Cheetah & other big cats

Cheetah form a critical component of the Athi Kapiti Conservation Initiative. A viable population still exists across the Athi Kapiti plains, with dispersal routes through to Amboseli and into Tanzania. The East African population is one of the two strongholds left on earth; the other being in the Namibia region. The conservation strategy for cheetah will align with the objectives for the Kenyan national strategy for cheetah and wild-dog conservation, and will tie in with a regional effort to conserve cheetah. The conservancy will operate as the core area and community programs and future protected area expansion will target landscape scale conservation of the species.

The conservancy is also working towards applied conservation programs of other big cats, particularly lion. Due to the land area that lion and cheetah require, there are very few national parks in Africa large enough to conserve viable populations. Outside protected areas, big cats are extremely vulnerable to hunting and poisoning, and both lion and cheetah are disappearing rapidly from the African bush. It is essential that conservancies across Kenya expand their conservation efforts to a landscape scale, to encompass the ‘ecological zone of interaction’ of the big cats. This is precisely what the AKCI will be doing.

The AKCI will work with communities and the government to bring big cat conservation into the mainstream land-use planning across the Athi Kapiti plains.

Spot pattern ID on a female cheetah one year apart

On the 29th April 2010 at 4 PM I flew with Gai Cullen in her tiny plane to look for cheetah on the Athi Kapiti. In 20 minutes, less than 4km from the airfield we found 7. Two mothers, one with one 5-7 month cub, the other with four less than 3 month old cubs. I took pictures of them with my fancy long lens. Pictures that turned out to be good enough to see their spot patterns.

In trying to figure out the density and dispersal of cheetah on the Athi Kapiti one is faced with many problems. Ideally one can capture individuals and radio-collar them. There are 3 types of collars, one that simply emits a signal, which you locate with a receiver, the other carries a GPS and sends the co-ordinates back up to a satellite, which in turn beams it to a central office. From that office you get the data. The other GPS collar sends its data via a cell phone to a cellphone company in the vicinity. You can, in affect phone it back and change your data requirements. The simple transmitter is almost fool-proof, but requires leg work. The other hi-tech stuff is prone to problems but the results look much cooler when they magically appear on your computer screen from the internet.

It’s all very clever, but it is a serious undertaking requiring months of permission, the presence of a professional vet , months of fruitless trapping attempts and an unavoidable amount of trauma and emotional distress to the cheetah concerned. Collars are not pretty either and however they are built they always carry with them an element of risk. Much better would be a method that does not interfere with them at all.
Unless one is fully prepared for such an undertaking one is limited to good old field observation, the waning art in modern biology.

One old and tried method is to recognise individual cheetah. While this would seem pretty obvious to all of us there are some surprisingly pithy scientific articles that expound upon the process of telling things apart. Nothing is more simple when it come to telling cows apart than to note their pattern and this is the basic method used for telling tigers, leopards, cheetahs and chickens apart. When it comes to plain coated animals it is more difficult. But basic arrangements of distinct features do differ in all individuals. For lions the rows of tactile stiff hairs that protrude on the upper lip (whiskers!) have at their bases dark spots. These give a Morse code dot and dash arrangement that is easily recognisable; only from very close range. That is if you have overlooked torn ears, scars, size and facial and body characteristics that we often use to identify our friends.

Cheetahs have a number of differences between individuals, oddly for a species considered genetically identical. There are tiny headed, big-chested females, huge headed, strong jawed females. Pale or ruddy versions. Some have dark blended spots down the spine. Males may occur alone, in pairs or trios and can often occupy specific areas. When you find these it is often easy to immediately know who they are, based only on their behaviour and location. Cheetahs are “polymorphic” in many respects. On close inspection the spots are like finger prints and like fingerprints they are the definitive way to pin point an individual.
Look at the female and her four cubs. This was taken from the air at about 200ft AGL travelling at some 50-60MPH using a Canon 500mm lens. Look at the picture of the cheetah lying in the grass. That was taken on the 2nd April 2011 a year later about 5km to the west. That was using the same lens at about 300m from a car. When showing off that picture to a friend who knows much about cheetah he said what a fine male it was (based on the broad head and tough look). This worried me because I thought it was a she. I looked through the photos more carefully and confirmed her sex in a picture of her running away. But I honestly thought I knew this specific female, by her robust look pale throat large spots on chest and demeanour. I then looked back through my old pictures to the female with cubs. Now for your own satisfaction look at the base of the tails in the blown up shots and you will see the same central dark spine, the dots, the merging “kissing” dots, the surprised “:0” marks and you tell me if they are not one and the same!


