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Monday, 28 October 2013

Luna & Athena Erindi Release - Week One

One arrived to the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) at four and a half months old, the other, four and a half years old. Luna and Athena, two of CCF’s captive female cheetahs, were selected to be translocated to Erindi Private Game Reserve in Namibia to live the remainder of their lives in the wild.  Sharing their new home with lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, hippos, crocodiles and other cheetahs was going to be an interesting and challenging experience for our cats.

These two females were chosen to be re-wilded based on many conditions.  Luna was always a wild-behaving cheetah in captivity, spitting and hissing at her keepers and causing fights with other females in her enclosure.  Despite arriving to CCF at such a fragile and inexperienced age, it was decided to put her through the soft-release program in January 2012 to see if she could hunt and find water on her own while inside CCF’s 4,000ha game camp.  Luna dominated, preferring to hunt duiker and warthog piglets.  In mid-October 2013, she returned to the game camp for a second time and once again she exceeded all expectations, plowing through our eland calf population.

Athena came to CCF at a much older age and it was already known that she could hunt.  However, she was captured twice by famers for hunting livestock and could not be returned to the wild as she was now considered a “problem animal.”  Athena was previously known to CCF staff as “Toeless” when our veterinarian team had to amputate one of her toes as a result of an injury she obtained from the trap cage and enclosure of her first capture on a farm in Gobabis.

Luna and Athena were put into the same enclosure together for nearly a month prior to going to Erindi in a last minute attempt to bond them.

On 15 October 2013, the females were captured in transfer boxes and transported to the game reserve to start their new lives as wild cheetahs.  They were released together at a waterhole in front of the lodge with over 80 guests watching less than 100m away, all of us sharing an unforgettable experience. The box doors were opened and both females bounded out, as if inhaling freedom for the first time.  Athena ran off and did not look back.  However, Luna was called back to the waterhole by Head Cheetah Keeper, Juliette Erdtsieck using an eland calf leg as bait.  Luna ended up ignoring the calf leg and went straight to the waterhole to drink.  Later in the evening, the cats were found again and the two females were found together crossing a road!

After the first week in the Erindi, the two have since separated.  Athena (5 years old) has managed to kill two young male piglets and a newborn oryx calf, however has not found a reliable water source yet.  Luna (9 years old) has returned to the release site waterhole several times now, but has remained unsuccessful at hunting.  Luna has been supplemented with food to keep her energy up.  Both females have run across the foreign sounds of nearby lions and hyenas but have managed to avoid these larger predators.  Luna has already been observed by many tourists as she is most comfortable with the safari vehicles.  Athena still retains her wild attitude and refuses to let the safari vehicles close to her, even the ground team is having a difficult time tracking her.  Our goals for the next week are to slowly habituate Athena and have her find water.  For Luna, we just need her to make a kill!

Stay tuned for future updates on the freshly re-wilded female cheetahs of Erindi.

Ryan Marcel Sucaet

Asst. Cheetah Keeper & Research Asst.

Saturday, 19 October 2013


My mornings always start with a few grunts, and no plans for the day…or should I say, my only plan is to do the best I can, and to be the best I can, as long as I’ve had coffee and a New York Times crossword puzzle to wake up my brain.

Wednesday didn’t start differently. I woke up, stumbled into the kitchen at Laurie and Bruce’s house, where I have been a persistent guest for the last couple of months as I keep postponing my departure from CCF. The coffee was particularly good, but the crossword puzzle was particularly annoying. I decided my best at that point would be to put it down and try to do better with my work tasks at hand.

For the first time in many weeks, all around me there was quiet and I was able to sit down and focus on the project I’ve been trying to accomplish for a long time. I felt as if I was sailing in a soft wind through an ocean filled with beautiful words and fabulous ideas.

Suddenly, the gentle breeze of my imagination turned into a violent gust of wind, and then thunder. Lightning illuminated the still clear afternoon sky. Bang! An explosion in the house. Something made the phones go out. I took my cell phone and called Brian, our Operations Manager. “ssss…crackle…rrrr….IS ON FIRE!” I could not hear the first words, but the last ones came across loud and clear, and I never thought I'd hear them in real life. My problem with the phones became utterly unimportant. Hanging up with a fade “OK”, I proceeded to rush alongside the plot where our ambassador cheetahs live, across from the Chewbaaka Memorial Garden.

I saw some of my colleagues walking inside the cheetah enclosures to my left –walking faster than usual. Were they moving cheetahs? Yes, it turned out they were moving them away from the Centre that is the nucleus of all our activities. Then a gust of wind brought an acrid smell to my nose. Smoke. The bad kind. I looked up and my worst nightmare rose in front my eyes: tall, yellow, blue, orange, ugly flames were slowly but hungrily creeping along the top of our Visitor Centre. The beautiful thatched roof that was almost a landmark for visitors walking into our Centre, was on fire. Someone was carrying a recently neutered Anatolian shepherd puppy away from the Clinic. I realized that animals were being evacuated.

