Nkozi was the most sighted male leopard during the year with 255 sightings. Even though he was occasionally spotted in his former ranges in the eastern part of the reserve, it seems as though he has shifted his hunting grounds mainly into the central-western parts. We believe this could be the result of high competition by other males in the area, although he now has to deal with younger challengers in his new ranges as well. However, exploitation of new areas has the advantage of new mating opportunities and Nkozi was seen mating regularly with Lila as well as Isaskia throughout the year.
ELECTRA and NANDI
Known as a very shy and timid cat in the past, Electra has become Okonjima’s most sighted leopard lady with 199 sightings in 2016. Keeping to her territory in the eastern part of the reserve, Electra, with her female cub Nandi, was seen almost daily by the Okonjima guides during the first part of 2016 . During the last two years Electra has lost five of her six cubs (born in three different litters) which went missing, were killed by territorial male leopards or died under other circumstances. For the first time Electra has managed to raise one of her cubs to adulthood.
Leopard cubs usually stay with their mothers until 18–22 months of age before they go their own way. Nandi left her mother at the age of 18 months. We have observed that female leopards usually pass on a part of their own territory to their sub-adult daughters. In the past, MJ left parts of her initial range in the southern part of the reserve to her daughter Ishara Electra herself took over a vast part of her mother Mafuta’s range and Nandi has also remained roaming in large areas of her mothers’ range. We are not sure if this was one of the reasons that led Electra to leave the reserve regularly in the second part of 2016 or whether new mating opportunities enticed her to extend her territory beyond the Okonjima perimeter fence. Currently Electra spends most of her days in the mountain range in the south-eastern Poort of the reserve, suggesting that she might have given birth to her fourth litter of cubs.
Nandi was collared in September 2016 and since then has been sighted 72 times. Even though her general range is located in the eastern part of the reserve, she has occasionally been found in far western parts.
Electra and Nandi
We sadly had to say good-bye to Shanti in October this year after she was killed by Jagu, one of Okonjima’s resident males.
Throughout the year, Shanti was sighted 177 times and was thus one of the most visible leopards in 2016. Her death left us speechless and she will be deeply missed and remembered as the special and unique cat she was.
2016 was sadly dominated by the loss of some extraordinary individuals. We had to say goodbye to legends like Mafana and the "Infamous Siblings" Coco and Bones.
In December we had to pay tribute to yet another legendary leopard whose life has touched so many in the last 16 years. MJ – Okonjima’s grand old lady – was killed by an un-collared male leopard on the 17th of December. Like no other cat MJ allowed us the unique insight into the elusive life of a leopard and thus enabled us to gain valuable knowledge on reproduction, behavior and ecology of this timid species. MJ will always be remembered and have a special place in our hearts.
In 2016 MJ was sighted 119 times.
Jo Jo remains firmly entrenched in her territory in the western part of the reserve. Results of the leopard density study have revealed that Jo Jo is the only female that inhabits that area, but her home range overlaps with those of several males. Male and female leopards occupy territories that they will only actively defend against conspecifics of the same sex. Thus Jo Jo has little competition to deal with.
In 2015 Jo Jo lost her female cub in mysterious circumstances. On the 3 August she was found eating parts of her dead cub. A fresh oryx kill was found close-by suggesting a possible fight between Jo Jo and another leopard which claimed the one year old cub as victim. Mothers eating their own offspring has been documented a few times in the wild and it is considered to be a kind of a cleansing ritual. Jo Jo’s remaining male cub, now independent from his mother, was regularly seen on camera traps during the Okonjima and AfriCat leopard density study, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to sight him recently.
In July 2016 JoJo again gave birth to two cubs who are now approximately 4–5 months old. We are unsure about the sire of the cubs since no mating activity was recorded and a couple of uncollared males are roaming the area. In 2016 JoJo was sighted 118 times.
Lila – a young female who was collared in July 2014 – is becoming more and more familiar to the Okonjima guides since she has become more relaxed around vehicles and was sighted 88 times in 2016. Lila was seen mating with Nkozi a couple of times in 2015. We are uncertain whether Lila gave birth to her first litter earlier in 2016 and the resulting cubs were killed before emergence from the den or whether mating didn’t result in conception.