Five Cheetah, found by luck

After a rough night camped out on my roof top tent listening to two wildebeest calves being killed by a large pack of Spotted Hyena, I drove at 5.30AM to meet Gai Cullen for an early morning flight to search for cheetah. We flew 1.5hrs during dawn over Portland, Machakos Ranching, Kapiti, Lisa and the vast Masai area west of the railway. It this latter area we noted large numbers of zebra, Tomi, Grant’s and some 15 Gerenuk on newly settled plains. Settlements are 1 to 3km apart (to be measured) and their recent occupation is noted by the height of the exotic trees planted. The settlement stretch out as far as one can see. 7 years previously there were very few settlements here and no fences. It is this area that channels wildlife to the south west as far as Selengei and possibly Amboseli. It is this area that needs the most amount of attention, if we hope to conserve migratory species of wildlife.

We did not see any cheetah despite being under pressure to do so. I was anxious to show Dale Anderson and his party from Cat Haven that these plains held exception numbers of cheetah. As is often the case what you wish to show specific people vanishes on the day they arrive. After landing, Corinne Kendall a Princeton University PhD student studying vultures in the Mara took a short flight with Gai to see the Lappet’s faced vulture nest we had just seen. Corinne is particularly interested in putting a GPS sat tag on Lappets. After she landed we both drove off to go check the nest from the ground. It wasn’t easy to find and I had to drive overland looking up at the flat top balanites. In so doing I nearly bumped into a hyena.

Remarkably tame, she just ambled off a short distance. We found the nest, made a tentative plan to return to trap and tag them (as a last resort should she fail to get any in the Mara). While we were gently driving away, we nearly ran over a mother cheetah and 4 large cubs!

The cubs rose in front of the car from the long grass, as the mother lay flattened in the grass, ears down and squinting disapprovingly. I have no doubt that had I been 10ft further away we would not have seen them. That we had both been flying over the very spot for a prolonged period specifically looking for cheetah, and missed them, is testimony to how unreliable both air and ground surveys can be for enumerating a species that hides.

I had employed no other technique other than sheer luck. I could not with any honesty put this encounter down on a transect spread sheet as no scientific rigor or method was employed. Nevertheless it presented an opportunity to photograph, age and get GPS co-ordinates. The Cat Haven people had, as you may have guessed, just left without seeing any cheetah!

As she slunk away head down and body flattened I noted her cubs adopt her same attitude. This is a common trait among most young carnivores (and raptors). Do whatever your mother does, copy her moves and you may learn something worth handing down to your own young. Odd that she was so shy here as on the next door ranch she was much happier.

They moved through very long grass in poor grey overcast conditions. The photos I took were bad, but were useful for ID spot patterns. She was “Jackie” a female with cubs I had seen in a much better mood in January with one particularly rambunctious cub termed “The Boss” who is still with her. I have a rule that no matter how much you need a full body photo never upset the animal, especially a mother with cubs. These looked in no mood to be followed as they weaved low through the grass to impenetrable stands of whistling thorn. I circled away from them to look back from a distance. Disappointed I then did a transect through where they had been, again with no sighting. Despite the best of luck and the closest possible range I failed to get anything other than a fleeting glimpse. What Corinne and I did find in looking under each shady tree under which they may have rested were two very well made and set snares. Within 100m of 5 cheetah, set under shade trees most tempting to cheetah (as opposed to an ungulate), were 2 snares that I felt were specifically set for them. That the snares were 4km from the nearest boma indicated a focussed intent rare among most poachers. We destroyed them and made note of these threats.