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Cheetah Dizzy Update 2015

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RELEASE OUT OF ALCATRAZ

After Dizzy gave birth to her second litter in July 2015 and after the loss of cub number one only two days after birth, we decided to relocate Dizzy and her remaining three cubs into Alcatraz - a soft release camp located within the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve. Even though cub mortality in cheetahs is not uncommon and it is arguable how much one should interfere with nature, we felt that it is our responsibility to give these cheetahs the best possible chances of survival. The Okonjima Nature Reserve is surrounded by a predator-proof electrical fence that is protecting Okonjima’s carnivores from all surrounding farmland. On the other hand, the fence creates an artificial island bound area that is restricting movement to only within the fence boundaries. Territories of cheetahs strongly overlap with those of leopards, wild dogs or hyenas due to a lack of enough open plains and often they can’t outrun their enemies. Out of 11 cubs born in the reserve within the last three years, only one made it to adulthood. For these reasons, we decided to let these cubs grow up under safe and monitored conditions until they are strong and independent enough to have a chance to outrun the dangers that they will encounter in the wild.

Read more: Dizzy a story about a rehabilitated cheetah mother.

 

In order to cause as little disturbance as possible but be able to monitor Dizzy and the well-being of her cubs at the same time, a remotely triggered camera trap was installed next to the den site for the first weeks. It took a few days before Dizzy acclimatized in her new environment, but she soon showed us what great potential she has as a mother. Following her natural instincts, she changed her den sites regularly and protected her cubs fiercely if anyone dared to approach too close. Within two months, Dizzy moved her cubs between three different den sites.

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In March 2015 Dizzy was immobilized and put on temporal hormonal contraception to increase the period of time she will stay with her cubs. Two years ago she left her only female cub Spirit when she was only 12 months old because she was already carrying her next litter. Staying in a larger coalition provides better chances of survival due to an increased vigilance and better protection against higher-order predators.

A week before release Dizzy’s three cubs Ayci, Nyx and Juba (all named after the Latin name for cheetah Acinonyx jubatus) were microchipped and radio collared. This way we are able to locate them when they get separated from their mother. Often cheetah families become scattered after an attack by another predator. Even though this behavior is instinctive and increases the individual chances of survival, it often leads to the disappearance of cheetah cubs that ran off too far and are not able to locate their mother subsequently. Without suitable monitoring devices that allow locating the exact position, cubs often remain missing.

After spending 10 months inside of Alcatraz, Dizzy and her cubs were released on the 15th of May 2015 back into the wild. Alcatraz had been their home for the last 10 months; consequently it required some time and patience before the family eventually decided to leave the gates of Alcatraz behind them. For the following days Dizzy and her offspring still remained close to the release site.

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Dizzy and her three cubs Ayci, Nyx and Juba one day after release overlooking the open plains of Serenjima:

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NYX

Only two days after release Nyx was found with a broken fore leg. He seemed disoriented and didn’t stand up to move away when we approached him to assess the situation; he almost seemed to be paralyzed. A fairly uncommon reaction since an animal that is stressed will still move away from you despite a broken leg. Maybe his condition was the result of a snake bite which at least would explain the partial paralysis. X-rays, however, confirmed a fracture of the right front leg - most likely the result of a kick from a hoofed animal. 

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After surgery the leg was set in plaster and Nyx placed into a recovery camp in the 20 000 ha reserve. He was monitored daily and administered with antibiotics. After ten days the cast was removed and Nyx showed major improvements. It wasn’t long before Dizzy found her lost cub and regularly showed up on the outside of his camp. However, every time Dizzy left him again it was heartbreaking to watch how Nyx called for his family. Additionally the sibling coalition Coco, Spud and Bones also regularly showed up at the fence and harassed the already stressed cheetah cub. Thus, we decided it would be best for him to relocate him to AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Center until he was fully recovered and could be reunited with his mother and siblings.

In the meantime Dune - an orphaned cheetah cub from the Namib Desert - arrived at AfriCat after she was found together with her brother in May 2015 close to Dune 7 near Walvis Bay.
Read more about Dune 

 

We placed Dune, who was approximately 3 - 4 months younger than Nyx, next to Nyx’s camp. Both cheetah cubs instantly started calling each other and we opened the gate between them three days later. Dune was very anxious and stressed during her first days in the new environment; so we hoped that she would acclimatize faster when being accompanied with a new friend and that Nyx would enjoy the company after being separated from his mother and siblings.

