Life Line Case Studies - Harnas Wildlife Foundation

Female leopard Lost:

Lost, was gradually released into the Lifeline. The Lifeline is an area of about 8 000 ha populated with many different species, ranging from smaller animals, such as warthogs and steenbok, to large herbivores, like kudu. Throughout the slow release program, Lost was monitored 24 hours a day, until a stage was reached where she became familiar with an area and could be left to roam freely.

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Prior research in the Tsavo National Park on the sizes of the home range of 10 different leopards, using radio tracking for three years, varied considerably from 9 up to 63km². Density was estimated at one leopard per 13 square kilometres. The density levels of leopards in the wild vary considerably in Namibia, as it does in other areas, dependent on many environmental factors such as bush density and abundance of prey. Initial research on Lost found that she had a home range or territory of an estimated 5km².

During further research it became apparent that she had established a home location or home base, an area that she commonly frequents. In the earliest stages of the release program, she stayed at the primary release site, but as time passed she moved further away from this site. Frequent sightings of her further away proved that she increased her territory dramatically, possibly due to the lack of other female leopards in the area.

Three female cheetahs

Duma, Joany and Pride, all of which were hand raised, have undergone the soft release program. An area was chosen where there is a limited amount of danger for them. The cheetahs were approximately three years of age and in perfect condition for release at the time. On the release date volunteers were allocated to monitor and study their behaviour and movements. The volunteers were given research sheets to fill out, containing information to see whether the cheetahs would be able to survive or not. Initially the cheetahs’ movements and behaviour was a bit dull. On a few occasions the cheetahs stalked horses but soon found out the hard way that the selected prey was too large. Yet with each passing day they grew in confidence and their stalking methods improved dramatically.

Pride was first to figure out to use trees as cover to get close enough to sprint in for the kill, putting her superior speed to good use. At first the prey species were unsure how to react, as most of them had never seen the particular predators, but soon started displaying higher awareness. After the initial interaction, the prey used a lot more caution on approach of the water hole. It was also found that during their feeding times the prey species never lifted their heads, obviously not feeling threatened. After the cheetahs made a few kills, the prey species lifted their heads on intervals of 2-3 min, scanning their surroundings for threat.

During the dry Namibian winter, the water hole in the specific area dries up very quickly due to high evaporation levels and because it is the only source of water for a multitude of game. The water pump that refills the water hole can only pump a limited amount of water per day. This in turn caused the cheetahs to expand their hunting grounds as prey species had stopped frequenting the specific watering point, looking for water elsewhere.

Even when water was pumped into the watering hole, the cheetahs had gotten into the habit of traveling further to hunt. Distances travelled by each female on a daily basis were estimated between three and six kilometres. On a few odd occasions one cheetah travelled over ten kilometres in only a few hours. Success rate differed between the females. During the observation period, one female made nine kills, four of which were juvenile warthogs and five being juvenile kudus.

On most of these kills there were eyewitnesses that observed direct throat kills. The cheetahs applied pressure on the throat and the prey died within two minutes. During kills their prey only made a limited amount of noise, meaning that the cheetahs were applying sufficient pressure. Another interesting observation was where the cheetahs first started eating from. Cheetahs in the wild do not always have enough time to finish their kill due to inter- and intra- specific competitions and therefore start feeding from the rump where most nutrition is found.

On all kills made, the kill was opened from the rear and when they had enough time after the rump was completed, they continued onto the rest of the kill. This proves that they have all the instincts and capabilities to hunt and kill without a mother teaching them. Of all the large carnivores, female cheetahs spend the most time teaching their young how to hunt. Without this training their success as predators is not very high and thus could have fatal results. Yet contrary to this fact, it has been established that most predators maintain an instinct for hunting and by trial and error soon learn what works and what not, also proving that these amazing cats have problem solving abilities and a knack for remembering beneficial activities.

Max and Mauritz

Or lovingly M&M are two, three year old male cheetahs that arrived on Harnas in August 2011 from a similar establishment in the South of Namibia. The premise for the relocation to Harnas Gobabis was that they would become participants in our release program. As with all our cats, they started on soft release, meaning they were fitted with VHF collars and were started on day releases where we would drop them in the morning and track them in the afternoon, bringing them back before sunset.

M&M showed very quickly that they too could prove the same successes as Pride and after only four months of day releases we started them on overnight releases where we would leave them out for one, two or three nights at a time and we would carefully monitor their movements and hunting patterns to determine if/when they needed to be brought back to their enclosure before starting the process over again. Given their captive upbringing meant they had become accustomed to regular feeds and were not yet adapted to capturing their own food; therefore, we had to consider this when leaving them out for several days at a time. The process of leaving them out overnight sped up their release and confirmed our views on their ability to adapt to their new environment. We could quickly identify that their preferred prey species was juvenile blue wildebeest and in the peak of the wet season, they were found on several occasions having captured a wildebeest calf each.

