Sunday, 11 December 2011

A New Arrival: Pepper

A few months ago Kate and I had the pleasure of meeting Fred and Onie Jacobs, owners of Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch and we got talking about the NCCC and our cheetahs. During this conversation Fred and Onie told us about an orphaned female cheetah they had adopted 5 years ago called Pepper. Despite being raised by Fred and Onie since 5 months of age, Pepper has always retained a feisty, wild nature and always showed a desire to explore outside her enclosure. Because of this upon hearing of our 500ha camp here at the NCCC Fred and Onie started to consider the prospect of donating Pepper to us in order for her to experience a more wild life. The decision to part with a much loved animal must have been very difficult for Fred an Onie but as a testament to their desire to provide Pepper with the best possible life they agreed to move Pepper to the NCCC.

So on the 23rd of November I along with our student intern Laura and volunteer Isabella Seeman went to Bagatelle to assist getting Pepper into a cage for transport. It has to be said being able to stay overnight at places like Bagatelle on business is definitely a perk of the job! Bagatelle is a beautiful place, in a stunning location, with great food and wonderful staff, I highly recommend it if you are ever in the area :)
After enjoying some fantastic hospitality upon arrival including sweet ice tea and a selection of delicious cakes we were taken by Onie to meet Pepper. Upon hearing the sound of her gate being jangled the sound of thundering feet could be heard and suddenly a beautiful big female was in front of us performing a very impressive display of dominance with her shoulders hunched, head bowed with an impressive scowl. 
Pepper was fairly easy to coax into the transport cage with the lure of meat and the following morning we loaded Pepper onto a bakkie and along with Fred and Onie made the trip back to Solitaire. Our directors Rudie and Marlice also traveled down and as the sun was setting Pepper had been darted and fitted with a radio-collar. She woke up rather confused, staggered to her feet and slowly moved off into the pen.

The next morning however, we had a problem, Pepper’s radio-collar had inexplicably stopped working and we had no idea where she was. Myself, Kate and our intern Laura then spent the following week desperately trying to find Pepper and get food to her. We placed a trap cage in numerous different positions depending on where we saw Pepper’s tracks, meat was placed in strategic places and we drove all over the 500ha pen calling for her, but to no avail. Here I will hand over to our new volunteer Mirjam Frey who arrived at the NCCC the day we took extra measures to find Pepper......

My first day I came here to the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre about a 3 ½ hours drive from Windhoek: everybody is out in the Cheetah Pen. Pepper, the 5 year old Cheetah female can’t be found. Where is Pepper? To find her, Flo (the head of research at Naan ku se with whom I came down), brought the San Bushman Kiewit with him to find the hiding Cheetah. Off we go: In the area, where Matt and Kate thought Pepper might be, Flo and Kiewit started to track the Cat. In the meantime, Matt, Laura and I went through all the bushes on the other side of the Pen, where Pepper could be hiding. Unfortunately I wore shorts – why not at this bright, sunny and hot day – but actually it wasn’t that good idea, because grass in Namibia is not as soft as back home in Switzerland. It scratched my legs and after a bit it started to hurt. But no matter, we had to find Pepper, because we didn’t know for certain if she had eaten and drunk at all. It felt like looking for a needle in a haystack, especially as cheetahs are very good at hiding. 

