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.
On 7 November 2012, Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) staff was called to pick up five cheetahs that were caught inside traps set out by a farmer in the Gobabis region of Namibia (~ 6 hour drive from CCF headquarters). Before the CCF team arrived, they were informed that one of the cheetahs, a young female, died under unknown circumstances. The farmer led the team through a maze of gravel and dirt roads, and finally arrived to the site of the captured cheetahs. A chicken coop, a water trough, a metal trap-cage and a group of four highly stressed female cheetahs were what we found. After assessing the situation, we decided to capture the cheetahs into wooden boxes in order to transport them back to CCF.
Considering the heat of the day and the stress level of the cheetahs, the team worked as quickly as possible, eventually moving all 4 cats, one at a time, into the trap cage and then to the the transfer crate. The long journey home was not the end of the day. Around 21:00, CCF staff were still working up two of the females. One was an older female (3-5 years old) and the other was an older cub (~18 months). The two cats appeared to be in decent health. The following day, the other two females were worked up. One was a cub, which was in good health, the other was an adult female, whose condition was not as fortunate. This female had old injuries on and in between her paws and pads. Due to the degenerative state of her paws, Otjiwarongo veterinarian, Axel, assisted in the amputation of one of her toes, which had been severely broken. After the procedure, the cheetah recovered normally in a safe, cemented quarantine pen, to prevent her from moving too much and possibly worsening the wounds on her feet.
The amputee female, who was given the name “Toeless,” was scheduled on 15 November to go to the dentist to have two root canals performed on her canines as well as an incisor removal She was taken to Otjiwarongo, and the procedures were carried out by human dentist and loyal friend, Dr. Profitt. Under anaesthetic the condition of her paws was assessed, and although they were getting much better, she still needed more time to heal. Three weeks later, “Toeless” was anaesthetised again, but this time Dr. Profitt came to CCF to perform another root canal. Also during this time her pads were checked again and they were looking much better! She was fitted with a satellite collar and the bonding process between her and her previous chicken coop mates began. The four females were all in one pen the following day, and all went well. “Toeless” seemed anxious to have a large pen that she could move around in, so she ran up and down the fence line, while the “Mom” and two cubs hid in the grasses and watched. There was very little interaction between the females as a whole.
The next day, on 8 December 2012, CCF staff captured “Mom,” the other adult female, who may or may not be the mother of the two older, near independent cubs. She was anesthetised and also placed with a GPS/VHF combination collar. After a speedy recovery all four females were once again reunited. We kept the foursome together for another week and tried to bond them by having them share several warthog carcasses. The two adult females showed promising wild behaviours as they quickly opened up the carcass, which can be a very difficult feat for the inexperienced. The two cubs were more hesitant and usually waited to feed after the carcass was already opened. Finally, on 15 December, the four females were once again captured in transport crates and taken on a 45 minute drive to CCF’s soft-release camp, Bellebenno. This 4,000ha (nearly 10,000 acre) game camp is filled with premium game for these cats to feed on. Oryx, eland, kudu, red hartebeest, steenbok, duiker and warthog are all on the menu, and this time of the year is calving season. We decided on this location as it would give the females the best chance at survival, especially if they all split up. A warthog carcass was placed in the centre of the four crates that temporarily held the cheetahs. The release was in place. The crate doors were lifted and out ran the four females, in four separate directions, without even a glance at the free warthog. The CCF team quickly departed as to not interfere anymore with their behaviour.
In the following days, the two adult females’ satellite collars fed CCF staff information on their whereabouts. They remained separate from one another and “Mom” went onto our neighbours property after the first day of release. The second day, “Toeless” also left Bellebenno, but returned on day threee. The two cubs' locations are unknown as they were not fitted with satellite collars. Hopefully, several of CCF’s camera traps and ground tracking team will be able to observe the cats in the future, to assess their condition. All releases are complicated and must be carefully thought out, since each cheetah is different. As these four females were all wild prior to being captured, and are deemed to be healthy, our expectations on their ability to survive are high. With this, we are happy to know that four more cheetahs are back where they belong –in the wild. The survival of the species depends on it.
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