Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Bellebenno Release, Part 3: Natural Born Killers

Would it continue? Well I am sat writing this blog entry 79 days after Chanel made her first kill and since then the girls have been on what can only be described as a killing rampage! The total to date consists of: 5 Oryx, 2 Warthog, 3 Kudu, 4 Steenbok, 4 Duiker, 1 Scrub Hare, 3 Red Hartebeest and 29 Eland calves.

The girls have been followed every day and what we have seen and learned has been fascinating. Chanel has continued to be the group leader and main hunter. Whenever Chanel moves, the others follow, and when on the hunt she is the one who is focused on finding prey, she even stands up on termite mounds to get a better view of her surroundings.
Nestle and Toblerone have also made kills of their own, whilst Hershey helps bring the prey down but has yet to do the killing. However, she does have the very important role of the ‘can opener’ and is the first to open up the carcass, allowing the others to start eating. Chanel has yet to learn this skill and demonstrates how staying together has been a huge advantage for the girls with each having a role in surviving.

The fact they have stayed together is one of the extremely interesting outcomes of this project. It appears females who have lived together for many years in captivity will stay together if released into larger areas, completely going against what wild females would do. Whenever the girls do get separated for a little while (after a failed chase or walking through dense bush) they will start frantically calling for each other, especially Nestle who appears to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. This strong separation anxiety is something you usually only see in a close coalition of males or a mother and her cubs.

Throughout the past 86 days myself and Kate have taken turns being out in the bush and we have both loved being with the girls and seeing them live as wild cheetahs. My experiences in the bush have definitely been a major highlight of my two plus years here at CCF. One evening Ryan and myself were walking with the girls through the bush with the sun setting spectacularly over the African bush, it was a magical moment and one where I had to pinch myself to realise where I was and what I was doing.

Another highlight included running behind the girls who were in chase of a group of Warthogs, it was a frantic couple of minutes with cheetahs and warthogs running all around me. The cats ended up catching a piglet before having to drop it due to a ferocious charge by the piglet’s mother! Warthogs are tough opponents and the girls do not go after them that often. Also the sight of three cheetahs (the Chocs) chasing a group of Giraffe was another sight you don’t see every day. Chanel was being smart and chasing Eland instead!

When this project first got under way our biggest fear was that the cats would simply find a way through the game fence and venture onto our neighbours land with the possible scenario of them coming into contact with livestock…….NOT good.
And if I had written this blog last week I would be telling you that we had had complete success with keeping the cats in. However, on Monday morning I was awoken at 6.20am by Ryan calling from the bush to inform me that Toblerone had escaped! We had always known that this was a possibility and had a emergency action plan in place for such an occurrence. So myself, Kate, James, vet Anais and vet tech Rosie were soon on our way to Bellebenno with a transport box, darting equipment and a horse leg. When we arrived we met up with the tracking team of Ryan and one of other student interns Aymeric. They had found Chanel, Hershey and Nestle calmly sat by the side of the road with Toblerone pacing up and down on the other side of the fence frantically calling to them trying to find a way back in. This was good news as we could go about tempting her back in the camp with the horse leg rather than having to dart her. We removed one of the swing gates and tried to tempt Toblerone to come through but despite being extremely interested in the leg she was too nervous to enter. James then cut the wire directly above the gate making the hole for her to enter much larger but despite my efforts waving the leg in front of her she still would not come back in.

We would not be outsmarted however and by tying the leg to some string we carried out a bit of cheetah 'fishing'. We stood further back and chucked the leg by the gate. Slowly but surely Toblerone inched forward in pursuit of the moving leg until she was fully through the fence. I then quickly ran behind her and blocked the exit and gave a huge sigh of relief. We then chucked the girls the horse leg and all four ran of into the bush with their prize. James fixed the fence and swing gate and the drama was over. It remains a bit of a mystery how she escaped as all the swing gates were in place and no obvious holes found. Hopefully, her uncomfortable experience being separated from the others will mean that however she did it, she won’t try it again!
So apart from this week’s drama the swing gates for these cats have worked, Hershey was even seen chasing a warthog that ran through one but she brought herself to a complete stop when the gate closed behind it and she didn’t try and follow. Many years in captivity in this instance appears to have limited the girls desire to investigate weakness' in the fence.

It has to be said that all members of the tracking team performed admirably, all except one……..Jetson. He let the good name of Land Rover down and despite having a few ‘quirks’ at the start of the project earning him some affection he soon underwent as series of consistent breakdowns and is now sat in the barn looking very sorry for himself.

