Monday, 13 August 2012

The Realities of Conservation: The Joy & the Heartbreak, Part One

I think many in this field of work would agree that a career in conservation is one of the most rewarding you can find. Being able to work up close to such amazing wildlife provides some unbelievable highs, but there is always the chance to have your heartbroken. Here at the NCCC the first half of 2012 has provided both ends of this spectrum in equal measure.
Firstly Kate and I must announce the sad news that Sandy, one of our family group that arrived in December 2011 passed away due to a very rare condition.  We knew something was wrong in early March when Sandy was unable to eat any meat given to her; her condition quickly deteriorated and immediate action had to be taken. Kate and our volunteers performed a minor miracle in the pouring rain, and managed to get Sandy into a transport cage, then drove her on awful muddy roads all the way to Windhoek Animal Hospital.

An ultrasound, blood work, and faecal tests all proved inconclusive; it was a complete mystery to why Sandy was ill.  Fluids were administered, and food was pumped into her stomach with the hope this would aid in her recovery.  Sadly two days later Sandy died.   Only after the necropsy was preformed that the cause of death was discovered. An un-diagnosed band of scar tissue had formed around her duodenum (small intestine), causing a blockage.  It is thought Sandy suffered some kind of trauma early in her life, causing the development of scar tissue and tragically it was only a matter of time. The loss of Sandy was very upsetting, especially when we saw Rusty calling for her sibling in the immediate days afterwards.  We are only comforted in the knowledge that we did all we could to help her. Rusty still has her mother Laura and to this day the pair are always found in our soft-release camp together.
Just before Sandy’s decline in health the NCCC had one of its most exciting days, because on the 10th of March our sisters Annie and Betty who arrived at the very start of the project were released back to the wild. The release of Annie and Betty became possible due to a new friendship between the NCCC and the Namib Naukluft Lodge, which began when we were allowed onto their property to track our first released cheetah Boris.  It was during tracking Boris with manager Marko Van Dorssen that the idea of releasing cheetahs onto their farm came up in conservation. Marko was extremely enthusiastic about the prospect and promised to talk to the Namib Naukluft Lodge owner Friedolf Sturm.

Because Annie and Betty had been captive for four years they had become habituated to the presence of people and despite us being able to stop their inclination to chase vehicles, their chances of release had been thought to be very unlikely.  However, for two important reasons the prospect of release onto the Namib Naukluft Lodge farm gave them the perfect opportunity.  Firstly the 20,000ha Lodge farm was home to huge numbers of game, which were not present on the NCCC research site and secondly we would be able to monitor the cats very closely for the first few weeks immediately after release, which for long time captive cheetahs is crucial.  This is because more often than not it takes the cats a couple of weeks to ‘switch on’ to the fact they are wild requiring us to provide them with a small supplemental meal to ensure they have energy to hunt but not enough to make them full.

Marko and Friedolf then visited the Guest Farm one evening and over a few drinks they described their excitement at the chance to become involved with the NCCC and by the end of the evening a plan had been made to release Annie and Betty.

The day before release, Jim, Leonie and our volunteers Charlene and Marie (volunteer report to come soon) helped us get the girls in a trap cage and then give them a huge meal to munch on overnight.  On the morning of the release our N/a’an ku se colleague Stu Monroe arrived with his volunteers; not only because of the chance to see the release but importantly to lend us the use of his open backed car to transport the girls to their new home.
The excited entourage with precious cargo made the short 20-minute drive to the Namib Naukluft Lodge where we met up with Marko, Friedolf and other members of their family who were all eagerly anticipating the arrival of Annie and Betty. We followed Friedolf and set off to the release site, an area deep into the beautiful Namib Naukluft Lodge farm and close to a water source. 

The big moment had finally arrived, we offloaded the girls and thanks to my skills at the dartboard the previous night I had won the honour to open the cage. Watching the two cats we had cared for since the start of the NCCC walking away into the distance with no fences to stop them was very emotional with a mixture of happiness and anxiety; just how would these two-orphaned sisters cope with a life in the wild?  Champagne was popped and an important milestone for the NCCC was toasted, not only to Annie and Betty’s new freedom but also to a great new friendship with one of our closet neighbours. It was a fantastic day. 
Annie had been fitted with a Sirtrack donated GPS collar a couple of weeks prior to release and due to her downloaded GPS co-ordinates we were able to closely monitor the two girls for the next three weeks. As predicted the two stayed together and we had to give them two supplemental meals as they had not made a successful hunt.  Also as expected was the sight of Annie taking the lead and walking ahead of Betty; Kate and I had always thought of Annie as the dominant character.  The two girls stayed on the Naukluft Lodge farm and everything was going well.
However, on March 29th Kate went out with our volunteers to the last known GPS co-ordinate of the girls and found Betty lying in a bush alone. The radio signal from Annie’s GPS collar was close but when Kate investigated our very worse fears came true, Annie’s lifeless body was found.  The nature of her wounds and the presence of spoor lead no doubt to the cause, Spotted Hyena. 

Annie’s death devastated us, and that day is by far and away the worst we have had in our careers. Kate and I have of course lost cats we have worked with in the past due to illness and old age but this coming so soon after Sandy's death hurt much more. We had cared for this beautiful cat for nine months, spending time with her almost everyday; we had so much hope for her future and were extremely excited to observe how this unusual female coalition would progress.  Loosing her so soon after release was very hard to take.  Even typing this now I feel the emotion of that day coming back. 

All thoughts immediately turned to Betty, who had just lost the sister she had spent her life with and looked to for leadership.  In the days immediately after Annie’s death I must admit to having an overwhelming desire to bring her back to the NCCC.  However, after the initial shock had faded we all knew that Betty still deserved her chance of freedom.  There will always be risks for wild cheetahs and avoiding hyenas is a lesson they all need to learn.  Betty proved to us only four days later that she was ready for freedom when Kate found her with a large belly, indicating she had taken down a sizable kill. A plan was quickly made to fit Betty with the GPS collar; N/a’an ku se’s director Dr Rudie Van Vuuren flew down and Betty was found, darted and fitted with her sister’s collar. Betty was then closely monitored for the next few days.  While seeing her alone was heartbreaking for us, she appeared to be coping well.  
Annie’s body is now buried under a bush next to our campsite, and she will always have a special place in our hearts.  She was one of the original NCCC cats and we will always have great memories of the exciting day we started by releasing her and Betty into the soft-release camp; a moment that was captured for the Animal Planet documentary series “Wild Animal Orphans”. We also had many amazing moments in her company during our cheetah tracking safaris. It is the image of Annie looking up to the mountains captured in the photo below that gave me the inspiration for our logo, an image I feel sums up what we are trying to achieve here at the NCCC. Our consolation is that, for however brief, she did leave this world a wild cheetah.