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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Why We Care About Cheetah Scat...

Four years ago two wild male cheetahs, named Hifi and Sam, took up residence near the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) making our captive females part of their territory. Since Sam’s death two years ago, Hifi has remained on his own but still managed to keep his territory around our headquarters. Hifi is currently equipped with a satellite collar but is also regularly sighted on CCF’s property and our camera traps.  But some of the most important evidence he leaves behind is his scat (feces). Scat is crucial to our conservancy and collecting it allows us the unique opportunity of a long-term study on a wild cheetah.

The types of questions that we can answer by using Hifi’s scat are:

  • Prey (what he ate): through identification of the hair that is present in the scat. Every prey species has a unique scale pattern on the hair which can be used to identify what Hifi ate.

  • Reproductive hormones: testosterone levels (for females: estrogen and progesterone). These can be compared to the hormone level variations of animals in captivity.
  • Stress level indicators: cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that is in part influencedby stress levels. Stress levels are believed to affect gastritis incidence. Analysis of cortisol has therefore been included in the gastritis study of captive cheetahs at CCF. CCF’s cheetahs have a very low incidence of gastritis compared to captive cheetahs living in zoos; therefore, CCF’s cheetahs are used as a baseline in the study. However, having cortisol levels of wild cheetahs available for comparison is an excellent opportunity to provide further comparative analysis in this research. 
  • Parasitology: egg count of intestinal parasites. To assess their health. 
  • Genetic make-up. In order to identify the individual who dropped the scat, genetic markers are tested on the scat. This shows if it was Hifi, or if it was a different cat altogether. Since the sample will be used for genetics, it is crucial to pick up the scat with a lot of care to avoid contamination (the genetic material will be amplified, therefore the slightest contamination can falsify results).
The samples are collected on a daily basis on our “scat walk” by interns, volunteers or staff to ensure that the scat is found while it is still fresh. Although older scat samples can yield results, fresh scat has a higher success rate. Also, the scat needs to be less than 24 hours old so that it can be accurately placed on a time graph.

During the past four years we have collected over 800 scat samples. We have obtained the genetic identification on about 100 samples, and are ready to do additional genetic work on the other 700 samples, as well as the hormone work on the entire sample set, as soon as funding becomes available. This unique sample collection will give us long-term information on behavior, health status, and diet of a wild cheetah. We are very excited to see what we find out!

Monday, 27 August 2012

H is for Honey Badger

CCF has carried out a number of camera trapping surveys, and also maintains a network of cameras positioned for ongoing monitoring of the wildlife on our land.  While we are mainly focussed on cheetahs, there are many other species out there, and the cameras will trigger no matter what passes them by.  In this series of weekly blog entries,we use these pictures to illustrate some of the wealth of animal life in Namibia - one species per week.  We hope you will enjoy seeing a little more of our world here in the bush.

This week we're introducing one of our favourite carnivores, the Honey Badger.

Found throughout sub-Saharan and north-western Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian sub-continent, and even up in Turkmenistan, the Honey Badger has a huge range and possibly a multitude of sub-species, although there has been insufficient research done for anyone to be sure.  They can live almost anywhere from arid deserts, to dense rain-forests, and from sea-level to the dizzy 4000m heights of the Bale National Park in Ethiopia.  Despite this vast range, they nonetheless appear to exist in a very low population density throughout.  Unfortunately, there are no reliable estimates for their population size either now, or in the past, but it appears that this is likely always to have been the case. 

The Honey Badger is a small and cute looking carnivore, but that soft exterior masks a ferocious temperament that is backed up by a powerful body and sharp claws.  Males measure up to 75cm (30") with a 30cm (12") tail and weigh around 16kg (35 lbs), with the females up to 20% smaller.  They feed on a wide variety of prey, from insects, through snakes (many of them extremely venomous)  all the way up to sub-adult antelope, but are also known to have a sweet tooth, and can often be found stealing honey straight out of bee hives… and eating the bees too.  They will aggressively defend their territory against all comers, including much larger animals such as lions or cape buffalo, and small groups have been known to chase equal numbers of sub-adult lions off of a kill before stealing the meat.

