Working with Cheetah


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Africa » Namibia
September 30th 2006
Published: September 30th 2006
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Sitting here at a keyboard on a muggy spring night in Outjo, unable to sleep thanks to the efforts of a particularly noisy mozzie in my room and a probable OD of caffeine earlier in the day, I feel as if I am back at school with an essay crisis (except for the fact that I wrote essays by hand in those days). Admittedly, this is an essay crisis of my own making: I want to get the blog for the most recent part of my trip written up before I go bush on Sunday and forget all about the last month’s experiences.

I think that it is safe to say that, when I was describing my trip to friends in advance, this second conservation project in which I was going to get involved as an Earthwatch volunteer was the part of my travels that triggered the most envious noises: two weeks (which, thanks to circumstances beyond anyone’s control triggering the cancellation of a ten-day trip through the Drakensburg and Lesotho to Durban, subsequently became nearly four weeks) at the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

CCF was set up by Laurie Marker, still its Executive Director today, in 1990, its aim clear from its title. Pedants would argue that the cheetah is not actually (nor, more contentiously, according to this view, particularly likely to become) an endangered species in Namibia, but I won’t get involved in that debate. CCF owns five farms to the west of the Waterburg Plateau in northern-central Namibia, an area that is now home to the largest concentration of cheetah in the world. Its activities include looking after cheetah that cannot be re-released into the wild, teaching visiting tourists about the cheetah, its ecology and environment through an extensive Education Centre on the main farm, providing a base for scientists undertaking related research projects in the area, and running safaris in the game park and through cheetah enclosure on one of the other farms, Bellebeno. Most impressively, to my mind, CCF has developed thought-provoking and popular courses for farmers and often-illiterate farm workers on how to manage livestock and deal, in a conservation-friendly fashion, with the threat to livestock from predators, of which the cheetah is only one of a number that include leopard, hyena, jackal and wild dog. In due course, I believe that CCF’s methodologies may be rolled out to those African countries where the
Tylee's puppies at 5 weeksTylee's puppies at 5 weeksTylee's puppies at 5 weeks

three weeks later their fur was starting to fade to a more adult cream colour and their blue eyes were turning brown
cheetah is undeniably endangered, such as Kenya, Botswana and Tanzania. In conjunction with this predator-management role, CCF breeds Anatolian guard-dogs, a Turkish breed that is well-suited to looking after livestock herds, particularly goats, by barking at - and thereby deterring - would-be predators. These dogs are then given free of charge to farmers complaining of problem predators: the waiting list is two years’ long! The whole set-up is financed by a network of CCF-fundraising organisations in North America, Europe and Japan, as well as by institutions such as Earthwatch.

For me, what made the time I spent there really memorable and, above all, fun was nothing to do with anything feline - albeit it was, of course, the cats that had attracted me there in the first place - but everything to do with things human: the staff and volunteers are, without exception, tremendous and extraordinarily motivated people. It’s to CCF’s credit that the vast majority of the current staff started life as volunteers there, whether through Earthwatch or otherwise: the hyper-efficient Lorraine from England whose title of “Administration Officer” doesn’t begin to reflect her key role in running day-to-day life at CCF; Marianne, the vivacious Dutch vet-tech, now taking on more and more responsibility for operations in CCF’s clinic as well as managing cheetah- and puppy-feeding; and Phil from Chicago, less than monosyllabic in the morning, but who comes alive when he talks to and about the individual cheetah under his care. In addition, there are the perma-volunteers, those who come back regularly for extensive periods of time: “Aussie James” who will do anything and everything outdoors, preferably involving serious machinery, and Steve-the-IT-guy who remarkably takes an extended vacation in order to do work at CCF doing something that, on the face of it, is remarkably close to his day job but in the more challenging circumstances of CCF and the vagaries of Namibian communications systems and power supplies; and the student volunteers who tend to spend 3-6 months with CCF, such as Matt from England who wants to specialise in big cats at the end of his Animal Management degree but found himself in charge of two litters of Anatolian puppies even though he had never owned a dog before; Tinika from Canada, adventurously choosing Namibia as her first destination outside North America; Monica from Namibia with her kookie style but quiet dedication to the Education Centre;
an additional hazard for the technology in this part of the worldan additional hazard for the technology in this part of the worldan additional hazard for the technology in this part of the world