Student interns Ryan and Aymeric deserve a huge pat on the back for their work and if you follow this link:

you will be directed to the official CCF blog where the guys posted numerous updates about the release. However, I just can’t help but embarrass them a little (Aymeric is French after all). You see, on their first day of tracking unsupervised we got a call and had to go and rescue the pair as Aymeric had somehow managed to drive into the only hole on the Bellebenno roads, this picture speaks for itself:

So what now? Well I can’t go into too much detail just yet but the girls will hopefully have a new home in the very near future, a home of similar size to Bellebenno where they can continue to live life hunting for themselves. We can then place new cats into the camp and start the process again. I will of course post an update as soon as anything happens.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Bellebenno Release, Part 2: First Blood

With the gates now open and a delicious looking Oryx right in front of them, Chanel, Hershey and Toblerone walked slowly out and followed the car to the shady area chosen to drop the carcass. Chanel led the way and was extremely keen to get to her meal and helped drag the carcass of the back of the bakkie.

Chanel was quickly joined by Hershey and Toblerone and started eating. Nestle however, was still in the pen refusing to come out. I took a piece of meat and showed it to her and hoped she would follow me out but the abnormal presence of lots of people and cars was just too much and she would go nowhere near the gate. This was actually a serious problem because the last thing we wanted was for Chanel, Hershey and Toblerone to wander of into the camp leaving Nestle behind. So everyone apart from Kate, Ryan, James and myself were ordered to leave and we set about the task of getting Nestle out.

We tried for half an hour to no avail and the prospect of cutting the fence was seriously discussed, try as we may Nestle just would not follow the feeding car and could not be forced out of the gates. Before cutting the fence we thought we’d try one more time only this time we would drive the car along the outside of the fence and this time to our relief, Nestle followed all the way to the gate where I then jumped out (Ninja style of course) with a whole Oryx leg, slowly but surely Nestle crept forward, I threw the leg down and backed away. My heart was in my mouth as she inched forward towards it, when she pounced on the leg I lunged forward and managed to shut the gates behind her. This startled Nestle and away she ran joining the other three with the carcass. Phew! We placed a water bowl with the cats and left them to finish their meal in peace.

For the first two weeks Kate and myself would take turns joining James and Ryan in the bush tracking the girls. I was up first and it was a great feeling sitting around the campfire watching the sunset knowing the girls were finally out in the game camp.

Now would be a good time to introduce you to the three characters that make up the main tracking team, first we have our Ranger, James Slade who has been mentioned in several of my previous blogs, usually in relation to non-cheetah related topics such as Infected Mushroom and Morkel metres. But as a side project to such endeavors James had also gained plenty of experience ideal for this project by tracking the 5 male cheetahs released into NamibRand Nature Reserve.

Joining him was one of our student interns from the states Ryan Sucaet. To say Ryan is a bit of a character would be an understatement, for Ryan is a guy who speaks in his own language that involves needlessly shortening words. Examples of ‘Ryanisms’ include ‘saw’ for sorry, ‘delish’ for delicious, ‘perf’ for perfect and ‘newb’ for someone who is a beginner at something. He also believes he has a deep connection with the constellation Scorpios and is certain he will die at the age of 26 and therefore refuses to wear sunscreen…something I am determined to beat out of him!!!!

Finally we have the tracking vehicle Jetson, a 20-year-old Land Rover that has seen better days. When Jetson was first resurrected back to life by our mechanic he made odd ‘whoop whoop whoop’ sounds that were not too dissimilar to the sounds the spaceships made in the Jetson cartoons, hence the name.

Tracking the cheetahs begins early, so with stars still in the sky we emerged from our tents and prepared for the first day of following the cats. We jumped aboard Jetson and headed off to where we left the girls with the carcass fully expecting to find all four girls still lying by it with full bellies, too heavy to move. However, when we arrived at the carcass we only found Chanel in attendance. The tracking equipment was brought out and the beeps heard on the receiver from the choc’s collars lead us in the direction of one of the waterholes and sure enough when we arrived at Hogs Heaven waterhole we found cheetah spoor.

We followed their signals deeper into the bush where we eventually found them exploring their new territory. We followed them for most of the morning until it was time to head back to the campsite where Kate would be waiting with the feeding bakkie to swap places with me. The fact that the chocs had found one of the waterholes during their first night was really good news, but the fact they left Chanel behind was very worrying and at the end of that first day we thought we may have to consider placing Chanel straight back into the pen.

