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!