Little is known about Honey Badger reproduction, but they appear to have between 1-4 young after a six month gestation period.  In captivity they have been known to live up to twenty-six years.  At CCF Honey Badgers are only rarely seen in person, although a number of staff have been lucky enough to see them seemingly unconcernedly strolling along the middle of roads pointedly ignoring the large vehicle following them.  On camera traps they are usually seen in pairs, but even here, the sightings are infrequent. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Cheetah Play Trees

Cheetahs, like many other large mammals, communicate with one another via scent marking. In southern Africa, cheetahs have been observed using distinctive scent posts and repeatedly returning to the same scent posts. These posts are called “play trees” and have been used heavily by biologists to study cheetahs. For instance, CCF has been conducting a cheetah census since 2005 using camera traps (motion activated cameras) placed at these trees. When a cheetah comes to visit the tree, a photograph is taken and from that picture we can identify the individual cheetah (a cheetah’s spots are just like a fingerprint) and with enough of this data a population estimate can be determined.

Play trees are quite distinctive as they normally have a large trunk, a wide canopy, and a good view of the surrounding area. However, not all trees in the bush that seem to be suitable play trees are visited by cheetahs, so there is some quality of the tree beyond the obvious that cheetahs are looking for when deciding which trees to use. Therefore, research at CCF is currently being conducted to determine what these qualities are so that play trees may be defined more clearly. This research is basically trying to determine what makes a play tree a play tree.

A better understanding of these trees themselves and the characteristics that cheetahs are looking for in these trees will provide more knowledge into the cheetah’s scent marking behavior and their social behavior. A better understanding of this aspect of cheetah biology and ecology will further improve the design and implementation of cheetah studies as well as conservation strategies. We will keep you posted on the progress of this project.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Hifi gets a new collar!

On 14 August 2012 "Hifi", an adult male cheetah was brought to the clinic for a new collar to be placed.  This wild cheetah occupies CCF property and has been monitored by CCF since 2008.  

Apart from receiving a new VHF & satellite collar he was given a full health exam where blood samples arecollected along with a scat sample and booster vaccinations administered.  

He is in excellent condition and weighed 56 kgs! He recovered well from the anaesthesia and was released later in the day, strong and bold as ever. Hifi will continue to be monitored and tracked to learn more about this wild individual.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

G is for Genet

Note from the writer: CCF has carried out a number of camera trapping surveys, and also maintains a network of cameras positioned for ongoing monitoring of the wildlife on our land.  While we are mainly focussed on cheetahs, there are many other species out there, and the cameras will trigger no matter what passes them by.  In this series of weekly blog entries, I will use these pictures to illustrate some of the wealth of animal life in Namibia - one species per week.  I hope you will enjoy seeing a little more of our world here in the bush.

The Small-Spotted or Common Genet is a carnivore in the Viverrid family, and is the only genet that can be found outside of Africa.  Its native range spans most of southern and eastern Africa, along with parts of the north coast, west Africa and the south-western portion of the Arabian peninsula. They have also been introduced into Europe where they are thriving throughout most of the Western mainland.  No one knows how many Common Genets there actually are, but they seem to have an entirely appropriate name.  The IUCN lists them as "Least Concern", and although their fur is occasionally used for human clothing, and a few communities do hunt them for food, there is little in the way of threats from humans.

The Common Genet is small and slender, measuring about 55cm (22") long, with a 50cm (20") tail, and weighing around 2kg (4.4 lbs). They have a broad diet consisting mainly of small mammals, birds, insects and fruit.  They are generally found in woodland areas, or farmland, and are comfortable living close to human settlements.  Here at CCF we frequently see them in the bushes around the centre and staff accommodations.

