When you arrive at CCF you will be probably overwhelmed by all the information that you get. A million facts about cheetahs are explained to you in the museum of the visitor centre. Shortly after you will be taken to a safety and security briefing around CCF. While you are still thinking about the snakes, scorpions and spiders you should avoid you are already shown around on CCF’s land and where you will be sleeping for the next couple of weeks. There several work spaces in the office, nothing unusual. A poster on the wall shows a manager in a business suit saying “Volunteers are wonderful people.” I wondered why?
Lying in bed trying to process all the new information, the names of all the people and fighting the mosquitos this poster was still stuck in my head.
After your first night you try to fit into the routine at CCF. Almost every day you receive a different task. The tasks range from feeding cheetahs, releasing them into the wild, walking dogs, assisting with cheetah surgery, helping with goats, counting game to scanning documents for databases. The list goes on. Working days are long and exhausting. After all don’t expect a cheetah to forgive you if you decide to feed only on the next day just because it’s 5pm ;) On the other hand they will also reward you. One of them came to the fence on the day I was leaving, looked at me with her big orange-brown eyes and started to purr to tell me goodbye. I immediately knew that all the hard work paid off.
The animals already make your stay worth it. Where else can you encounter oryx, kudu, jackal on your morning run? But the people I met, made my stay unforgettable. The employees come from all around the world and they have so many stories to tell. Everyone enjoys what he is doing and this spirit is contagious. I felt welcome from the first minute. Usually tasks are assigned to more than one person so there is always someone to talk to if for once the work is not super exciting.
Obviously the after work activities couldn’t have been more fun. Getting a drink on the old water tower and enjoying the picturesque view on the Waterberg. The soccer games with the farmworkers. Playing card games until late at night or sitting at the fireplace and chatting. Everything had one thing in common. The people I met at CCF were wonderful. Maybe that manager on the poster was not so wrong after all. It should say though: “The people at CCF are wonderful!”
When the Leopard Pen Gate opened on Monday 23rd December, Minja, Jacominja and Emma were about to face life on their own, in the wild. Each of them had been fitted with a GPS tracking collar which regularly takes a new GPS location and transmits the new data back to us early each day. Each collar also has a VHF transmitter allowing us to track and find them on foot too. There was a huge amount of work that went on in the build up to this event and there is still much more to do. This is their story so far, and we will continue to keep you posted with their progress in the future.
Minja:Minja left the pen at the first available opportunity using the nearby road to explore the area and unfortunately we didn’t receive an update from her collar until the 27 December 2013. On the 29 December we spent the entire day looking for her and still had no good sightings. From the data sent to us from the GPS collar, we learned that on 30 December she moved from CCF land onto a neighbouring farm briefly and then back onto CCF land. We finally got the first proper sighting of her on 4 January 2014 on CCF land. On 5 January we found her again and fed her a large meal because we hadn’t yet had any confirmation that she had made a kill, however she did not look thin! Overall Minja seems to be doing well and is definitely independent, but we will continue to monitor her closely to ensure her well-being.
Emma:After the gates opened, Emma decided to stick around for a few days until she finally decided to leave the pen on 26 January 2013. From Leopard Pen she moved to an area relatively close by and we were able to find and feed her on 28 January. However, we spent the whole of New Year’s Eve looking for her and unfortunately were unsuccessful. According to the GPS data from her collar, she moved onto the neighbouring farm on 1 January 2014 and stayed until 2 January. On 3 January, Emma found us. We were about to drive through a gate, and she suddenly appeared behind the vehicle. It’s likely that she heard the feeding vehicle and had been following us for some time. We took the opportunity to move her back into Bellebeno, our re-wildling game camp to an artificial waterhole where we also fed her. She had to follow the car for about 2km so she earned her food for the day. The next day, we found her nearby where we left her as she had made her first confirmed kill! As soon as we approached, she picked up the kill and carried it off but we are quite sure it was a steenbok. On 6 January we found her yet again on another kill, which was also a steenbok. We are very happy with Emma’s success in this release, as she has already made two confirmed kills. We will continue to monitor her closely, but have high hopes for her future in the wild.
Jacominja:Like Emma, Jacominja decided to hang around in the enclosure for a few days before venturing out. On 26 December 2013, however, she left and moved to one of CCF’s other farms. Incredibly, on 28 December 2013, we found her on her first (known) kill, which was an adult male duiker. For having been out of the enclosure less than 48 hours, it’s impressive that Jacominja had already made a kill. On 30 December we found Jacominja again and decided to go ahead and feed her in case she was struggling to make a kill. We are teaching all our interns how to radio-track and on 1 January, one of our Dutch interns, Marianne, tracked Jacominja and found her. We decided to feed her again, just in case. A couple of days later, we found her on other kill, which was a young warthog and then again on 4 January, we found she had killed a steenbok. On 6 January she moved but we found her and again fed her. Jacominja is clearly doing well on her own in the wild with three confirmed kills, but like the others, we will continue to monitor her closely just to ensure she is coping well with her new life in the wild.
Thank you for your support of our resident cheetahs. Your support allows us to care for out cheetahs in residence and in some cases allows for their release back to the wild.