By the end of January 2012, M&M were spending more time in the release site than in their enclosure, so the decision was made to officially name them as “released cheetahs”. Since then, they have established their territory of which they have actively defended from other wild males, have gained good predator awareness of the wild occurring brown hyenas and our released wild dogs and have developed a preference for blue wildebeest and warthog. Max (along with Pride) is also part of our Bio-Logging Science Project, which is being conducted in collaboration with The University of Tokyo, Japan. BLS is a scientific research project with specialized equipment, designed by the University of Tokyo, Japan. It enables scientists to study animals from a closer and much broader spectrum, i.e. the animal's viewpoint. Until now, BLS was only used on aquatic animals, but since February 2012 it has been implemented on land animals for the first time in history at Harnas Wildlife Foundation, Namibia. Our subjects are 1 Male cheetah, Max and 1 female cheetah, Pride.

Two types of loggers (GPS and D3GT) are deployed onto the subject’s collars to help us determine the following:


- The hunting success rate of cheetahs in the savannah,
- To identify all different behaviour patterns during daytime and nighttime.
- The maximum speed reached in the thickets,
- The difference of the behaviour between male and female
- The development of the newly released male's hunting ability.

Also, we have deployed a video logger onto our female cheetah, Pride, which recorded kills she made giving us an idea of how long she took from seeing the prey until catching it as well as how long it took her to suffocate it.

We have already discovered some new, groundbreaking facts about cheetah behaviour, which is helping our research department in understanding this species better. These findings have been published through The University of Tokyo at the end of 2012!

Pride

Pride was born on 1st May 2006 at Harnas Wildlife Foundation’s wild cheetah enclosure –she was removed given the threat to her safety imposed by the other cheetahs living in the same enclosure as they had already killed two of her siblings and it was feared that they would kill her also. She grew up in Marieta’s kitchen and lived with Trust, the lion, but he eventually became too big and boisterous for her and they had to be separated. Pride then moved in with Cleo, another cheetah that was born in the wild cheetah enclosure. They became ‘best friends’ and lived together on the farm. The volunteers walked them every day and sleep outs were always an experience – more often than not, volunteers would wake up in the sand having being carefully pushed off the mattress by Pride who had curled up, snugly and purring on top of their sleeping bag and mattress. Volunteers had no other choice but to spend the rest of the night sleeping in the dirt.

In 2009, Pride started on a soft release program in the Lifeline and the Harnas Research Program was founded. She was fitted with a VHF collar and released daily into the Lifeline and collected every evening. She showed very quickly that although she was hand raised, instincts never die. Her prey captures ranged from warthogs to juvenile kudu and her progress proved she was fit enough for a fulltime release. Her VHF collar was swopped with a GPS so her movements could be remotely tracked between sightings and on 12th June 2010, Pride was released fully. It did not take long for her to ‘settle in’ and she took down a large springbok within the first hour of her release.

For the first couple of weeks after her release, she stayed in the immediate area surrounding her release site but slowly and surely ventured further out and after almost two years of living in the Lifeline, Pride currently utilises the entire 8000ha site as her home range. Her hunting techniques have evolved as well as her interspecies predator awareness after encounters with brown hyena and more recently, our released wild dogs. She is well adapted to the densely vegetated woodlands and prefers hunting in these areas to the more open grassy plains. She will never lose her association towards humans but does not rely on them and is much less inclined to seek out attention as what she used to do.

On the morning of 17th March 2012, Pride was observed behaving in a way that was not typically characteristic of her. At 3:15pm that same day, we found Pride in a well-protected lair and her first cub (named Merci) – clean but still wet from Pride’s preening. Upon our return the following morning, we discovered the second cub (Beaucoup). For the first five days following their birth, Pride rarely left the cubs alone. On 22nd March, she made her first kill since the birth of the cubs – an adult springbok. Pride moved the cubs to a new lair every 48-72 hours with an average distance moved of 20 – 30m. As the cubs became more adapted to their surroundings and their senses developed, Pride would leave the cubs alone for more extended periods of time. Often leaving them just before daybreak and then returning just before sunset.

The cubs were now apt enough to follow her without her needing to carry them and at 6 weeks of age, they moved over half a kilometre from the previous lair sighting – the largest distance recorded thus far. Pride had also begun to widen her hunting area from the 2km radius surrounding the cubs to the furthest observed point 5kms away (as the crow flies). Our first observed prey capture sighting of Pride and the cubs came on 14th May 2012. Pride captured a young warthog and carried it over to the concealed cubs at which point all three shared in the feeding. This also marked the furthest recorded distance travelled by the cubs - almost 3kms from the previous recorded sighting.

The birth of Pride’s two cubs marks a new era for Harnas Wildlife Foundation and its Research Department. Not only has Pride’s release been successful as a hand raised large carnivore, being able to provide for herself without any human intervention, but now she has also made the ultimate contribution to the survival of her species. These cubs will remain with Pride and she will teach them how to hunt, how to survive and how to be free.


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