well, can you blame them? PCs and their attendant paraphernalia are usually nice and warm!
and the more studious-appearing Gabriel but who was always ready for a lighthearted break if we asked him to open up the gift shop and provide us with sodas. There are also some non-volunteer-background permanent staff including Bonnie, a lively South African, who has been here for over ten years, specialising in clinic operations and running the livestock and predator management courses; Matti, a delightful Namibian senior research assistant, in charge of game counts; and Fabiano, another Namibian senior research assistant, but more quietly-spoken and serious than Matti. Finally, there are the visiting scientists, albeit only one at the moment: a Bostonian-born UMass PhD student, Andrew, who is in the final field-time months of his study of leopard and brown hyena in the area.

All in all, the atmosphere was extremely gregarious, and more like college life than anything more “grown-up”. Meals were taken communally at The Hot Spot (as the refurbished dining area was now supposed to be known), cooked by either Anna or Cecilia except for breakfast and Sunday lunch which were on a grab-your-own basis. While the food wasn’t quite haute cuisine, it managed to be reasonably varied and usually provided in large quantities. Dinner was often proceeded by sundowners (or, in one case, what became known rather unsubtly as “piss-downers” on the day of the unexpected thunderstorm) at the top of the Tower, a curious folly of a structure beside the kitchen which incorporated a decidedly contrary-to-health-and-safety-regulations arrangement of steps and ladder in order to enable people to ascend to its heights. To my chagrin, I took a mini-tumble down the steps - or, more accurately, the last step - on my penultimate night (after only ONE beer, before any of you make any insinuations!). When I heard a crack, my heart sank: visions of X-rays, plastercasts and an unscheduled early flight back to the UK floated before my eyes. To my huge relief, nothing appeared to be broken and I was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity, not to mention the first aid expertise, of my fellow volunteers and the staff: within minutes, the attendant scrapes were being doused in iodine (more lovingly tended than any of the myriad of scratches and holes I’d picked up from the thorn bush that is prevalent in this area), the suspect ankle wrapped up in ice, and the associated stomach fed with food brought to my “sick bed”, one of the benches in the outside dining area. The next morning, I could walk on it without pain, albeit slowly; now, a couple of days on, I am pretty much mended. Guardian angel working overtime, again.

But we didn’t just eat and drink: there was work to be done! Monday to Friday, the working day was 8 am - 5 pm; Saturday, 8 am - 1 pm, theoretically; and Sunday was, again, theoretically, a day off, except for the essential activities, fence-checking and animal-feeding (although most of the cheetah were fasted to replicate the fact that, in the wild, they would not manage to feed every day). Each day was different: every evening, Lorraine would post up a schedule of the next day’s activities, detailing who’s doing what, with whom and, if relevant, with which of CCF’s quirky range of vehicles - but events would often overtake meticulous planning, something which we all happily accepted and which is, after all, part of the fun of working with animals in this environment. When we weren’t involved in particular activities on the schedule, we were expected to get on with our “ongoing projects”. These had been allocated and/or developed by Laurie and Lorraine after a brainstorming session with the volunteers during our first day, and varied enormously: Terry and Marion from England were responsible for repainting the many gates around the main farm; Nikki, a playwright from New York, was teaching her skills to a local writer, Patricia, with a view to Patricia being able to write short, easy-to-produce, educational plays for children on conservation-related subjects; Dave, a microbiologist from Slough, was undertaking scat-analysis for cheetah, dogs and goats, particularly with regard to the regular worming of the animals (I was most offended that my recent dung-analysis skills were not being put to good advantage, but I accepted that there’s a world of difference between pulling seeds out of elephant dung and examining scat under a microscope!); Paul, Linda and Patti from the US were working with Laurie on a grant proposal; and Carol from Edinburgh, an artist, was developing material from which she could produce greeting cards and other items for CCF to sell in the local shop and worldwide to raise funds.