Isaskia is still the shy and unpredictable cat she ever was and she is the one who dictates when she wants to be seen and when not. Her collar switches off after 6 hours of activity, complicating monitoring even more. For that reason Team AfriCat is trying to capture and re-collar her.
After losing her presumably second litter in January 2015 – most likely to our old wild dog pack Rex, Ricky and Raine – she was seen mating with Nkozi a couple of times. In early November that year, it was confirmed that she had given birth to a new litter when she was seen moving a one week old cub between den sites during the middle of the day by a few very lucky guests. But only a few days later a male leopard was witnessed killing at least one of her cubs. The identity of the infanticidal male remains unknown. To date, Isaskia has lost her last three litters to intraspecific predation. She is regularly seen mating with Nkozi and another uncollared male that we were able to identify as Mafuta’s approximately 3 – 4 year old offspring. We are assuming that Isaskia has recently given birth to yet another litter which she is still hiding in the thickets.
Jagu, a 5–6 year old male leopard, was newly collared in September 2015. Still shy around vehicles, Jagu was rarely seen in 2016 (40 sightings). His home range is mainly located in the central part of the reserve where he is infrequently found in areas of open woodland.
One of the reasons we are collaring some of Okonjima’s resident leopards is to monitor and evaluate the degree of inter- and intraspecific competition in an island-bound conservation area. Cheetahs are often victims of interspecific competition by higher-order predator like leopards or hyenas. The type of scratch and bite marks will usually give an indication of the predator responsible for the death of an individual, but often the exact perpetrator will remain unknown. By collaring individuals of different species we are in many cases able to identify the exact source of mortality and thus make assumptions of the degree of interspecific as well as intraspecific competition and implement derived management decisions. In December 2015 the cheetah Spud was killed by Jagu who most likely surprised the sibling trio while they were sleeping. It was also Jagu who was responsible for the death of Shanti in October 2016.
Ishara is without a doubt one of the most beautiful female leopards in the reserve. Unfortunately she only rarely reveals her beauty to guides, guests or our research team as she prefers to withdraw into thick vegetation. However, she has been one of the most sighted leopards on our baited camera traps. Together with her cub she evidently seems to enjoy the free meals provided in the safety of the trees.
Within the last few months Ishara’s collar malfunctioned (which also contributed to the low number of only eight sightings) and we are currently trying to catch her in one of AfriCat’s steel-mesh box traps and fit her with a new collar. Despite the few sightings of Ishara in 2016, the presence of an approximately 4– 5 month old cub could be confirmed, suggesting that her previous female cub photographed in 2015 on several camera traps didn’t make it to adulthood.
Naya was collared in July 2016 during the annual AfriCat vet checks by Dr. Adrian Tordiffe. Naya (Sanskrit meaning "new" or "fresh") was regularly seen on camera traps during the Okonjima/AfriCat predator density study and inhabits an area of approximately 8 km2 in the central part of the reserve. Previous camera captures led us to believe that she might be pregnant, but this couldn’t be confirmed during a thorough physical examination when she was collared. At 35.8 kg she can be classified as an average-sized female. Dentition and general physical appearance were found to be excellent even though she had a few minor scratch and bite marks possibly indicating territorial fights with another leopard.
Naya is still very shy and timid and is rarely seen by guides or the AfriCat research team resulting in only five physical sightings since her collaring.
Kibo is the latest member of the AfriCat family. He was collared in November 2016 prior to which he had been regularly sighted on camera traps.
At 68.6 kg, the approximately 4-year old male is larger than Nkozi and Jagu. Since his collaring, Kibo – named after one of the three volcanic cones of Mount Kilimanjaro – has been sighted six times. He seems to be more comfortable with cars than Naya and will hopefully provide wonderful and adventurous sightings in the future.
This year we had to say goodbye to twelve-year-old Mafana – former king of the Okonjima Nature Reserve. As he became older, he had to deal more and more often with younger competition moving in and out of his home ranges, and during his last nine months had to struggle with multiple injuries inflicted by other male leopards. In early September 2015 a nighttime darting excursion was initiated after he was found with severe head injuries. At the AfriCat clinic his wounds were cleaned and disinfected and he was given painkillers and a long-acting antibiotic and released back into the reserve the following day.