They are usually solitary, coming together only briefly to mate, and the young (in litters up up to six), will stay with their mothers for six months. While predominately nocturnal, they can often be found in the early morning and late afternoon.  

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

New Additions to the Livestock Guarding Dog Programme - Puppies!

CCF are happy to announce the birth of five beautiful puppies, born to one of our Kangal dogs, Feliz.

Feliz was bred to our Kangal male, Firat, two months ago and we have been eagerly anticipating the birth of the puppies since confirming the pregnancies using ultra-sound. Feliz remained healthy and slowly started to fill out as the puppies grew. Last week she was moved to the birthing pen in our kraal area in anticipation of the birth.

Apparently, Feliz failed to study the book on birthing and so decided to do things her own way. When a dog is getting ready to go into labour, her temperature drops, so we had been diligently taking her temperature to ensure we were ready for the big occasion. As Feliz was due on 14th August we figured we had a good few days to monitor her and keep an eye open for any significant signs that she was due to give birth. But little did we know...

Sometime through the night of Friday 10th August, Feliz gave birth to six puppies, three male, three female. The discovery was made when our workers went to the kraal the next morning. Unfortunately one of the puppies, a male, wasn't alive but the other five were healthy and strong, and had been well looked after by their mom. They were clean and dry and suckling happily. So, well done Feliz!

These puppies will grow up to become guarding dogs and so are a vital part of the programme we run here. We'll keep you updated with their progress once they are ready to go to their new homes.  

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

F is for Francolin

Note from the writer: CCF has carried out a number of camera trapping surveys, and also maintains a network of cameras positioned for ongoing monitoring of the wildlife on our land.  While we are mainly focused on cheetahs, there are many other species out there, and the cameras will trigger no matter what passes them by.  In this series of weekly blog entries, I will use these pictures to illustrate some of the wealth of animal life in Namibia - one species per week.  I hope you will enjoy seeing a little more of our world here in the bush.

Today I have our first offering for the ornithologists out there with the red-billed francolin.  Although it is also known as the red-billed spurfowl, the name francolin is still in use at CCF, and elsewhere.  

The red-billed francolin is a common sight across much of Namibia and Botswana, and can also be found in small portions of Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and, possibly, Angola.  It is a ground-living bird in the same family group as grouse, pheasants and partridges.  Typically found in large groups, they are slow to fly and usually land again as soon as possible - often a few metres further down the road you are trying to drive along!

Males have a razor sharp 'spur' on the back of their legs, but are otherwise almost identical to the females.  They stand up to 38 cm (15") and are usually found in dry thorn bush, seasonal riverbeds and broad-leafed woods.  

Although they have not been studied enough for anyone to be certain of the population, it is believed to be well over the 10,000 mark, under which is one of the criteria for a IUCN listing of vulnerable.  Given that the population also appears to be stable and is certainly widespread, they are classified as "Least Concern".  Although occasionally killed for human consumption (and usually stewed), the practice makes no measurable impact and there seems no danger in the foreseeable future of our loosing this loud-spoken species.

Rob Thomson

Sunday, 5 August 2012

24 hours in the Bush (Part II)

We watched the CCF truck driveway and hunkered down for the night. As the temperature quickly dropped we crawled into our sleeping bags and perched ourselves on the bench seat. The moon was full but visibility was not great. Melinda spotted an oryx at the salt lick. She turned on her small flashlight to record the information and the oryx bolted. Lesson learned - no flashlights. We had to depend on our other senses.

We sat silently listening to animals approach. Melinda said "listen! I hear a leopard growling. It's close." Brenda laughed "that's my stomach and the chili." It was time to really concentrate. 

We sat in the cold and listened for animals. We used our binoculars to peer into the darkness but it was too difficult to see. We decided to take turns sleeping. Melinda was first. She had the better sleeping bag so in theory she could sleep a little more soundly. After a few hours of tossing and turning on the loose floor boards of the blind Melinda took the post. Suddenly to the immediate right in the bush she heard a loud commotion. It seemed something was causing major havoc within the menacing baboon troop from earlier. It ended with a loud scream and then warning bark from the dominate male. It's safe to say something had a late night snack on a baboon. Later Brenda heard a rustling in the bush and then a warthog scurried right under the floor boards of the blind. She could feel him pass right under our back!