So what was I asked to do? Any guesses? If I say that Laurie is quick to pick up on, and then work with, volunteers’ existing skills and experience, would that provide a hint? Yes, you got it: I was asked to advise on a number of legal issues. For the first time in seven months, I had to dust off my “legal brain”: a truly scary prospect! I was initially nervous about this - I’m not, after all, expert in either Namibian or conservation law, and I feared that Laurie was making the age-old assumption that a lawyer from Somewhere who specialises in Something, can be a lawyer Anywhere specialising in Everything. But my fears were assuaged when I found myself on more familiar, intellectual property-related, territory: reviewing and amending contracts for film crews and photographers visiting CCF. Laurie also wanted to brainstorm a number of strategic and tactical issues, and I found myself in the delightful, but novel, position of instructing external lawyers both in Namibia and abroad (a previous Earthwatcher had persuaded her international law firm to do CCF’s legal work on a pro bono basis) about what needed to be done on a range of matters.

However, the legal stuff didn’t take up all of my spare time, albeit it did involve a late Friday afternoon conference call with
the pangolinthe pangolinthe pangolin

a rare animal, this one had been picked up from the road into town and brought in for examination before being re-released
the US (BIG sense of déjà vue...) and it did on one occasion eat - rather familiarly - into a Saturday afternoon. No, the majority of my time was taken up on the Scanning Project (it merits capital letters, believe me!). Laurie wanted her accumulated articles and other know-how scanned onto the computer system and then catalogued. Successive Earthwatchers had worked on this thankless task, but this meant there had been no consistency in approach and therefore zero continuity. I was asked to assess where we were with the project, and to complete it: what a gift for my often-anally-retentive organisational skills! And, in fact, I am going back to CCF for a week towards the end of October to complete this - well, there are other considerations behind my return, but it looks more virtuous if I phrase it like this!

But the really fun part, of course, was our involvement with the animals. Each day, excluding Sunday, CCF’s current population of 38 cheetah need to be fed. The menu usually comprises kilo-or-more-sized hunks of meat, the exact portions depending on the particular animals, with occasional variations such as organs (heart and liver) and/or heads, all of which is provided from donkeys. Don’t worry, I didn’t photograph these aspects of my work, though I found it interesting that, as a vegetarian who used to be squeamish when buying meat for Colin off supermarket shelves, I had no problem at all in handling all of the raw meat and waste products that were now part of my job.

The cheetah were fed in three phases. First up were the girls at Bellebeno. This farm includes a 64 ha enclosure which houses 15 female cheetah, and, latterly, in a separate 1 ha enclosure, the old lady of the current feline population, Elsie who, at 15, is generally considered to be about three years past her expected sell-by date. Apart from Elsie who is fed separately as befits her senior years, the cheetah are required to run behind the vehicle for exercise before earning their meal which is thrown out to them individually. We soon got to know which cheetah were generally found where (although the morning after a couple of wild males had been seen in the area none of the females were in anything like their usual places!), and either Marianne or Phil would identify the cheetah by name to ensure that everyone had been accounted for and no-one double-fed.