Flames begin engulfing the roof (Photo by Zoltan Szabo)
The flames moved in slow motion, or so I thought. It was almost romantic to watch them caress the roof as they slowly ate through it. For some reason a scene from the movie Alien came to mind, a loving monster, but yet a monster. My morning purpose kicked in as I saw one of my colleagues, Chavoux crawling up on the roof with a fire extinguisher, barefoot, but determined as hell to fight the Alien. I wasn't the only one who called him not very nice names in the hope that he would come down. I then turned to where other people were running in and out of the building to save what they could. Whatever I could do, I’d give it my darned best.

Gift Shop, classroom, Café, kitchen, were all like an explosion of people carrying things, pushing stuff. I joined them. As long as it wasn’t reckless, we would save what we could, because we all knew how hard earned every single item in there was. The thought of the long drought we have had would not leave my mind. Our water levels must be so low by now. Water hoses were spitting out painful little arcs of water that would never put out those flames.

Tables and chairs were thrown over the rail into the garden in front the Café. Merchandise kept flowing out of the gift shop –t-shirts with cheetah images on them, necklaces made of magazine paper, soft drinks, goat-milk soaps, cash register, visitor logs…The strong people carried heavy items… displays, refrigerator, shelves. I might not be strong, but am certainly hard headed. I grabbed buckets or baskets or bags, and filled them with merchandise, papers, or whatever I could find that fit in. We made sure the beautiful dead tree trunks that we used as displays for bags or necklaces in the shop were also saved, mostly as a precaution. They would have only excited the flames quickly descending from the roof.

Saving the saveable. (Photo by P. Tricorache)
The flat-screen TV in the Café that showed CCF videos to visitors enjoying a cup of coffee or a nice lunch was tenderly, and very quickly, brought down by Eli, who had as carefully installed it there only a couple of months ago.

The heat was rising all around the fire. Volunteers and interns who were so focused on helping had to be asked to stay away from the burning structure, and assigned the task of moving everything we were carrying out, away from the burning building. Without a question, volunteer arms began lightening the loads of those of us still going in and out of the building. There was nothing else I could carry out of the Gift Shop. I remember running –or maybe walking… around the back of the building. There in front of my eyes were the refrigerator and freezer from our kitchen, in the middle of a life-size cow, a life-size cheetah, and life-size foam goats, all props we use to teach farmers predator-friendly farming methods. I think I smirked. It was a strange sight, and almost comical, although not as comical as my trying to roll the recycling and trash bins away from the blaze. I was afraid the bins full of recyclables and trash might intensify the fire and had to be moved away, and yes, they have wheels, but lack balance...and in my attempts to roll two bins at a time, they both rolled right under me. I still went back for two more, with the same result. But I managed to move them away. I tried to get the last two but the building felt so hot!

Foam goats in a box, life-size cow and a refrigerator recovering from the scare (Photo by P Tricorache)
My colleagues had already emptied everything they could on that side, and I needed to occupy myself. All vehicles were ready in case an evacuation was necessary. The entire scene reminded me of a huge anthill, where everyone had a task and knew exactly what it was. Move this. Close that. I saw the visitors’ bathroom curtains flowing with the wind through open windows, and knew the flames would embrace them and the wind would carry them as glowing flags in God knows what direction. I remember trying to pull one from the outside and having a bit of trouble. Without a word, Brian was there finishing the job, while someone else I couldn’t see…Jenny? Juliette?, did the same in the other bathroom. That’s how we all worked the shortest and the longest 20 minutes we had before doing anything else became unsafe.

The thatch roof began to collapse under the flames, as we all stood there in disbelief, and complete despair. I don’t know what others were thinking, but have no doubt that Laurie, our Founder, was in all our minds. She was on a fundraising tour across the ocean, but loves this place more than her own life. In a way, I was happy that she wasn’t here to see this. Knowing her, she might have tried to save it in her very determined and sometimes much too daring ways.

But neither disbelief, nor despair would stop our fight. Our main office, the building that houses our veterinary clinic and so many years of research, is only a few metres east of the burning building. There was no way we were going to let that building suffer the same fate. Every bucket and every water hose at hand were used to pour water on that roof, also thatched, and oh, so close. I hoped –prayed– for the wind to stop. I wanted lightning to go away. And I wanted rain, hard, powerful rain. One out of three “ain’t” bad, and the wind subsided, and with it, the flames. And since one and a half is even better… rain started falling, somehow persistently, although not heavily. Four millimetres of rain at the end of the day wasn't much, but at that point, any water was welcome! I am not sure when the lightning decided to move on; all I remember is how frightening it became.

