The latest from cheetah country comes to you in 3 parts:
Part I: Ghanzi District, Botswana. Late October, 2011 – Cheetah Conservation Botswana
It is Sunday at last, time to rest. A lazy feeling takes hold of cheetah camp, even Murphy is pretty low key and Cat is nowhere to be found. The final game of the Rugby World Cup is playing and the Kalahari heat is beginning to rise. Andrea Dekrout, Camp Manager, comes into the kitchen just as I’m finishing coffee and announces there is a cheetah in the trap. CCB has not caught a cheetah since June and has been interested in collaring a female to track her movements and determine if this area is saturated with their presence or not (female cheetah have a much larger range than males, up to 4000km2). So much for it being a Sunday. Everyone in camp kicks into high gear and we’re on the road in twenty minutes for Ko Mogotlhong Game Farm, where the trap is located.
Andrea needs to see what condition the cheetah is in, if it is male or female, young or old. When we arrive she parks as far as possible from the trap. The rest of us stay in the car and keep our voices to a whisper as Andrea grabs a white bed sheet from the truck and approaches, holding it front of her. Even from our far off vantage point we can hear deep guttural growling and spy a thrashing shadow in the cage. This cat is not pleased. Andrea approaches as best she can without putting further stress on the captured animal. We don’t linger long, just a brief look, the cat is in good condition, possibly female and full-grown. We make a plan to return later and drive back to camp.
In Botswana it is required to have a vet on site to administer anesthetic to a wild animal, so Kyle Good is contacted in Gabarone, an eight-hour drive away. While we wait for her arrival, another trip to the cheetah trap takes place. Keith, the manager of the game farm, has called and said he’s seen a few other cheetah lingering in the area. This time the strategy is to capture another, quite possibly her cub, to study its territory after separation from the mother to determine if the population of cheetahs in the area is thin or not. In addition to the goat that was set as bait, there are two extra empty traps side by side.
Back on the farm, the team approaches the cage gingerly with a ‘squeeze box’ (a wooden box with holes on the sides that makes it easier to administer anesthetic), lift the gate of the trap and coax the wild cheetah inside the box. All communication is done with hand signals, no talking, very careful movements as it is easy to lose a finger or two to an angry cat. The box is placed off to the side and covered with a sheet, they remove the relieved goat from its trap for return to its flock at camp. Then the cheetah is brought back to the area and transferred from the squeeze box to the bait trap by lifting up the gate of the box which lines up to the cage where a bucket of water is placed for hydration. The plan is that the strong urge to be united will entice the cubs to be near their mother. All of this action is with steady but quick deliberate movements in the interest of keeping the animal as calm as possible (the growling is pretty constant though).
We leave for the night, Kyle arrives at camp and Andrea prepares the radio collar for the next day’s work.
Jane, researcher at CCB, gets a call from Keith. He’s spotted another cheetah in the trap, possibly two more. We jump in the truck and drive out once again for the farm. From a distance, spying with binoculars so as not to stress out the trapped cats, we see there is one more cheetah, most likely the mother’s cub. Keith has seen other cubs lingering in the nearby bush. (clarification: when the word ‘cub’ is used, this does not mean a tiny fuzzball of cute fed with bottles at zoos, it can mean anything from a newborn to a sub-adult as cheetahs will stay with their mother for up to 18 months. The cubs mentioned in this article are closer to estimated 18 months and almost ready to leave their mother and establish their own territories).
What happens next sheds a light on how conservationists and farmers / land owners delicately negotiate, and how those agreements can easily fall apart: Keith didn’t expect this many cheetah to be on his farm. The cameras and cage traps reveal a higher population than expected and he is concerned for his recently purchased, highly expensive game. It is his job to manage and maintain the game numbers and the variables of potential losses has just risen in his mind. While there have not been recent loss to predation, his concern is understandable from his point of view. However, since this is game and not livestock, what is a predator to do, eat grass? The vast farm is chock full of natural prey.
He wants the captured cheetah and cubs removed from the area altogether. While this might put a farmer’s mind at ease temporarily, it would actually create more of a stress. First off, from the conservationist standpoint, there are no logistical plans to capture the other two cubs and then relocate four grown cheetah, (to where?). Second, the clock is ticking, it is hot, the cats are stressed, and the workup and release needs to happen in the next 36 hours, maximum. For the farmer, if the cheetah are removed, more will arrive to take that territory. It is a known fact there are more cheetah in the area as evidenced by ongoing studies in the region by CCB. New cheetah without collars will arrive and CCB will not be able to study their movements easily, as with this mother and her cubs. The farmer may suffer losses with no information about what predator and why. If these cheetah stay, they can study the movements of the mother and learn if the area is indeed saturated or not via her territorial boundaries. The farmer can then take this information and devise an informed plan on how to proceed co-existing with resident, known predators.
A conversation between Andrea and Keith ensues at the farm’s main house. After some time an understanding is reached, and we are back on schedule for collaring and releasing the mother back onto the farm. As they’re range is very large, and after such a crappy weekend for the cheetah family, the likelihood of the mother and cubs sticking around is minimal.
Stay tuned for Part II wherein things get even more exciting… and complicated.