But after it felt like hours Flo called us to come to their side. Kiewit has found tracks of Pepper and was pretty sure, Pepper must be somewhere in the area. We are all excited. Are we going to find Pepper soon? Flo, Kiewit, Matt, Laura and I walk in a line through the bushes where Pepper might be. Is she hiding in the grass? Or does she lie under a bush?  She is nowhere to be seen. Where is she? She must be somewhere here. Kiewit is always right about is findings. And then, Flo sees her sitting under a big pretty nice tree with a lot of shade.  At first sight she looks not to good, but as Flo gets closer he can see that she is just exhausted. We are so happy that we finally found her and that she is in good condition.
Flo, Kiewit and I keep an eye on her while Matt and Laura get some wire, to fence her into the bush for a couple of days.  We do that so we can dart her and exchange the collar. But in the first place also to keep an eye on her for several days, feed her, get her enough water and make sure she is fine before we release her back into the 500ha Cheetah Pen. While we put up the fence she is quite relaxed but at the same time observing what we are doing. That shows she is still pretty fit. As soon we have finished her temporary home, we can all get closer for a better look. And oh, she is such a pretty girl: Angular face with big black eyes and a tall slender body. She is such a beauty. She must have been really thirsty, because she drank almost three litres of water in a quite a short time. Finally she also eats some meat. Flo, Matt and Kate decide to dart her that same evening, to make sure we don’t ‘lose’ her again.  Flo easily darts Pepper and as soon as she falls asleep, Flo exchanges the collar as quickly as possible. Mission completed. Wow, what a great and exciting first day at the NCCC!
After the safe ‘return’ of Pepper, we check the next few days regularly on her, fill up her water and feed her with her favourite food Springbok. She seems to be quite relaxed in her temporary enclosure and looks really good. After 3 days Matt and Kate think Pepper is ready to be released back into her new home.  Before we release her Matt checks the response of the new Radio-Collar one more time just to make absolutely sure it works! Kate cuts down the wire. First it seems that Pepper doesn’t want to come out of her temporary camp. She is walking up and down until eventually she walks out of the enclosure. She is literally just walking out of it. No running, no spitting, no hissing, nothing. She just walks along the fence line as if nothing had happened at all.  She is really an awesome big and beautiful cat. 
Next morning, Matt, Kate and I are checking on her. Thanks to the new Radio-Collar we find her after a bit not far from where we’ve released her the previous evening. But their was a surprise, she is not alone. In front of her, sitting under a bush is Spartacus, the 10-year-old male Cheetah. Suddenly he jumps out, spiting and hissing at us, as if to let us know that she is his girl and he’s going to protect her.  They are so cute.  Will they stay together? We don’t know yet. But it would be so great if they could be friends, especially because both of them can’t be released into the wild and will stay in the pen. Funnily, Kate and Matt hoped this bond would happen while they where looking for Pepper. Therefore they tracked Spartacus and hoped to find Pepper with him. But of course, while her old collar wasn’t working, they didn’t get together – maybe her old collar was not fashionable enough to Spartacus :)

Mirjam Frey
Thankfully, since her re-release into the camp things have gone extremely well, Pepper and Spartacus have continued to be found together and she is quickly becoming used to us approaching her and accepting food from us. Most importantly her collar not only looks much better than the old one but also works perfectly!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Boris Update

Its been just over a month since we released 4 year old male Boris back to the wild and we are pleased to say that he is doing extremely well. His Sirtrack collar has sent a GPS point every morning around 6:00am and these points are shown in the picture below. His movements since the release show that for now he  prefers an area at the base of a mountain range located just inside the Namib Naukluft Park, we believe the points showing him in the plains towards the river are the times when he is hunting. The fact he is settled in this area must mean he is having successful hunts and does not feel threatened by any other carnivores that may be in the same area. For his first month of release we couldn't have wished for a better start, we will continue to monitor him and hope his success continues!

Monday, 19 September 2011

Volunteer Report: Hollie Saunders

Hi, I’m Hollie Saunders and I’ve spent the past 10 days volunteering at the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre. The programme allowed me to witness and contribute to the rehabilitation and soft release method of cheetah conservation. In my time at the NCCC I was able to take part in the daily activities such as wild cheetah tracking within the soft release camp and aiding Laura, the current student intern with her research, which in this case was investigating the bush preferences of specific cheetahs. Once their preferred habitat has been identified it can help indicate how ready the cheetahs are for release and then be compared to their preferred habitat after release. Other activities included exploration and placing of camera traps in the surrounding area so that the carnivore population can be established, game drives and nature tours, data entry, and feeding the cheetahs.
There is a relaxed and positive atmosphere which makes the whole experience unique.  Working with Kate and Matt was fantastic as you feel instantly part of the team and on top of that Walter and Simone are gracious enough to allow the use of the guest farm's facilities including the swimming pool, and they make you feel at home straight away.  It has been a great experience living in a fixed tent adding to the feeling of adventure and the great outdoors.  A highlight was definitely the trip to Sossusvlei where we climbed the sand dunes and saw some fantastic views.
The Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre shows the reality of conservation instead of an attempt to domesticate the naturally wild cheetahs and the fact that it is set in such a beautiful place completes the whole experience. Taking part in the programme actually feels like you are contributing something significant to wildlife conservation, therefore I strongly recommend volunteering at the NCCC for anyone interested in conservation.

Hollie Saunders

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Boris: The First Release

The 30th of October marked a very important moment for the NCCC as it was the day that saw our first cheetah released back to the wild. It was made even more special as it was also the 40th cheetah N/a’an ku se has released.

The cat in question was Boris, the four year old male (as mentioned in the previous blog) who was trapped and taken to N/a’an ku se’s wildlife sanctuary in May 2011 after he had been hunting game repeatedly on a small game farm in the Windhoek area.

