners; they normally hunt alone and raise their cubs on their own. Males on the other hand frequently form coalitions and hunt together which allows them to take down bigger game. Many times 2 or 3 brothers will form a coalition. With this soft release consisting of two females it meant we were always tracking just one at a time. 


We found both cheetahs on Saturday afternoon and stayed with each for a while, Ryan was always taking copious notes as to their location, weather conditions, behaviour and general observations. If they were laying down sometimes we would sit down some 20 yards away and just observe them. If the cheetah was walking we would frequently follow her for a while usually 20-30 yards behind her. As we left Bella late Saturday afternoon, the afternoon sunshine against the dry golden coloured grasses of the African winter were a beautiful backdrop to Bella sitting there looking over the landscape. I couldn't help but stop every fifty yards or so and look back at Bella and think that with every step we took away from Bella she was taking a step closer to being wild and free.


The next morning we got up at 5 AM to be in the bush by 6 AM. The African winters in Namibia (the southern hemisphere seasons are reversed from ours) are warm during the day averaging 60 to 75 degrees but drop quickly at night. By the end of my stay the nights were getting very cold especially out in the bush with lows in the 30's. Out in the bush I slept in thermal underwear with my sleeping bag zipped up over my head as the tent provided little comfort from the temperature. In the morning we first found Padme and she was still lying around in the early morning hours so we then left her and went to find Bella. By the time we found Bella she had finished eating a small warthog that she had probably caught the night before after we left her. Our euphoria was tempered when we saw that she had regurgitated some of the warthog meat. Again Ryan took numerous notes for his report back to both the CCF veterinarian and the Cheetah curator.


In the afternoon, we tracked both females, who seemed to be settled in for the day, especially Bella who had made the kill and had eaten. There was some growing concern about Padme who now had only one kill in the 9 days since her release. If she didn't make a kill by the next day (Monday) she would be given a piece of meat. Both had still not found water and it was being provided to them.


In the morning we checked on Padme first who still hadn't moved far and was not up and hunting, Ryan took notes and I could tell his concern was growing for her. We found Bella and proceeded to follow her for two hours through some very heavy bush. She stopped frequently and would lie down for a while. Then she would get up and off we would go, we lost her frequently in the heavy bush and would have to get the antenna out again to find her and when we did, she would just look at us like what happened to you. I was getting the feeling we were interfering with her hunting as we certainly were not as quiet as she was going through the bush. Then she came to another clearing with some dirt on the ground and laid down again. Ryan was standing next to me making some notes and we were about 15 yards from Bella when all of a sudden I noticed a duiker (another small type of antelope) come prancing out of the bush some 15-20 yards behind Bella. I quickly tapped Ryan on the arm and nodded in the direction of the duiker. Almost instantly Bella either heard the duiker or saw it in her peripheral vision and with lightning speed was up and running in what can only be described as a flash. With that Ryan turned to me and said "She's gonna get it!" and off we ran following the chase. The chase, Ryan later estimated, through the bush was roughly 80-100 yards and with Bella's speed it was only took about 5-6 seconds. When we heard the cry of the duiker we knew Bella had it and we followed the cry to where they were. There we watched from 10-15 yards away as Bella wrestled the small creature to the ground in a clearing and worked on getting her choke hold on it. Her hunting inexperience was apparent by how long it took for her to get the proper bite on the trachea but once she did, the animal's crying immediately stopped and the kill was complete within a couple of minutes. Bella was exhausted, not from the run which was relatively short but from the extended wrestling match once she had caught the duiker. But it was a valuable lesson as she would need to make the kill quicker as the extended cries of the duiker would bring uninvited guests to her meal out in the wild. Once the antelope was dead, she dragged it into the bush and rested for 30 minutes. Then she proceeded to open her meal and began eating. Ryan I were so excited, to have witnessed the beginning and end of the hunt, so up close and personal was AMAZING. Unfortunately once again after eating some of her meal, Bella threw-up what she had eaten. Again Ryan took exhaustive notes and we finally left Bella and headed back to camp. I felt as if I had been inside the TV while watching a National Geographic special!


When we got back to the CCF centre, we spoke to the Veterinarian (Gaby) about Bella throwing up and she thought that Bella might be having a reaction to the antibiotic she was on, as other "cats" sometimes had nausea issues with it. They were going to either stop or change the antibiotic and monitor her over the next few days.


That night at dinner I was thanked by the Cheetah curator for my help over the three and half weeks I was there. I got up to say my goodbyes and proceeded to tell them how lucky I felt and that everyone should have the three weeks that I had at CCF. From cleaning pens to feeding the cheetahs and everything in between. I had seen the birth of goats and the putting down of a sick and elderly cheetah (Tempesta), I had witnessed the circle of life firsthand. As for Bella, I had cleaned her enclosure, fed her, watched her release into the 10,000 acre soft release area and had witnessed firsthand her successful hunt. You couldn't have scripted a better adventure.





Working Guest

Cheetah Conservation Fund


All photos copyright (c) Cheetah Conservation Fund 2012

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