In Namibia, I visited a foundation with their ear to the ground on the latest technological developments in conservation. From cyber-stalking their GPS collared cheetah via Google Earth and Sirtrack to scanning footprints (spoor) into an analytical database, N/a’an ku sê Foundation is combining new tech with on-the-ground analogue (so to speak) work in the field.
Namibia is home to world’s largest population of wild cheetah, thanks to the hard work of a number of highly motivated conservation orgs. I’m 40km outside the capitol city of Windhoek to visit N/a’an ku sê (San Bushman meaning “God watches over us.”), an organization with a unique business model and a string of successful wildlife relocations.
A luxury lodge with a mission, founders Marlice and Rudie van Vuuren’s vision for N/a’an ku sê is one where eco-tourism and investment directly benefits established conservation initiatives that work for the support of the San Bushman people and the healthy future of Namibia’s wildlife. They donate profits back into their conservation projects, community clinics and Clever Cubs school.
My visit is centered on their Carnivore Conservation Research Programme. Researcher and Big Cats Initiative Grantee, Florian Weise, and I sit down for a chat about the issues and misunderstandings facing conservation today. N/a’an ku sê has a number of captive cheetah, some that will be relocated, others than cannot return to a life in the wild. Florian says there are four common avenues that cheetah come into captivity in Namibia:
a) discarded pets
b) indiscriminate captures – when a farmer sets traps to capture anything that they perceive as a threat to livestock.
c) proven livestock raiders – documented cases in which specific cats are known to be preying on livestock.
d) orphans/injured animals
When it comes to proven livestock raiders, N/a’an ku sê is in the final experimental stages in preparation for field-use employing new technology called FIT (Footprint Identification Technology) to ensure farmers capture the real culprits instead of an indiscriminate capture. What this innovative tech achieves is an ability the San people have honed for thousands of years, the distinction of individual footprints as identification techniques in searching for specific animals.
I had the lucky opportunity to see this in action as researchers Florian and Stuart literally herded three resident cheetah across a bed of earth to download their footprints into the database. What they’ve discovered is the software’s remarkable ability to not only differentiate specific cheetah, but how they are related within a family tree. There is a huge potential to better study the cheetah in its natural bush habitat through tracking rather than continuing to rely solely on capture, collaring and GPS monitoring.
How this is applied in the field right now is a collaborative effort with the help of San Bushman trackers. The research team is capable of capturing a cheetah and identifying whether or not it is the correct cat. The San Bushmen can target individual animals based on footprint (spoor). When a neighboring farm had a major issue with predation, N/a’an ku sê was brought in to help. The team set traps and captured one cheetah, but when the trackers analyzed the spoor they realized this cat was not the guilty party and set it free again. Traps reset, the livestock killers were caught, and upon removal from the farm, losses went down by over 80% proving without a doubt the correct cheetah were caught. The original cheetah mistaken was not the problem nor did it become one, proof that indiscriminate capture is not a solution to livestock predation.
While on the road with N/a’an ku sê researcher Stuart Munro, I met one of these livestock killers in his new home at Solitaire Guest Farm, a four hour’s drive south of N/a’an ku sê. A giant of a cheetah, the aptly named Spartacus jumped out from beneath his shady tree, spat, stamped his feet and gave us the eye. This is a cheetah’s natural “back off” response and he did not attack. Instead he returned to his shady spot to relax and wait for us to leave him to his day, which basically involved relaxing. While he will not be fully released in the wild because of his penchant for killing cows, his story is one of success. Spartacus is now an ambassador for the species.
Adding to the fantastic geekery of FIT, monitoring released cats is an enormous physical undertaking but new tech is taking some of the sweat out of the work. Satellite tracking collars are far more expensive than the VHF-only style, but findings from the GPS collars of N/a’an ku sê’s released cheetah and leopard have proven wrong many existing assumptions about home ranges. For instance, one male cheetah went on a walkabout of over 1100km in six months, once entirely through the Namib desert and back. The team has discovered that cheetahs will cross mountains and desert, not just sticking to known farmland bush. Sitting at the computer in N/a’an ku sê’s office and watching the Google Earth map zoom in from space all the way down to Namibia, down to a dot and a line, is exhilarating and surreal. That dot is the cheetah, living its life, the line being the path it took since its last signal. And here us humans sit, cyber-stalking a wild animal.
Coming up, an experience of a lifetime, tracking the cheetah on foot across the oldest desert on earth.
All images & Video: Marcy Mendelson © 2012 / Cheetah-Watch.com