One of our most important tasks over the past few months has been to get Boris back into good condition. This was because when he was first released into the camp he was slightly under weight due to not eating all of his food given to him at the wildlife sanctuary, which often happens when a fully wild cheetah is placed in captivity and has to adjust from eating live food to pieces of meat.

So by late October Boris had spent almost 4 months in the camp and had bulked up nicely, acclimatised to the area and had hunted several springbok - he was fully ready to be put back where he belongs. A date was set and our directors Dr Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren made the trip to Solitaire accompanied by a handful of excited N/a’an ku se staff members and a film crew from Homebrew Films who are filming for an ongoing documentary series about N/a’an ku se for Animal Planet, the series will be called 'Wild Animal Orphans' and will be aired on DSTV across the whole of Africa in March 2012.

The day before their arrival Kate and I had successfully trapped Boris in a trap cage. This was done by simply placing the cage in his favourite area in the camp and placing a tasty looking zebra leg in the cage. This meant that Boris would have to spend a night in the cage but darting him on the day was simply not an option as he would run away or hide deep in a bush when he saw us approach.
So on the morning of the 30th the entourage drove to the camp where a very confused Boris was waiting for us. Before releasing Boris we had to change his VHF collar for a brand new Sirtrack GPS collar. Sirtrack is a New Zealand supplier of wildlife tracking devices and they have generously donated a number of tracking collars to N/a'an ku se for our conservation work as part of a new partnership together. Boris' collar will send GPS points to a satellite every day allowing us to log onto our computer and download the data and monitor his movements.

Rudie quickly prepared the dart gun and he and Marlice slowly approached the cage. Marlice distracted Boris and Rudie made a successful shot and it only took a few minutes for the drugs to take effect. With Boris fast asleep we carefully removed him from the cage and placed him on the back of one our Landrovers. The collar was quickly replaced  and a couple of very small wounds he had sustained in the cage were treated (hopefully that will be the last trap cage Boris will ever see).
With his new collar fitted Boris’ moment had arrived and we slowly drove just outside the pen and into an open grass plain to the East. We found a nice shady tree and placed the still sleeping Boris under it. Rudie administered a quick acting reversal drug and then we all stood back.

Boris slowly came around and after gazing in our direction with more confusion he staggered to his feet and with the drugs still in his system, wobbled away into the bush towards the mountains. It was an amazing feeling watching him go free and as the reversal drug took hold his movement quickly improved and he walked further away from us experiencing life as a wild cheetah again.
The next day we eagerly opened the Sirtrack software and downloaded the first point sent to us from Boris’ collar. We were pleased to see that Boris was still on our farm and not far from the release site.

Our attention then turned to Spartacus who needed to be vasectomised. This was necessary because as Spartacus will not be released we do not want him mating with any of the females we will have in the camp. Everything went very smoothly, Spartacus allowed us to approach and dart him without any trouble and Rudie and Marlice carried out the procedure quickly and efficiently. There was also a collar change for Spartacus as we swapped his malfunctioning one for Boris’ old VHF collar. Kate and I now hope on some occasions it wont take up to an hour to find him! Spartacus woke up under a shady tree and as you would expect did not look too pleased with us, so we left him to rest.
It was a very exciting couple of days and it was great to hang out with some of our N/a’an ku se colleagues who we don’t see that often. Rudie and Marlice along with the film crew then started their journey further south to one of N/a’an ku se’s other research sites at the Sandfontein Nature and Game Reserve where three more cheetahs will be released.

The following picture is a map of Boris’ movements during his first four days back in the wild. His collar sends a GPS point once a day around 6:00am in the morning.
The morning after his release Kate and I found his tracks along the eastern side of the cheetah camp where the two females, Annie and Betty like to hang out. He then moved southwards but not too far. Over the following two days he moved towards the mountains where a large group of oryx were seen, indicating that he may have been on the hunt. This morning however we discovered that he really stretched his legs and has moved off the farm and into an area by a river where we know there are also lots of oryx springbok and zebra.

Its fantastic knowing Boris is out there and we can’t wait to get to our computers in the morning and see where he is! Boris will be the first of hopefully many and the data we will gather about his movements is going to be invaluable for the ongoing research of N/a’an ku se’s Carnivore Research Project. We will of course keep you informed on Boris' progress.

Before I sign off, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know that Spartacus has fully recovered from his ordeal and was treated to a tasty rack of Zebra ribs yesterday :)

Photos by Deborah Binder

Friday, 1 July 2011

An Introduction to the NCCC

First things first, thank you for stopping by and welcome to the official Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre blog! Let me begin by answering the most pressing question you may have…. what exactly is the Namib Carnivore Conservation Centre?