Next were the boys - well, boys and one girl, the latter being one of two young siblings that are CCF’s most recent acquisitions, as yet unnamed and still going by the unexciting titles of “95” and “96” - who live in smaller enclosures on the main farm. In the wild, male cheetah often live in “coalitions”, and CCF’s enclosures seek to replicate this, placing groups of 2-5 in enclosures of up to 6 ha. Each enclosure has a smaller section that can be separated from the main section by a drop-down trap door. We would usually set the meat out in bowls in this smaller section, with the cats hissing and spitting ungratefully at us through the fence (talk about trying to bite the hand that feeds!), then pull up the trap door and watch the cats gallop in, grab the meat from their bowls and take it off into the shade to chew on at leisure; all except Athos that is, who, each time, checks out his colleagues’ bowls before trying to find a bowl that still has some meat in it, looking a bit
ElsieElsieElsie

still wearing the radio collar from the days when she was allowed the freedom of the larger enclosure; as she's older now, she's monitored more closely than that enclosure would allow
goofy as he double-checks each bowl in turn. Every so often, daily in the case of the smaller sections, we’d also scour the enclosures for scat and bones, a major exercise in the larger enclosures.

Finally, there are the Centre cats, those near the Education Centre whose feeding is a tourist event (for obvious reasons, we didn’t feed these guys any donkey heads, and their pens were cleaned before the tourists arrived): Chewbaaka, the now-elderly ambassador for CCF who was hand-raised by Laurie from the age of 3 weeks, the “Hogwarts” trio of still-scruffy 14-month old cubs, and the “Girls”, Dusty, Sandy, Blondi and Leia.

The Centre cats also need to be exercised, and this is done by way of setting up cheetah runs that tourists can attend by prior arrangement. These are held early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. A number of pulleys are nailed into the ground, a loop of string threaded around them to create a 5-800m square, and a battery-powered larger pulley is placed at one corner. Attached to the string is an old rag and, with someone at the hair-trigger-sensitive hand-held control, the rag is dragged round the square at varying speeds with the cheetah - hopefully - chasing it. Any cheetah that catches the rag is rewarded with a lump of meat provided delicately on a spoon at the end of a stick (cheetah in the wild do not let their food get dusty and remain particular in this regard). As cheetah are only good at running in short spurts and tire easily, it is most fun to set up the run with a number of cheetah so that they run in turn. Usually the Girls, but sometimes the Hogwarts trio, are used.

Most of the cheetah names derive from collections of characters and are awarded to sibling groups, although the females at Bellebeno are now too old to be living with their male siblings. These include Chanel and her brother Klein; Samantha, the only one of the “Sex In The City” characters still at CCF (yes, her brother is called “Mr Big”!); the “Chocolates”, Nestlé, Hershey and Toblerone; the “Hogwarts”, Ron, Hermione and Harry (albeit the latter was belatedly discovered to be female); the erroneously-named three Musketeers, Athos, D’Artagnan and one of the others, I forget which; Merlot, the brother of Shiraz who has now been re-released into the wild with her cubs, to name but a few. I must confess that I was not good at cheetah identification. I began to learn to identify some of the cheetah in the smaller enclosures, but, in an enclosure that is home to so many, I was never really able to crack who’s who with the Bellebeno girls.

Also requiring to be fed were the puppies. I was lucky that there were two litters of Anatolian puppies living at CCF while I was there, born a week apart: Tylee’s second litter, a boisterous collection of nine boys and girls (the tenth had sadly died at a couple of weeks old after Tylee lay on her one night), and Tylee’s daughter, Ushi’s first litter, a better-behaved group of six girls and one boy, Spike. Spike quickly became one of my favourites, not least because my older nephew’s nickname from the day he was born is also Spike. By the time I arrived, the puppies were beginning to be weaned. This meant squishing up soaked puppy-pellets into mushy piles on trays (meaning nicely fragrant hands afterwards!) and then trying to persuade each puppy to eat only his/her allocated
Chewbaaka runningChewbaaka runningChewbaaka running

[my thanks to Lorraine for this photograph]
pile. Towards the end of my time at CCF, we’d moved them on to feeding them unsquished pellets spread out over the whole tray, letting the requisite number of puppies have a free-for-all.