The introduction of these young cheetahs was the most gentle and amiable we have seen in a long history of cheetah introductions. Nyx approached Dune very carefully, sniffed her a couple of times and went to lie down right next to her. From then on, Nyx and Dune seemed to be inseparable and Dune followed his every step. The hope was - once Nyx was fully recovered to be released back into the wild - to release Dune together with him and hope for Dizzy to accept both cubs back (since she previously lost her female cub - see AYCI). Unfortunately, things usually don’t go as planned. For unknown reasons Nyx' condition deteriorated rapidly even though his leg seemed to be healing fine. He was constipated, lost his appetite and restricted his movement to a minimum. No treatment seemed to be effective and thus, we immobilized him and administered an enema. After a thorough examination Dr. Rodenwoldt suspected that Nyx was suffering from a broken pelvis causing the constipation. But why would the constipation only become a problem now if he had a narrowed pelvis all along? X-rays revealed that Nyx not only suffered from a broken leg, but also had a fractured pelvis we were totally unaware of. All this time we were focusing on his fractured leg when it was his pelvis that gave him so much pain.

africat nyx pelvis xrayFor the next days and weeks we tried to feed him a highly digestible diet, but his condition was very inconsistent. On the 29th of June 2015 Nyx died. A bony growth that formed where the pelvis was broken took up more than half the space in the pelvic canal. The last portion of the colon was badly affected by the constipation and bacteria or bacterial toxins could have easily transferred from the gut to the blood. Even though no obvious signs of organ failure or severe inflammation was found, a bacterial infection in the blood would have contributed to Nyx’ illness. All together with stress, pain and cold weather, there was a huge strain on his small body. Nyx' death was a great loss to all involved in his recovery process. Not only did Nyx’ death mean a great loss to AfriCat, also Dune lost a loved companion for the second time in her short life.

 

NYX AND DUNE

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AYCI

Dizzy and her remaining two cubs Ayci and Juba mainly moved in the open Serenjima plains within the first months after release. It didn’t take long until Dizzy found her old hunting routine making an impala kill only two weeks after being released. Despite her initial success, we still had to provide them regularly with food since Dizzy’s hunting success was still inconsistent.

africat ayci xrayOn the 6th of June Dizzy and Juba were found - without Ayci and the collaring of the cubs payed off. The signal was close by and we were able to locate her quickly. We found her lying motionless in the open plain and it seemed as if she was incapable of moving her hind legs. Initially no external wounds were visible. Ayci was transported to Otjiwarongo where x-rays of her spine were taken immediately. Several bite and claw wounds now became visible on top of her spine and on the base of her tail. X-rays showed a fracture of the 7th thoracic vertebrae causing a paralysis of the hind quarters. Due to a poor prognosis of recovery and in the interest of welfare principles, it was decided to put Ayci to sleep. Her injuries were most likely the result of a leopard attack in the early morning hours of the 6th of June. A few leopards were found to be in the area including Shanti, Jo Jo and MJ.

 

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DIZZY AND JUBA

Ever since it was only Dizzy and Juba. Dizzy was proving that she is an excellent hunter and was now making more regular kills sustaining her and her cub and teaching Juba necessary life and hunting skills. In the early morning of the 6th of August Dizzy was found by the Okonjima guides saying she was 'not being herself'. She appeared weak and something was clearly wrong with her left eye. She was immediately immobilized in order to perform a thorough ophthalmic examination of the injured eye. No obvious trauma (e.g. penetrating wounds, thorns) was visible but the eye appeared dull and hazy indicating snake venom that possibly came into contact with the eye?

For her and Juba’s safety Dizzy and her cub were relocated into Alcatraz since we were not sure how much sight she has left on the eye and would facilitate daily observations. For about three weeks a difference in pupil size between the left and right eye was visible and the suspicion of the cause was either snake venom or a thorn damaging the eye ball. Another examination revealed a complete detachment of the retina causing permanent blindness on that eye. The cornea has evidence of scar tissue formation with a weakened corneal structure. To date, snake venom on the eye still can’t be excluded, but a small scar was seen in the cornea suggesting trauma due to a sharp thorn prick. Unfortunately her blindness is not treatable and she will be blind for life. On the 7th of September Dizzy and Juba were released back into the wild. Dizzy was monitored closely for any improvement or deterioration of the eye and was administered with anti-inflammatory every second day. Daily photos were taken and sent to the experts to evaluate. We are sure that she will adapt to her 'new' situation and will still be the successful hunter she is, but seeing danger coming from her blind eye is the challenge.

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In the last weeks Dizzy and Juba were increasingly found in the northern part of the reserve. Mother and cub were regularly seen on duiker and impala kills and thus, proving that Dizzy was able to quickly adapt to her new situation.

On the 20th of November, fate struck again. Juba - Dizzy’s remaining cub - was found dead close to the northern perimeter fence. Bite wounds around his neck suggested that once again a leopard is to blame for the death of the 16-month old cub. Cub mortality in cheetahs is sadly rather the rule than the exception.

Due to the high number of higher-order predators in the fenced Okonjima Nature Reserve  adult cheetahs also often fall victim to leopard or spotted hyena attacks. For the future our hope is that with the development of more open plains and thus, a clearer distinction of habitat occupied by the different carnivore species, cheetahs will stand a better chance of survival.

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