Deschu Oldham: close-up of a cheetah

D-Day in Cheetah Conservation

One of the unexpected bonuses of being based at a property which hosts a range of volunteering ventures was the opportunity to occasionally join in with activities linked to projects other than the one I was actually attending. I had come to Alldays for the Hanchi horse-riding project, but in my experience there was camaraderie between volunteers on the various initiatives, and an acknowledgement that if something especially unusual was taking place with one of them, obviously everyone around would want a chance to be involved. I happened to be at Hanchi at a quieter time of year when there were fewer volunteers around and consequently some fluidity between the projects. This was great for me although I don’t think a potential volunteer could presume this would always be an available option. However, lucky me, I got to dip my toe in the water of predator conservation activities and get up close and personal to the cheetah which are central to the Zingela Conservation Project.

The property hosts a range of predators, but two are especially significant to the Zingela project – Happy and Fluffy are two adult male cheetah siblings that defy the stereotype of the cheetah as a solitary animal. The ‘cheetah boys’, as they were affectionately known, were pretty much inseparable, both have radio collars. This enables them to be tracked, resulting in animals that are relatively habituated to being respectfully observed by people on foot, horseback or from a vehicle, whilst still living a completely wild existence. This monitoring is necessary to better understand predator hunting and feeding behaviour, learn more about their normal social interactions, and to ensure the animals remain on the property whilst keeping an eye on their general health.

In the time that I was at the Hanchi project, it became obvious that the radio collar on at least one of the cheetah had malfunctioned. In general the collective routine for the day across all projects was a trek up a steep hill to the highest point on the property where telemetry equipment was used to locate a range of collared animals (buffalo, rhino and the cheetah).

Over the course of a few weeks the trace for the cheetah became ominously less and less reliable. Instead of reassuring decisive blips there was often simply static or erratic impossible beeps that were inconsistent with known recent sightings of the cheetah. There was a growing sense of urgency to replace the collar so the animal was not ‘lost’. This was a problem, changing a collar is not a simple thing.

Only one was failing, but the cheetah boys were never more than a couple of metres apart so it could be challenging to correctly identify the right sibling. To change the collar, the cheetah would need to be darted, but this has to happen early in the morning before the heat of the day makes it too dangerous to the animal to administer the sedative.

A common side-effect of these drugs is a reduction in the ability of an animal to control its body temperature causing over-heating. Darting requires a vet, and a team of others, but to dart an animal you first have to locate it, and with a failing collar this was never going to be an easy task.

Darting Day dawned (D-Day). It was an early start. 4.00 a.m. and we mustered at the foot of Safari Lodge hill. This hill gave access to the highest point on the property with the best potential for a signal, but it was also a precipitous incline that even after four weeks I still puffed and struggled to ascend. En route we found a brown house snake that entwined around an unfortunate gecko, but no time to linger.

Elisa (volunteer co-ordinator from the Hanchi project) gamely punched in the codes and held aloft her aerial – It’s harder than you might think to locate animals by telemetry, if the cheetah is lying in a hollow or behind a tree then an interruption in the virtual sight lines means no signal comes. Add to this the failing radio collar, and for days at a time it was possible to try and find a signal to no avail. The day before D-Day Elisa and I had tracked the cheetahs on foot through the densest of bush and it was I who had excitedly sighted their distinctive ears in silhouette. This definitive sighting meant we had an idea of where they might be, but cheetah can travel significant distances overnight and these beautiful animals are extraordinarily well camouflaged, even close at hand it’s easy to miss them. The previous day’s events were a case in point, although the equipment had got us to the right general area to search, alarmingly we actually sighted them without the telemetry letting out even the faintest of peeps by way of alert, despite us only being a few tens of metres from them. This did not bode well. For all our hope and expectation, we couldn’t be confident that the telemetry would deliver up our cheetah at all, let alone before the heat of the day made it impossible to proceed.

After some tense straining to listen, and second opinions from others, based on a vanishingly faint peep, the mission is declared on. Dupe, the vet, arrives with rifle, and joined Ant (who with his wife Emma is the creative force behind all the projects here) in the cab whilst the rest of us (a mix of volunteers across the three projects Hanchi, vet and Zingela) all squash into the back of the pickup vehicle. Our next challenge of the day is to outpace the three resident warthogs hell bent on coming with us.

