Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Neuras Guide to Catching a Cheetah

Our core aims here at Neuras are to monitor the resident carnivore populations in the area and work with the local livestock farmers in order to mitigate human/carnivore conflict. An essential part of this process is to trap the resident carnivores and place GPS radio collars on them to enable the intensive study of their movements and behaviour. Identification of kills such as kudu, warthog and zebra can help us demonstrate to the farmers that a particular individual prefers to predate on game species and poses little threat to their livestock. Just this week we used GPS data to find another of Lightning's kills; a female Kudu.
                                                    Lightning the Leopard's latest kill.

However, if an individual is proven to be responsible for regular livestock predation we then work with the farmer on preventative measures such as the painting of an olfactory repellent like lion faeces onto their goat/sheep kraals or by tracking them and making loud noises to turn them away from the livestock area. Remember, this is only possible if the animal is fitted with a GPS collar. 
                     Painting lion faeces onto kraal fence, the not so glamorous side of conservation!

Trapping a wild carnivore is not easy, however we recently successfully caught a male cheetah in a text book manner that ideally demonstrates the process we go through to trap resident carnivores. 

Step 1: Site Investigation
At Neuras we and our volunteers spend a lot of time exploring the Estate and our neighbour's property searching for carnivore activity i.e tracks, scat and marking trees. The Northern part of our property includes an area up to the face of the Naukluft Mountains. Rain flows down this mountain face and has created many small river beds that we have suspected carnivores may use as walkways. During many days of site investigating over the past few months leopard, cheetah and hyena tracks were found in these riverbeds and a potential marking tree was discovered.  We could then move on to Step 2.
                                            Exploring the base of the Naukluft Mountain.

Step 2: Camera Trap Cluster Study
A cluster study is where many camera traps are placed in a small area. In this instance we placed 8 camera traps in an area only spanning 2.7kms at the base of the Naukluft Mountain; 7 in small river beds and 1 at the potential marking tree. This was so we could see exactly where the carnivores were moving and determine the best location for the trap cage.
                                           Locations of the cluster study camera traps.

Step 3: Cluster Study Analysis
The cameras were left in place for four weeks with exciting results.  We discovered that a single male cheetah visited the area on a regular basis. He was caught on camera several times at the marking tree (Site 8) and once at Site 4. In this time no other large carnivore was captured by the cameras.
                                              Pictures of male cheetah at Site 8 (marking tree).

This particular male cheetah was no stranger to us however, as we had seen him before at other camera trap locations (we could determine this by analysis of his spot patterns). In fact we had previously set up trap cages in two other locations in attempts to trap him; both of these traps were also placed at potential marking trees. However, over a two month period he only returned to one of these trees on a single occasion and did not enter the cage. We suspected that the trees were not 'true' marking trees and his impulse to mark his territory on them was not very strong.  
          The same male cheetah caught on camera at a less frequented marking tree and trap cage.

He also visited another trap cage location in a river bed baited with meat, but again refused to enter the cage (see above pic). These failed attempts lead us to nickname him "Einstein". However,  the results from this cluster study gave us confidence as the frequency he visited this newly discovered tree was much higher and he consistently urinated and defecated around the tree. It appeared we had finally found 'Einstein's' preferred tree to mark and communicate with other cheetahs in the area. 

Step 4: Setting up the Trap Cage
Placing a trap cage at a marking tree requires a lot of work as you have to create a thorn bush boma around the tree leaving the cheetah with only one way through to the tree - the cage.  The circumference of the boma has to be quite large as the cheetah needs to be able to see the tree through the cage when he approaches and it also has to be tall enough to discourage the cheetah from jumping over. Our Week Five volunteers worked tirelessly all day chopping down thorn bush and creating the perfect boma. All that was left was to set the cage - a simple trigger plate mechanism located in the middle of the cage that releases the two doors to drop when an animal steps on it.
                          Preparation and final set up of the thorn bush boma with trap cage.

Step 5: Cross your Fingers and check the Cage!
We headed back out out to the cage first thing the next morning. Cages have to be checked every day not only to ensure any carnivore inside is taken care of as soon as possible but other animals like jackals, porcupines and warthog could also get trapped and would have to be set free. Upon our approach we could see that the doors of the trap cage were down. Due to our previous experiences our first thoughts were that a mongoose or rabbit had gone in. But to our amazement as we got closer it was clear there was a big cat inside the cage, it was Einstein! The cage was immediately covered with shade netting and Einstein was provided with water.
                                                          'Einstein' in the trap cage.

Step 6: Collar and Release
The call was made and later that evening Einstein was darted by a veterinarian and fitted with a new GPS radio collar. Because of the late hour Einstein was placed back in the cage to sleep of the drugs with no risk of coming into contact with aggressive Hyenas. We headed out to the cage early the next morning and found a very awake and grumpy Einstein, the cage was open and quick as a flash he was gone. A perfect end to a near perfect process of carnivore capture! We hope our luck continues as we look to trap other resident cheetah, leopard and hyena to further our research and good relationships with livestock farmers.
         N078 ('Einstein') being fitted with his new GPS radio collar and being released.

Huge thanks to our volunteers who's hard work made the collaring of Einstein possible. Volunteer update from this group coming soon.

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