The invisible wand that turned our actions into impeccable orchestra movements directed us to begin cleaning up broken glass, trash, loading trucks with surviving items so they’d be taken to storage, stirring the fire of the fallen thatch to make it burn quicker. Our life-size menagerie of cow, cheetah and dead foam goats were moved to safety along with tables and chairs and who-knows-what-else. I lifted from the ground a framed poem that used to hang on the wall of our classroom, glass broken and a corner burnt, but still legible. Funny how some things just refuse to die. The beautiful cheetah murals on the building walls also refused to die, and stood there, watching and waiting, but not burning. Other things just had to go, I guess... The last two trash bins I had tried to move away from the building lie there, completely melted, burnt, flat.

Our beautiful cheetah mural is still welcoming visitors (Photo by P Tricorache)
I needed water. My tongue, my teeth, my palate, all tasted like smoke. As I began walking back to the main courtyard for a drink, something made me look to my right as I nearly fell flat in mud from all the watering we did to avoid letting the fire reach farther. And there it was, on top of the magnificent Waterberg Plateau, which needs no bells or whistles to be one of the most beautiful visions, a faint rainbow, making the scene so unreal, but so magical. I might be remembered forever as the dork who started running around and screaming, “rainbow! There’s a rainbow!” in the middle of a major fire. But I wasn’t the only one who saw more than just a rainbow. Those who were not busy at the moment joined me to take a better look. There were smiles on our faces. Rainbows have that effect on it hope?
Rainbow over the Waterberg (Archive. P Tricorache)
Dinner was sombre, and we were all tired, sad, dirty. We could use a laugh, and our "MC", Brian managed to make it happen. After thanking everyone for our help with the fire, he proceeded to also thank us for coming to his house warming party --the newly-built apartment that burned on the second floor of the Visitor Centre was to be his new home with his partner Jenny. He would have been working there when the fire started.

We then asked people to get some rest. We knew a busy day awaited us.Four of us had to go back by way of the skeleton of walls and still-burning beams that for nearly 15 years witnessed so many people learning to accept, or maybe even love, the cheetah. Embers were burning, a few sparks were flying. Our concern for the main office building was not over. I don’t remember whether we made a plan. Suddenly the water hose was on, as pitiful as it was, but provided us with a bit of water that we used to fill some buckets left outside earlier during the fire. Darkness helped us find glowing embers on the ground and we began to pour water on them. We killed some; others persisted. We tried again. Where the fire was stronger, the footing was dangerous and ceiling beams were still burning, so we couldn’t go there. I am pretty sure we all took walks through the night to check on the wind, the sparks…
Burning in the night (Photo by P Tricorache)
Our storage room with so many educational and tourism materials, many of which we had just re-ordered, could not be saved. There was just too much paper there, and it was just too unsafe to try to go in there when the fire started. The bright, red flames consuming those amazing tools of learning glowed and burned, as in homage, the entire night.
Our teaching tools (Photo by P Tricorache)
With every tragedy, there is the proverbial “it could have been worse.” And it could… most definitely. We could have been all sleeping. It could have been one of the buildings harder to empty or with more flammable things. Someone could have been inside the building. The wind could have been blowing in the direction of the other building. I reflected on that, and the numbness in my heart became a bit less oppressing. I called the two dogs in the house, Isha and Finn, and cuddled up with them until I fell asleep. I think they knew that’s what I needed.

The next day we were open for business as usual. The magic of people pulling together, no matter what, got our Gift Shop fully operational, and better than ever, by midday. The fire was out and only an occasional whiff of smoke rose from the burned thatch around the building. Visitors came and marvelled at what happened, but mostly at our persistence. Except for our inability to prepare delicious meals for them, we provided everything their hearts desired. Museum, cheetah feeding, cheetah drives, and they smiled, and thanked us.

Recovery: (above) Putting the Gift Shop back together. (Below) Open for business (Photos P. Tricorache)

So why did I title my story Phoenix? Well, that’s the name of the cheetah I love the most. And his name, a reminder of the mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes, was fluttering in my mind every second of these events. In my mind, I did my best. In my heart, I hope everyone who was there knows that they are the best. And in all certainty, together we will all do our best to rebuild that part of CCF that is now hurting...even more beautiful and stronger than ever, like the beautiful Phoenix – the bird or the cheetah.
My beautiful Phoenix walking on my shadow (Photo: P Tricorache)

Patricia Tricorache
Cheetah Conservation Fund

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Intern Story - Kyla Balfour

Hello, my name is Kyla Balfour and I came to Africa from Thousand Oaks, California. I graduated in 2012 with a Bachelor degree in Animal Science and a goal to work in conservation research, and after hearing stories of my classmates’ animal filled travels I decided to volunteer abroad. CCF caught my eye out of many conservation groups I found online, partly because of my love for cats, and partly because of the variety of work they do. Since I had never heard of CCF or Dr. Laurie Marker I began researching - and with every article I read and TED talk I watched I became convinced that this was the place for me. I was accepted as an intern for the month of September, and after two extremely long flights and a two-week detour in Europe I arrived in Namibia.