6 a.m. approached and the count was ending. We were cold, but happy that we had made it 24 hours alone in the bush. To celebrate we applied a little war paint and enjoyed the rising sun over the waterhole. We heard the CCF truck approach. We got into the warm truck and left our waterhole in a cloud of dust. There was some upbeat kwito music playing on the radio. We looked at each other, wearing our war paint, and knew that we had experienced something only a few people on earth would ever experience.

Melinda and Brenda (Earth Expeditions 2012)

Friday, 3 August 2012

24 hours in the Bush (Part 1)

Brenda Walkenhorst, Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, Louisiana

Melinda Voss, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Cincinnati, Ohio

We are participants in Earth Expeditions, a master's program offered by Project Dragonfly at Miami University and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. Our mission is to build an alliance of individuals with first-hand knowledge of inquiry-driven, community-based learning for the benefit of ecological communities, student achievement, and global understanding.

It was Monday night and we headed into orientation for the Waterburg Conservancy Game Count, that would take place early the next morning. Here we found our partners for the 12 hour count. We also found out that 12 hours was only the half of it. Dr. Laurie Marker generously offered the opportunity to spend a full 24 hours counting wildlife. She asked for volunteers and after a moment of hesitation we both shot our hands up. 24 hours in the bush, with wildlife was too tempting to pass up.

We went to bed dressed, with our bags packed for the 4am wakeup. We sprung from bed and walked to breakfast in the freezing cold, half awake, with sleeping bags. By 4:20am there was a fleet of vehicles waiting. The CCF staff starting shouting out names of waterhole locations. It was a pandemonium of groggy volunteers shuffling around and loading up vehicles, nervously anticipating what the next 12 to 24 hours might be like. We were ready to storm the blinds. We loaded into pickup trucks and to our surprise we found out we had a third partner- Heldreth a 17 year old student from Otjiwarongo, Namibia.

Our trio was dropped off at our waterhole in the pitch black. They gave us our box of food, water and two rolls of toilet paper (this might seem excessive, but the chili dinner the night before was delicious). We climbed into the blind and organized all of our precious supplies. This included selecting a strategic location for our bush toilet. The count was to start at exactly 6:00am. We were poised and ready with binoculars, pencils, field guide, and data sheet in hand, waiting to see what the waterhole would reveal.

At 6:10am we spotted a jackal, then oryx, a flock of guinea fowl, warthogs, kudu, a lone steenbok, slender mongoose, hammerkop, francolin, and then came the baboons! We were spotting animals everywhere. Heldreth started out silently, probably a little concerned about the two giddy American women sitting next to her. Maybe she had never seen two women so excited about wildlife? Soon Heldreth was spotting animals and participating.

Silence was of the utmost importance so that we would not scare any wildlife. We did have an occasional giggle, exclamation over an exciting animal sighting, and some unfortunate feedback from the chili the night before.

The 12 hours flew by as we witnessed the drama of the waterhole play out. Some prey animals cautiously risked a quick drink or taste of the salt lick, while others, like the warthog, bravely trotted onto the scene with tails raised.

As dusk settled in, baboons started to gather across the waterhole. We began to notice they were organizing. The dominate male was barking orders and sentries slowly began to maneuver towards our blind. Our anxiety increased as we noticed the baboon scat littering the floor of our refuge. With hearts racing, we locked our binoculars on a small crest waiting to see if they would approach.  Our adrenalin surged as we saw the first baboon come over the crest. All of a sudden we heard the sound of the CCF truck. We knew we were safe!

The CCF staff picked up our new friend, Heldreth, dropped off supplies and gave us some words of wisdom. We felt prepared for our next 12 hours in the bush…