Friday, 22 October 2010

The Bellebenno Release, Part 1: Preperation

Around seven-eight months ago CCF decided to embark on a major project that would aim to put some of our captive cats back into the wild. However, if you think this simply involves opening the gates to a cheetah pen then you would be very wrong. Remember, our captive cheetahs were orphaned at a very young age and never had enough time with their mother to learn essential life skills, especially the art of hunting. There is no guarantee a cheetah that has been captive for most of its life will be able to hunt and survive on its own. Therefore the cheetahs we release would have to be radio-collared in order for us to track and monitor them. They would also have to be released into a controlled environment i.e. a game camp. This is what is known as a 'soft release'.

CCF has such a camp and is located on one of ours farms, Bellebenno. It is 4000ha and contains Kudu, Zebra, Oryx, Red Hartebeest, Steenbok, Duiker, Eland and Giraffe, in other words plenty of cheetah food! The Bellebenno camp was used for a similar soft-release project quite a few years ago however the two cats released escaped from the camp and had to be put back into captivity. This was a scenario that we really did not want to repeat and a huge part of this project has been making the fence line as escape proof as we could make it. Our biggest obstacle to achieving that were warthogs, who like nothing more than digging holes under the fence providing a perfect escape route for any cats inside. In the first soft-release project an experimental method was used with the aim of reducing the frequency of holes being dug. The method involved installing small ‘swing-gates’ along the entire fence line which would provide warthogs a way of entering and exiting the camp without the need to dig, all the while providing a visual barrier to the cheetahs and keeping them inside. However, at the start of this project we found that most of the swing gates were in need of repair or had gone missing altogether.

Restoring the swing gates was going to be a huge task so step up our Ranger James Slade. James has essentially been the project manager and as you will soon see deserves a huge pat on the back, more than anyone, for the success of the project (just don’t tell the Canadian bastard I said that). After fixing and numbering a whopping 172 swing gates the project was well and truly underway and so it was time for myself and Kate, cheetah keepers extraordinaire, to decide which of our 50+ cats to release. We knew we wanted to release a coalition, as that would gives us a greater chance of the cats learning to hunt, but age and personality were also considered. After some careful thought we decided on 8-year-old sisters Nestle, Hershey, Toblerone (aka the Chocolates) and their coalition mate, 10-year-old Chanel. Unbeknown to us at the time we had made the perfect choice as these four cats were destined to go down in CCF legend.

We chose these cats for numerous reasons; all four possess a fiery character, all four are excellent runners and they have been a coalition for many years, increasing the chances that they will stick together once released and help each other hunt. We did have a concern over Chanel’s age but thought it was worth the risk, as she appeared to be the group leader and is a big and extremely bold cat.

Now we knew who our release subjects were we started the process of ‘training’ the cats for the big day. We moved the Chocs and Chanel into their own pen and began getting them used to the type of meat that would be on offer to them in the camp, so we changed their diet to whole legs of Oryx, Kudu and Hartebeest. Kate and myself were very pleased to see all four girls immediately eat of the same leg with only the minor squabble. The pic below shows one of our student interns, Ryan, modeling one of the chocs and Chanel's first legs, Ryan became a crucial member of the cheetah tracking team and will get plenty of 'word time' in Part 2.

Meanwhile James was busy on another crucial part of the project, building a campsite from scratch. As I mentioned earlier, once the cats are released they would need monitoring everyday to see if they are hunting and eating for themselves. Therefore a tracking team would need to be permanently based in Bellebenno. A small section near the centre of the camp was cleared and transformed into a very comfortable camp complete with three tents, a fire pit, water tank, bush shower and toilet.

Kate and myself were not standing around doing nothing as throughout all this time we were busy filling in the existing warthog holes in the fence line with rocks and bush – this is a never ending task by the way as the warthogs continuously dig new holes and push out the rocks from the filled ones. So since the swing gates were completed either Kate or myself have been driving around the entire fence line checking for holes and filling them in almost every day. We have almost exhausted the supply of rocks lying around our farms and pretty soon we may have to consider blowing up the Waterberg Plateau for more.

The cats were tentatively scheduled to be released in early August and with that date fast approaching it was time to fit the girls with their radio-collars. One by one the girls were boxed and taken to our clinic where they were given a final health check and had the collars fitted. The girls were then transported back to the Bellebenno cheetah pens where two gates were the only things separating them from 4000ha of freedom.

To continue their feeding ‘training’ we then started giving the girls whole carcasses. At these feedings we saw encouraging signs of the girls killer instinct as when the carcasses were delivered one of the girls would grab the animal by the throat and hold on, just as a wild cheetah would do to kill their prey. The girls also continued to eat together harmoniously.

Everything was set and the day before the cats were due to be released everyone was extremely excited. So during my daily feeding routine I went to check on the girls only to find Hershey was missing. Chanel, Nestle and Toblerone came up to the fence expectantly looking for food but Hershey was nowhere in sight. I eventually found her lying under a tree looking extremely sorry for herself with a swollen throat. She showed no interest in food and was reluctant to even stand up. It appeared that she may have been stung or bitten by something and was definitely in no state to be released, much to our disappointment. Thankfully Hershey made a quick and full recovery but there were more delays due to problems with the tracking car, a car which, shall we say has ‘personality’ and will feature heavily in this epic story!

Finally on Wednesday the 1st of September 2010, the fence line was ready, the camp was ready, the car was ready and most importantly the cats were ready!

A freshly killed Oryx carcass was driven out to the pen followed by CCF staff and volunteers. The Oryx would be the incentive for the girls to leave their pen and provide them with a sound meal to give them energy for their first steps back to the wild. Once at the pen the viewing hoards were placed into the back of a couple of bakkies and positioned at the area the Oryx would be placed. The car with the Oryx then positioned itself in front of the cheetah pen holding the now very confused Chocs and Chanel. And after seven months of planning and hard work, James, Kate and myself stepped forward and opened the gates………