Orphaned by poachers they were hand-reared, but had recently been liberated from the boma (enclosure) in which they were kept. Although they now have the range of the whole property, they opt to hang around the house and stable yard. It has become apparent they are programmed to follow – they will go to great lengths to keep up with people whether they are on foot, on horseback, or in a vehicle (the people not the pigs), and my they are persistent!

I digress, but on one memorable occasion the three warthogs took their chances and made a game attempt to follow the landowner who they espied departing in his helicopter. Such tenacity giving a whole new perspective to the phrase ‘pigs might fly’! Today is no exception, the three pigs hurtle behind us and Ant who is driving, uncharacteristically accelerates the truck, wheels spinning to shake them from our tail. Eventually they vanish into little dots barely visible through the huge dust cloud raised by our speeding Toyota Hilux.

Usually driving through the bush is a sedate affair – the slower you go the more you see, and you don’t want to damage roads or frighten wildlife. Today is different; we bounce along in the back of the vehicle clinging to any handy metal work. I wonder if the vet kit is going to survive the seismic shaking at the back of the pickup truck, and really hope the rifle lock is securely on (it is). There is quite an adrenalin rush as the telemetry signals were not conclusive. Is this the day of the collar change or not? Too close to call.

After some initially dispiriting attempts to narrow down the area where the cheetah boys are likely to be, we finally end up in an area close to that where Elisa and I had found them the day before. Time is ticking on, and the heat rising. The bush is dense, and the cheetah elusive. We are quite a gang which is good because there are many eyes scrutinising the terrain, but bad because we may make the animals flighty. We progress in silence and in single file, until suddenly Ant’s hand goes up. He is in front. The cheetah have been seen. He gestures for the vet to follow. He, Dupe, is carrying a large rifle with which to dart the cheetah. You can feel the tension rise.

I can hardly breathe, and irrationally I worry that the sound of my heart beat will ring out and spook our quarry. The cheetah boys are as usual snoozing together, but this is a problem. Which one has the failed collar? By stealth like movements the cheetah are separated only a short distance from one another, but enough for Ant to identify which has the failed collar and so is the target. He does this with much flailing of telemetry equipment and head scratching, but eventually seems confident in his choice… only later did he admit he wasn’t as sure as he appeared, a risk, as there is only one shot at this, quite literally.

Collectively we hold our breath as Dupe takes aim and fires. It all happens with amazing speed. The dart hits the cheetah with an impact which causes him to explode forwards. This is an anxious time, the dart has struck obviously, but the cheetah has vanished. The bush is dense and for an awful 10 minutes or so we can’t find him. We spread out, fanning out across the area, keeping sight of one another but scanning the ground. Eventually after an agonising wait a shout goes up, Dupe and Ant have found the now slumbering cheetah by a favourite waterhole only a hundred yards or so from where he was darted. We approach, moving quietly but quickly. The relief is tangible; a darted animal unfound could die.

What happens next is purposeful and rapid. The vet and Ant check the cheetah is adequately sedated before we all approach. Tasks are allocated, I hold the reversal injection ready to hand over to be administered at the earliest opportunity, one of the Vet volunteers is keeping the cheetah’s eyes covered as this can be calming in reducing external stimuli, Ant rapidly unscrews the faulty collar and replaces it. Then, yes, we do take a few moments to pose for photos (honestly, wouldn’t you?), then we all move back, and the reversal injection is administered. The whole procedure is over in a few minutes. Almost instantaneously the animal starts to stir.

Now there is another anxious wait. Elisa is nominated to remain with the cheetah to observe him come round. You can hear his sibling calling poignantly from nearby. I learn later that sibling cheetah males do sometimes form bonds so close that there are cases of one pining to death if the other disappears, certainly these two are always together and appear to hunt co-operatively. However equally, on occasion animals have been known to attack their companions when they come across them recovering from sedation, their unfamiliar staggering movements, and probably too the strangely alien smells from human contact arising from them, triggering confusion and uncharacteristic aggression. No animal should be darted lightly. Today’s endeavour has been a success. When we return to scoop up Elisa from the bush the brothers are seen reunited and apparently unscathed, padding off into the bush together. It has been the most extraordinary experience. The new radio collar is functioning fine, and these two elegant predators are secure in their protected status on the property once more.

The above account was not an everyday occurrence, but it is a snapshot illustration of what animal encounters are possible if you join one of the projects at Alldays. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world!

Lucy Marris