The NCCC is a unique carnivore research and education project based in Southern Namibia and formed from the partnership between the N/a’an ku se Foundation and Solitaire Guest Farm Desert Ranch (where the Centre is based).  The NCCC is part of N/a’an Ku se’s ongoing Carnivore Conservation Research Project that started in 2008.  The aim of this project is to solve human-wildlife conflicts in Namibia through sound scientific research on densities, home ranges and territories of Cheetahs, Leopards and Hyena.

To contribute to this project our key aims are:

·      To promote the rehabilitation and reintroduction of large carnivores back to the wild. 
·      To provide assistance with mitigating human-wildlife conflict.
·      To conduct a thorough study of the Solitaire Guest Farm’s large carnivore and game populations, and monitor them over time.
·      To carry out low impact eco-tourism to educate, inspire, and help provide funds for ongoing research projects.
·      To create partnerships with universities and colleges to provide student internships.

Solitaire Guest Farm is located 6km away from the small town of Solitaire in the foot of the Rantberg Mountains and just outside the border of the Namib Naukluft Park. 
The Guest Farm was established in 2004 and is owned by Walter and Simone Swarts.  The Swarts have always been passionate about wildlife and always envisioned their facility to be able to sustain conservation through low impact eco-tourism. They became good friends with N/a’an ku se’s directors Dr Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren and made their land available for the NCCC earlier this year. Work at the Guest Farm was soon underway and six months later a 500ha enclosure had been completed to be used to hold formally captive cheetahs as they undergo an environmental adjustment period before being released back to the wild, this process is also known as a ‘soft release’. In the future we may be a location to release leopards, however, due to being stronger and tougher animals leopards can be released straight to the wild without an adjustment period (hard release).

The NCCC started on the 27th of June 2011 when 4 cheetahs were transported from N/a’an ku se’s wildlife sanctuary near Windhoek and placed into the NCCC’s ‘soft release’ holding camp. You can read all about this exciting day by reading this entry on N/a’an ku se’s official blog.

So, let me introduce you to the first cheetah residents of the NCCC:

Annie and Betty
 Annie and Betty are three and a half year old sisters who were orphaned in the Okahandja region when they were only six months old. They have spent the last three years at N/a’an ku se’s wildlife sanctuary and are now old enough to be released.

Boris is a four-year-old male who was hunting game on a very small game farm in the Windhoek area. The farmer not wanting to harm him asked N/a’an ku se for help and in June 2011 he was successfully trapped and spent only a short period of time at the sanctuary before being transported to the NCCC.

In 2009 Spartacus and his brother were responsible for killing a suspected 35 calves on a farm neighbouring N/a’an ku se.  The brothers were therefore trapped and taken to the sanctuary. Sadly Spartacus’ brother died of illness soon after.  Spartacus then became notorious for being a very aggressive character, especially around feeding time.  Due to his preference for hunting cattle Spartacus is not suitable for release but to improve his quality of life he was also moved to the NCCC’s spacious 500ha holding camp.

Two N/a'an ku se biologists are stationed at the NCCC, Kate Echement and Matt Cleverley - the author of this well written  blog :) Kate and I are responsible for the monitoring and husbandry of the cheetahs, taking tourists on cheetah tracking safaris, collecting data for research and supervising volunteers.
We are really excited to say that the first few months of the NCCC have gone extremely well. We have taken 800+ people out to see the cats on cheetah tracking safaris which involves finding the cats via radio-telemetry and then walking on foot through the bush to see the cats. The guests absolutely love this truly unique experience with many giving donations and wanting to return to the NCCC as volunteers.
We have started placing camera traps around the farm and have already captured great photos of a young male Leopard, a Spotted Hyena, Caracal and Bat-Eared Foxes.
 In our first month a student group from the Maricopa Community Colleges in the States were with us for three nights and helped us start exploring the area. We taught the students how to track and they also helped us strengthen the cheetah camp fence and mapped the camp's roads with a GPS. The group was lead by Prof. Dennis Wilson who is an old friend of ours. It was great having his group here and they helped us out enormously, we are hoping to continue the relationship and welcome another group next year.

We currently have a student intern on site, Laura Eikendal, who is conducting a study on the habitat preferences of the cats in the holding camp and we have also welcomed our first volunteers. One of them, Barbara Ingrund, has had an article she wrote about her experience published by National Geographic Germany.

I hope this serves as an adequate introduction to the NCCC and you will return to this blog to check up on the latest developments.

All the best, Matt Cleverley