It didn’t take long until Mafana was found injured again at the beginning of March 2016. This time deep bite wounds had penetrated his cervical musculature. Once again Mafana was immobilized and his wounds treated. Because his neck was very swollen, his collar was temporarily removed and he was placed into Alcatraz (a release and recovery camp within the 20 000 ha nature reserve) for recovery purposes and to ensure regular monitoring and medication.
After four weeks Mafana was released back into the wild in the south-eastern part of the reserve, an area outside his familiar territory where little leopard activity is recorded and thus there is less competition. After release he was monitored closely to ensure his well-being; if needed we supplied him with extra food. Disregarding our good intentions, Mafana walked straight back into his former territory in the western part of the reserve. But to our surprise, he was walking back eastwards only three days later – into areas he was last spotted in three years earlier. Mafana still struggled with what appeared to be a “stiff” neck – most likely resulting from nerve damage inflicted by the bite wounds to his neck.
For the last three months Mafana established his new territory in the east of the reserve roaming the areas around the villa and Buffalo Dam.
In the late afternoon of 13 June 2016 an Okonjima guide reported that Mafana was seen with some severe injuries. A more thorough investigation by AfriCat concluded that Mafana should be immediately attended to due to some extensive, deep muscle and rib fracture injuries. He was darted and given fluids, painkillers and antibiotics and the part-time AfriCat veterinarian, who was unfortunately 500 km from AfriCat HQ at the time, was immediately contacted.
Veterinary Comment: Under anesthesia the next morning, while opening up the various skin and muscle wounds, ribs 6,7,8 were either fractured or crushed, causing a left sided pneumothorax with one loose rib chip piece, protruding to the outside, with severe intercostal muscle and skin lacerations.
The left middle and diaphragmatic lung lobes were also punctured, which caused a localized pulmonary emphysema.
Due to the extent and severity of the trauma some fluid started to accumulate inside the left chest cavity (hydro-thorax), which already showed signs of being infected. Despite intense supportive treatment applied before and during the operation, he passed away while under aneasthetic.
The massive soft tissue damage, the multiple rib fractures, with the pain factor endured, the start of an infection, associated with an upcoming toxemia with its metabolic effect on other organs in the body, all contributed to a weakened heart, giving the operation only a minimal chance and ending terminal.
We believe all wounds were inflicted during another territorial fight. Each one claiming their territory. The deep skin lacerations on both sides from the shoulder, top back and upper loin area were most likely inflicted by the claws. The left side mid upper rib fractures and penetration into the thorax, we believe was caused by the canine teeth bite.
Normally a leopard would hold and kill its prey by the neck, but it seemed that Mafana could have been surprised by his competition while on a kill . . .
We suspect, while Mafana was eating a freshly killed antelope, the other male possibly stalked from behind, attacking him by surprise. Mafana, at the last moment, must have become aware of an eminent upcoming danger and leapt forward, trying to escape the onslaught, but still caught in the jump, thus resulting in the specific location of the wound sites, which were predominantly behind the shoulder on his back and across his spine.
After Spud’s death in December 2015, Coco and Bones were forced to roam the Okonjima plains as a duo, but still remained the most sighted cheetahs in 2016 with a total of 319 sightings. Even though the sibling coalition had lost one crucial member, their hunting success remained stable and the duo was regularly found on kill sites.
Sadly the era of the infamous siblings came to an end in 2016 with Coco being killed on 19 October (most likely by the female leopard JoJo) and Bones only a month later in November by another male leopard.
The siblings’ success story is one of a kind and will always be remembered. In their five years of freedom they mastered all the challenges of the wilderness together as a tight union.
The sad and unfortunate death of some of our cats does not detract from the overall goal of AfriCat’s cheetah rehabilitation project. It was initiated to give some of our captive cheetahs an opportunity to return to their natural environment and allow us to assess whether rehabilitation is a successful means of conserving an endangered population. It is also an opportunity to reduce the number of cheetahs in captivity.
Brief history of the rehabilitation of the infamous Siblings
In May 2010, five cheetahs were released from captivity into the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve as part of AfriCat’s cheetah rehabilitation programme.