While I’ve been here my main duties have been overseeing the interns in the goat kraal as well as compiling data for the yearly waterhole report. The work here is hard - sometimes 12 hour work days - and as anyone in the animal care field knows, there are no such things as weekends. But it has all been worth it. My time at CCF has been short (only a month) but filled with more amazing experiences than I could have ever imagined. From the night spent counting wildlife to standing in the back of a truck watching a cheetah run along beside me, my memories here will be some of the best I’ve ever had.

As I complete my last day at CCF, something a returning volunteer told me on my first day really resonates: when asked why she keeps coming back, she shrugged and said “I’m not done yet. There’s more to do.” I don’t feel like I’m done yet either. So I’ll see you again, CCF. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Scat Walk

Every morning you will find Lucia and I walking around the two cheetah pens Elands and Hogwarts with a blue bag before we go to CCF’s genetics lab. We are not watching the beautiful cheetahs behind the fences but staring constantly on the ground. You might ask yourself what can be so interesting down there.

It is amazing how many tracks you can find every day. When you see us stopping and kneeling down we probably found something. Can you guess what animals belong to these tracks?

Exciting to know what passes close to you at night but not quite what we are looking for (left - brown hyena / right - baboon).
We are looking for a sign of a cheetah and today is a lucky day. All around the fences we can see cheetah tracks.

This is evidence that there was a cheetah around in the past 24 hours. His name is Hifi, a wild cheetah who has visited our Eland girls regularly for 5 years. How do we know that the tracks belong to Hifi? With camera traps placed around this area we can see what passed through here at night.

He looks well fed!
But that is not everything. Last night he left a gift for the girls and this morning we can pick it up. You can see nicely the scratch marks, which is very typical for him also.

Yes I know… In the human world poop hardly would work to impress a woman but scent is an important way of communication for cheetahs.  Unfortunately it doesn’t help him to get one of the females at CCF but it helps us to study the cheetah. Believe it or not there is a lot you can learn from poop.

We label a plastic bag with date, location, GPS coordinates, and comments about the freshness and description and then we carefully put the poop in the bag with a stick. Why are we not making our life easier and using our hands? Apart from the obvious reason that we just don’t want to touch it (believe me when I say that this smell follows you around), it is very important that we don’t contaminate the scat if we want to conduct genetic research on it. Yes I know… I had to laugh a bit too but I don’t have to go into further details when I say that scat is the trash, which comes out of our body for a good reason. You can still get DNA out of it but if you touch it or if one of the scat detection dogs puts his nose on it (at least it smells good for somebody), it is possible that all you get is human or dog DNA in the results.

With fresh scat like in this picture we can give an aliquot to the clinic to check for parasites, and with any sample regardless of age we can do hair analysis to study the diet of the animal.

So now we know from the lab not only that it was a cheetah but also that it was Hifi. How that works in detail is another story to be told. From the clinic, we know that he is healthy and what he ate. For a future hormone study we keep enough until we get funding.  Hopefully that will be soon. With that, we will be able to look at stress and testosterone level.

If anything is left we can use it to train our scat detection dogs to find more poop for more studies.
It is amazing how much you can learn about the behaviour and health of an animal just with a little bit of scat, a camera, tracks, and somebody who likes to pick it up. Sometimes that is not as easy as it sounds.

I hope you will come and join us soon for a little walk. 

Natalie Giesen
Genetics Laboratory Technician

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Intern Story - Caroline Dumartinet

My name is Caroline Dumartinet. I am a French vet student from the Veterinary School of Nantes (west part of France) called ONIRIS.

I came to CCF for a 2-month internship in order to discover wildlife, especially cheetahs. I learned a lot about these gorgeous animals and also a lot about conservation! But coming here was also an opportunity for me to work with all kinds of animal; not only the cheetahs but dogs, horses, and goats too. As a vet student, it was a really good practice to be confronted to all these species; so a big thank you tol the vet team I worked with (Hollis, Caz and Amelia).

During my stay at CCF, I worked on a project about dairy goat nutrition. I tried to figure out a new diet for them so they could produce more milk in the future. This project allowed me to apply what I learned in France but it also allowed me to work with local people. It was really enriching because they shared their knowledge with me and I am very grateful.

Coming here was a great way to improve my English because I met people from everywhere (UK, USA, Australia, South Africa, Japan…) and I heard so many stories and discovered different lifestyles.

I have a had great time here even though it was not always easy to be far from my family and friends but I will always remember this trip and CCF ! I know that I will miss a lot of things here (wildlife, landscapes, people…), so I am sure that I will come back one day to discover as many things as I can about this wonderful country that is Namibia.