Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Einstein Update: You Win Some You Lose Some

Now not to worry, Einstein is alive and well; unfortunately however, he is now inside a large enclosure at N/a'an ku se's Wildlife Sanctuary. The reason for this is because in only a few weeks after his release Einstein proved himself to be a habitual livestock killer.
                       Einstein in the transport cage on route to N/a'an ku se's Wildlife Sanctuary.

Einstein had been a suspect in several other livestock kills last year but immediately after his collaring the signs were encouraging as we discovered his first kill of a Kudu. Sadly this proved the exception and not the rule.

The problem started when we received a call early one morning from one of our neighbours who had woken up to discover two of their sheep dead. We and our volunteers immediately drove to the farm to investigate the scene. Over night the sheep had been kept inside a well constructed kraal meaning the culprit had no problem jumping fences. Inside the kraal we found the two sheep who had been left as they were found; there were bite marks around the throats of both sheep and one had been completely opened with the stomach removed.

                       Bite marks around throat.                                        The removed stomach.

This evidence pointed clearly to cheetah as they have weak jaws and always suffocate their prey by clamping down on the throat and often remove the stomach which they leave untouched. In comparison leopards often kill their prey by biting on the back of the neck and are strong enough to jump over fences with the carcass. A hyena has the strongest bite of any mammal and kills are often found with crushed skulls with full parts of the body missing.  Due to the other sheep trampling over the scene and hard substrate, tracks were difficult to accurately identify, only one was clear on the outside of the kraal which we identified as belonging to a cheetah.

We discussed the situation with the land owners and they were happy for us to explore the area more to look for tracks, place camera traps and for us to paint lion faeces on the kraal as an olfactory repellent. At the time we didn't suspect Einstein as his most recent GPS location transmitted from his collar was far away from the area. However, when his next GPS point came in for the night the sheep were killed it was directly over the scene of the crime. Dishearteningly, to kill these two sheep Einstein had moved a significant distance through areas with game species. 

The scenario and nature of the kill was similar to the livestock kills we had seen last year but we wanted to give Einstein a chance to prove he wasn't an habitual livestock killer. Therefore, we began intensive monitoring of his movements; we changed the settings on his GPS collar (which we can do from a laptop) to transmit a GPS location every hour, so when he showed movement back towards the livestock area we could immediately go to his location and scare him away. This strategy appeared to be working and we were encouraged when he moved onto Neuras in an area we knew had many springbok. However, come the evening he had quickly moved through our farm and onto the land of the Zebra River Lodge to the south which we also knew had many game animals; we then hoped he would make a kill in this area.

Disappointingly, it would be the events of this night that would prove beyond doubt that Einstein had a preference for hunting livestock. Our farm manager Dawie was closely monitoring Einstein's half-hourly GPS points and saw that he was making a deliberate beeline back to Neuras, and to the kraal holding Dawie's sheep. Dawie jumped in the car and discovered Einstein inside the perimeter fence that surrounds the vineyards and our living quarters, chasing his cows with two sheep already dead in the kraal. Einstein was forced away but his actions had now sealed his fate; he had again moved through game abundant areas and showed great determination to enter heavily fenced areas close to human living quarters to gain access to livestock. We had no choice but to label him officially as a 'problem' cheetah.

Thankfully, Einstein's impulse to mark the tree where we had trapped him was still very strong and he had returned to it twice since his collaring.

                                         Einstein returning to the cheetah marking tree.

Two days after being chased away from Neuras he went back to the area near the marking tree so we immediately placed the trap cage back and just as before the very next morning we found him inside the cage. It was a very bittersweet moment for everyone; Einstein would no longer be a wild cheetah which was crushingly disappointing especially after the excitement we felt when we placed his collar on only weeks before. However, if we failed to trap him, sooner or later his preference for hunting livestock would have brought him into further conflict with livestock farmers and would almost certainly have resulted in him being shot.
                                         Einstein in the trap cage for the second time.

We are planing on building a cheetah enclosure here at Neuras this year and the plan is to bring Einstein back home to spend the rest of his life as a spoiled captive cheetah and to act as an ambassador for his species.

In closing, this was of course the outcome we wanted to avoid when we collared Einstein but it demonstrates effective mitigation of human/carnivore conflict. We have worked closely with our neighbours and were transparent with our intentions and methods. The case of Einstein has demonstrated to our neighbours that we will take action when we prove an animal is proven to be a livestock killer. This will hopefully encourage more farmers to call us for help and work with us to ensure cats, such as Lightning, that are not habitual livestock killers are able to remain in the wild.

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