Coco, Spud and Frankie, three siblings who had spent their lives at AfriCat since they were a few months old, were released together with Hammer and Bones – two rescued male cheetahs who were introduced to the sibling trio on 18 May 2010 at an early age. The cheetah coalition embarked on their journey at the age of four years and ever since were referred to as the "Infamous Siblings".
Regular monitoring post-release is an essential tool in evaluating the success of rehabilitation attempts. Even though hunting is instinctive in most carnivores, cheetahs who have lived their whole lives in captivity lack the required experience. Thus most rehabilitated cheetahs receive supplementary food until they are able to sustain themselves. The sibling coalition showed strong hunting instincts from the beginning and managed to make a steenbok kill on their first day of freedom. Successful kills followed regularly during the following weeks and the group depended less and less on artificial feeding.
Learning how and what to hunt is not the only obstacle newly released cheetahs have to adapt to in the wild. Avoiding higher-order predators such as leopards and spotted hyenas is another essential tool that is needed for survival in the wild. Only three weeks after their release, Frankie was killed by a leopard and the siblings had to learn the hard way that leopards can mean danger. Built for speed, cheetahs are much lighter and weaker when it comes to conflict with other carnivores like lions, leopards and hyenas.
Hammer took charge of the coalition, which rapidly became very successful at hunting and was completely self-sustaining. However, Hammer died after being chased by a hyena into an eland herd in the northern part of the Okonjima 20 000 ha Nature Reserve on 21 November 2011. After losing another leader, it took the coalition a couple of weeks to readjust. This time it was Bones’ turn to take charge, but the three cheetahs never returned to the north again. Instead, they set up a stable territory in the southern part of the reserve, where there is an abundance of game. Coco, Spud and Bones became an efficient team and started to take big prey down again.
In December 2012 Bones wandered away from his siblings and was seen a few times with Tongs and Dizzy, two of our female cheetahs, who had come into season for the first time. Bones continued to wander off on his own and stayed away from Coco and Spud almost all of January 2013. We are not exactly sure of the reason for this, as it is much harder for him to hunt without his siblings, and he was seen only once with Dizzy during that time.
With their leader temporally unavailable, Coco and Spud struggled for a while but Spud soon started to hunt very well. Bones eventually rejoined his siblings, but always showed a tendency to wander off every now and then.
On 20 January 2014 Spud broke his left foreleg – most probably as a result of a kick during a hunt. The fracture had to be pinned and plated and due to his already mature age it took six months for the leg to heal. During his recovery period Spud was held in a soft-release camp without his companions Coco and Bones. In July 2014 Spud was re-united with his siblings who accepted him back without any hint of hesitation.
After five years of living a free life in the wild, Spud was killed by one of Okonjima’s resident male leopards in December 2015. Only nine months later, Coco fell victim to a leopard attack in October 2016 as well, followed by Bones in November 2016. This indicates that staying in a coalition rather than an individual unit, gives cheetahs a better chances of survival in an area of high leopard density.
In September 2015 the "motorbikes" Harley, Aprilia, Ducati and Starsky were released into the Okonjima Nature Reserve after spending almost six years at the AfriCat Carnivore Care Center.
Harley, Aprilia and Ducati arrived as five month old orphans in 2009. Their mother had been shot, but the farmer felt pity for her three cubs and kept them in a chicken cage for four weeks. Starsky and his brother Hutch came into AfriCat’s care when they were three months old. Having shared the same fate, Starsky and Hutch were introduced to Harley, Aprilia and Ducati. About six months later, Hutch sadly died unexpectedly of natural causes.
After spending almost six years at AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre, the Motorbikes were finally released and given their second chance in the wild on 16 September 2015. After several split ups during their first weeks of freedom, the motorbike gang finally reunited and managed to make their first kill. Two weeks later Harley and Starsky split from their sisters once again, moving towards the eastern fenceline where they ultimately settled down. Aprilia and Ducati moved westwards into the open plains before they eventually started moving towards their brothers. Ducati then joined up with the males, but Aprilia remained on her own.
After more than three weeks of solitude, Aprilia eventually joined up with her siblings, but left the group again two days later with her sister Ducati and since then the two groups went their separate ways.