The next day I drove back out to Bellebenno and found Jetson parked on one of the roads, Ryan and Kate emerged from the bush and told me the good news that the chocs had joined back up with Chanel over night and were sat together not far into the bush. James then came running out of the bush very excitedly shouting: ‘They are making a kill!!’ We all ran as fast as we could and followed James back into the bush where the sound of loud grunting could be heard. The cause of the noise soon became clear as we were greeted by the sight of Chanel biting down on the back of a fully-grown Oryx’s neck! The Oryx was making a lot of noise and was trying to shake Chanel off. Chanel was in a very awkward position sat on top of the Oryx’s head right between it’s horns and completely in the wrong position in order to make a kill.

It took us all a while to believe what we were seeing and my heart was pounding out of my chest, desperately hoping Chanel would not get impaled by one of the Oryx’s incredibly sharp horns. Meanwhile the chocs were sat under a tree not taking any interest in getting involved. Unable to get a good hold of the Oryx Chanel let go and quickly backed away missing the Oryx’s swipe of it’s horns. The Oryx then ran away leaving Chanel to catch her breath. There we were only the night before considering putting her back into captivity whereas now we had just witnessed her attempting to hunt! There was no more action for the rest of the day but unbeknown to us Chanel was only getting warmed up.

We found the girls the next morning walking along one of the roads when they decided to stop and sit under a nearby tree. To not disturb the girls too much we parked Jetson 50 metres or so from the cats. I was given first observation duty and walked over to the area where the girls had flopped and sat myself in the shade expecting to be there for a while watching the girls sleep. I couldn’t have been sat for more than 2 minutes when Chanel darted off into the bush quickly followed by the chocs, before I had even got to my feet the familiar grunting sound of an Oryx in distress could be heard. I excitedly ran back to the car to get James and Ryan and we all sped off in the direction of the grunting. Again we found Chanel battling with an adult Oryx only this time she had it by the throat! Again my heart was pounding; watching this life and death battle no more than 10 metres in front of me was one of the most intense moments of my life. After 15 minutes of struggling, Chanel finally brought the Oryx down, its throat now covered in blood.

We really thought this was it, the first kill. But the Oryx used all its strength to get back on its feet. Chanel was now exhausted; again the chocs just sat back and watched, but still Chanel fought and pulled the Oryx back down. The battle had now lasted 30 minutes; this is the stuff the wildlife documentaries cut out, there you see the predator catch their prey and the cut is to a shot of the animal dead, it appears quick and easy, this is not always the case. It was a strange feeling willing an animal to be killed, but this was exactly what this project was about, was it possible for a captive cat to learn to hunt? We willed Chanel to finish the job but it was just too much, without help from the others keeping the Oryx down she had run out of energy and let go. The Oryx staggered to its feet and stood in shock for a few minutes, its throat torn and bloody and its horns bent out of shape. When it came to it’s senses it ran of into the bush, it had had a very lucky escape. Chanel was exhausted and so were we from the adrenaline rush! All I could think was: ‘what a cat!’ If only the chocs would help.

For the next few days the girls continued to explore their new home and to our relief they showed no sign of trying to find a way through the perimeter fence. They were even seen sniffing at the swing gates but did not try and push through them – our hard work on the fence line had paid off. One morning we discovered that Chanel had a significant slash on her right rear leg, thankfully it was superficial and did not appear to be causing her any discomfort.

This was more than likely an injury sustained whilst hunting and looked very much like a wound a warthog could inflict (since this injury Chanel is very reluctant to chase after warthogs). Six days had passed since the girls had eaten and it was decided to provide them with some food, so the next day we fed the girls two small Red Hartebeest legs. We calculated that this meal would be enough to give them some energy but left them hungry enough to want to go and hunt.The day after we had fed the girls the Hartebeest legs, day 8 of the release, I was with James and Ryan following the girl’s signals through the bush but this time it was different as the signals were quickly changing direction and getting stronger and then weaker, this meant they were moving….quickly. Our pace quickened in pursuit and as the signals became constantly strong I caught a glimpse of movement ahead in the thick bush. As we slowly approached the bush opened up slightly and we saw something that put a big smile on our faces, the chocs were eating a juvenile Oryx. Chanel was sat to the side panting heavily with blood all over her face, she had done it, she had made her first kill!

James, Ryan and myself silently congratulated ourselves, sat down and enjoyed the show. All four girls took turns in gorging themselves and we left them that day passed out in the shade with enormous bellies. It was a very good day!

The news was spread all around CCF to everyone’s excitement. At this point the release had gone amazingly well, better than we had dared hope; the cats were staying together, they had found water, the fence line was keeping them in and Chanel had made a kill. The question now was would it continue?