On my last Sunday afternoon I helped Matt with puppy aptitude tests for Tylee’s puppies. Matt wasn’t convinced about the merits of these quasi-psychometric-profiling tests, but we put the puppies through them anyway, recording their behaviour when called over to Matt, asked to walk at his side (none of them did!), fetch a ball, chase a toy and escape from a one-exit enclosure. We also had to record their reactions to sudden noise, to a sudden sight (the test actually requires an umbrella to be opened near the puppy, but, lacking this accessory, Matt imaginatively tried to replicate the required action with a large empty dog-food bag) and to various types of gentle restraint. All in all, it was heaps of fun, and, to my surprise, the puppies showed quite a variety of behaviour.

We were also lucky enough to get involved in Andrew’s brown hyena and leopard project. He was in the process of setting a new collection of traps: cage traps intricately disguised in the bush to capture animals for analysis, motion-sensitive camera traps to photograph animals as they pass along regular tracks, and hair-snares to capture animal hair (without, of course, harming the animals). My first morning after the orientation day saw me helping Andrew and James set up hair-snares and camera traps on the Waterburg Plateau. It was hard work clearing the bush for the traps and winding barbed wire from a heavy roll to create the hair-snares, not to mention somewhat hazardous work as the thorn bush fought back at every available opportunity.

Towards the end of my trip, I went up to the Waterburg again with Andrew, this time to check on the success of these traps. The Waterburg Plateau was somewhere I had been keen to visit: sheer-sided all around, it is home to a number of rare and endangered species, including roan and sable antelope, and to Namibia’s only guaranteed disease-free buffalo. But it is not an easy place to see game: the thick bush prevents you from seeing more than a few yards off the road, so any sighting is therefore the more special, and I was delighted to see a lone roan antelope on two occasions that day, an animal I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen before.

This trip has been tremendous for animal “firsts” for me: porcupine, honey badgers, caracal, brown hyena, aardvark, aardwolf (a smaller member of the hyena family), barn owl chicks, and a daylight sighting of a genet. Two of these firsts were courtesy of Andrew. His cage traps were intended to catch leopard and brown hyena and, incredibly, he caught two brown hyena on consecutive days one weekend. These were darted and then “worked up” which involves an overall assessment of the animal’s health and taking a number of measurements of the animal. The first work-up was done in the clinic with all of us able to assist to a greater or lesser degree; the second was done slickly by the professionals in the field. But, of course, other animals were tempted into the cages by the delicious aroma of ageing oryx meat, and it was in this way that I had my first daylight sightings of both genet and porcupine, the former so lively in the cage that I had trouble photographing it in any way that would enable others to recognise the animal (cue several shots of blurred tanned fur!).

And I’m sure that I haven’t described half of the activities that I’ve done in the last few weeks, but these were certainly the highlights. Briefly, some of the other things included “skoffaling” a couple of the cheetah enclosures (somehow the Afrikaans is more expressive than the more mundane English translation of “weeding” which suggests a degree of care and attention that the task did not merit and certainly did not get); taking the part of a bossy turkey called Chatter in Patricia’s inaugural play, “A Lesson for Fingers”, when we had a more-than-intentionally-hilarious read-through after a braai one Saturday night (Terry’s re-write of some of the lines for his character, a wise old owl called Mr Hoo-Hoo, was hysterical: he couldn’t recite them for fear of offending Patricia, but they would certainly have given the play a, shall I say, more adult dimension?!); and handing out T-shirts at the end of a farmers’ livestock and predator management course. This latter task entailed a unexpected degree of diplomacy as everyone wanted extra-large and we didn’t have sufficient numbers, and then being required to smile charmingly as successive course participants decided that they needed their photograph taken with me (did anyone speak to my agent about this?!). Life in the last few weeks has been nothing if not varied!

Now I’m preparing for my second stint on the desert-dwelling elephant project, so I’d better abandon this (and not before time, do I hear you say?) and get down to some real work.



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9th October 2006

Elizabeth - another enchanting instalment. You seem to be a natural with the animals - cannot imagine you working in an office now.....! Looking forward to the next episode......much love. Trace x

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