P.S. Dr. Marker will be on tour this spring. Come see her in a city near you. http://www.cheetah.org/?nd=event_and_tour_news
It has been a most important year for Luna. In July, she turned nine years old and was anaesthetized for an annual examination health check that was attended by a group of National Geographic students. During the annual, it was discovered that she had tooth issues. After her annual, she was moved from the Leopard Pen to the 57ha Bellebenno enclosure where she shared an enclosure with Kayla, Kiana, Bella, Padme, Jacomina, Minja and Emma. On 8 August, Erindi Private Game Reserve told CCF it was interested in taking two of our females to spend the rest of their lives in the wild. Luna was slated for release into the wild! She was crated the following day with another female cheetah named Athena, a four year old very wild female. The two were moved from Bellebenno to the Elands enclosure, at CCF headquarters. The two were put in the Elands pen to quickly habituate the pair so they would be easy for Erindi guests to view without having them run away. The females were fed whole warthog carcasses. Athena had no issues opening the carcass, but Luna struggled. On 8 October, Luna was anaesthetized again to receive four root canals on all of her canines. At this time she was also fitted with a satellite collar. Two days later Luna went back to Bellebenno, but this time she was placed into the 4,000ha soft-release camp to see if she was capable of hunting after her dental. Luna was in this camp in January 2012 and thrived, so it was crucial to make sure she retained the knowledge of how to hunt and find water. Luna proved to be a powerhouse in the soft-release and ended up taking out five eland calves in four days! On 15 October, Luna and Athena were captured again, this time to start a new life in the wild where they were released later in the afternoon. Luna struggled for the first week and a half in the new area and had to be supplemented with food three times. Since then, this regal female has become quite successful in her new home, drinking from the lodge waterhole and killing impala, steenbok, scrub hare, waterbuck, bat-eared fox and warthog. She will spend the remainder of her life in the wild. Thank you for supporting her over the years and giving her the opportunity to make it back into the wild. Thank you!
For me, coming to CCF was not only about fulfilling a long time dream of working with cheetahs but about conducting research as well. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland College Park (USA) and I work with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to investigate how stress is related to disease in captive cheetah populations. AA amyloidosis is a disease that is highly prevalent among the captive cheetah population in North America, but appears to be virtually nonexistent in wild cheetahs and I believe that this is due to the stress that being held in captivity imposes; this is the focus of my dissertation research. CCF and the Smithsonian have had a long and strong history of collaboration, so I took this opportunity to compare the captive cheetahs in the US to captive and wild cheetahs in Namibia. In order to measure stress in a cheetah, the hormone cortisol is commonly used. Hormones can most easily be measured in the blood, but collecting blood samples from a cheetah is both invasive and stressful, so instead, I use fecal samples. The amount of cortisol in feces varies from day-to-day, so I collect many samples over a long period of time to calculate an average, or baseline, for each individual. Once we have this information we can begin to investigate if stress may be directly related to AA amyloidosis.
A large amount of my time at CCF has been working directly with the husbandry team to prepare meat, feed cheetahs, and collect fecal samples daily for my study. Cheetahs at CCF are housed in groups, which makes the process a bit more complicated, because when we find a fecal sample in an enclosure we do not know which cheetah it belongs to. So what is the solution? I add different non-digestible markers, such as uncooked lentils, corn, or rice to each individual’s food. These markers will pass through the cheetah’s digestive tract and into their feces. This way, when I collect a fecal sample, I can look to see which marker is inside and instantly know which cheetah the fecal sample came from. Using this method, I have been able to collect samples from 34 of the resident cheetahs at CCF whom will be included in my study.
Caring for resident cheetahs often requires more than just routine feeding.
About seven months ago, one of CCF’s resident non-releasable cheetahs, Amani, developed a corneal lesion on her right eye: a cloudy area with a white speck barely visible. Initially the condition did not seem to irritate her, and we really could not train a wild cheetah to take eye drops! However, by late January 2013 the eye dramatically worsened, and the lesion progressed into a corneal ulcer. The eye began to tear excessively, and her nictitating membrane (a translucent third eyelid cheetahs have for moisture and protection) was raised, causing her to squint constantly --an indication of eye pain.
Amani thus began a series of anaesthesias. The first was to perform surgery -- suturing the nictitating membrane to the inside of the upper eyelid, thus forming a protective layer of tissue over the damaged cornea. The surgery, performed by CCF’s veterinarian, Amelia Zakiewicz, went without complications.
Amani was anaesthesised three more times over the next couple months to assess her progress, with the sutures redone each time to allow healing to continue. By the end of February, it was clear that the surgery had not worked. The ulcer was healing too slowly. We did a new procedure, called a conjunctival flap surgery. This two-hour long surgery involved suturing the membrane lining inside of eyelids directly to the cornea. Another eyelid flap was performed to further protect the ulcer and sutures. On 8 April Amani was again anaesthetised to assess the conjunctival flap surgery. The ulcer had improved, but a prolapse had occurred -- the iris had migrated into the ulcer to plug the defect. We were not pleased with this prognosis but monitor how the condition and see how it developed. However, the situation continued to deteriorate and therefore, on 22 April, after further assessment, we decided to remove her right eye, thus reducing her discomfort.
After almost three months, Amani has adapted to seeing with one eye and is capable of focusing on fences, feeding bowls and even meat treats thrown in her general direction. She is one of the best runners in her camp and is still chasing CCF’s feeding vehicle. She does not miss a thing! Amani is completely off all pain-related medications and now receives only a daily Omega-3 capsule. She recovered flawlessly from the surgery; however her eye has taken on the expected sunken appearance. We all wish Amani well, and hope that the coming months will be less problematic for her.
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