APRILA & DUCATI
Aprilia and Ducati extended their ranges mainly into the western part of the reserve where they temporarily had to share the area with their brothers as well as with the sibling duo Coco and Bones. During a relatively short period Aprilia and Ducati have become a key example of successful cheetah rehabilitation. They had to learn how to regain their natural instincts for prey and hunting and how to take care of themselves against other predators and other dangers.
On the 22nd of April 2016 disaster struck when Ducati was found early in the morning with what seemed like a severely broken leg. At closer inspection during immobilization we found that the tibia of her right hind leg was completely separated from her foot. She also had four additional bite marks around the rest of her body, which led us to believe that her injuries were probably caused by a hyena attack the previous night.
After a provisional bandage was applied and her wounds cleaned, Ducati was transported to Windhoek where Dr. Ulf Tubbesing and his team were awaiting the patient.
Veterinary Comment: X-rays showed a tibio-tarsal fracture and dislocation with the tibial articular point penetrating the skin resulting in an open fracture, however, articular cartilage did not have too much damage. The distal tibial fracture could not be fixed with a pin, nor a plate with screws as the cortex of the bone was too thin and too close to the tibia-tarsal joint, so Dr. Tubbesing attempted to make use of sutures to keep the peri-osteum together. Dr. Tubbesing also discovered a lateral tibial condyle fracture around the attachment of the lateral collateral ligaments, which he treated by inserting a small screw. Even more severe than the fracture was the fact that every single ligament was torn. Dr. Tubbesing attempted to suture all ligaments together, but decided to leave the skin wound open and to insert a drain for constant drainage, especially during the first few days to prevent infection. A cast was applied to maintain the leg in a stable position. In order to keep the wound clean and free of infection, the cast needs to be removed every three to four days and the inserted drain removed.
Only four days later all effort made during the last few days seemed to be for nothing. The screw that was inserted by Dr. Tubbesing had somehow dislodges itself, and was sticking out of her leg. Ducati needed to be immobilized again and yet another attempt was made to stabilize the fracture by Dr. Tubbesing. In the following weeks Ducati was immobilized another four times in order to keep the wound clean and free from infections. But during this period, she sadly didn’t show any positive progress, but rather a progressive deterioration. Despite keeping the wound as clean as possible and the daily administration of antibiotics, infection was settling in. Furthermore, the tibial articular surface showed evidence of the start of multiple avascular necrotic foci indicating that the bone tissue is slowly dying due to the lack of blood supply. Taking every factual finding and aspect into consideration, including the likelihood of Ducati’s future back in the wild, her envisaged quality of life, her frustrations because of a lack of mobility, constant darting, pain and psychological suffering (from a human point of view, but which we know also occurs in wild animals, and which then automatically leads to depression) - it was unanimously decided to euthanize poor Ducati.
Aprilia and Ducati were sighted 105 times in 2016.
After the death of her sister in May, we hoped that Aprilia would reunite with her brothers Harley and Starsky. To motivate a reunion we temporally relocated the three to Alcatraz to eventually release them back into the wild together a few days later. After release the trio spent exactly one day together before Aprilia headed off alone into a northern direction. In June the trio reunited once again, but separated again only three days later.
Knowing that Aprilia and Ducati had became a successful duo, taking prey down regularly since their release into the reserve in September 2015, left us confident that she would also find her way in the wild as a solitary cheetah. Initially roaming large parts of the reserve, Aprilia soon limited her movements and was mainly found in the Poort, an area in the south-eastern part of the reserve consisting mainly of open woodland patches enclosed by a mountain range. Even though Aprilia took down the occasional prey including springbok and dik-dik, she struggled more than we initially expected and therefore had to receive an increased amount of supplementary food.
On 8 November 2016 it seemed as though Aprilia had narrowly escaped a fatal leopard attack. She was found in the late afternoon with bite wounds around her head and neck and upon arrival suffered from a severe seizure. Because AfriCat’s part-time vet Dr. Diethardt Rodenwoldt wasn’t readily available, Aprilia was transported to Elvira’s Vet Practice in Otjiwarongo for a professional assessment of the extent of her injuries. The injuries were cleaned and she was treated with antibiotics and analgesics.
She was moved to Alcatraz where Team AfriCat could keep a close eye on her. For the first two days she still seemed to be in severe pain; she refused to eat and didn’t move much. From day three on, Aprilia’s condition seemed to improve on a daily basis as she started to move around more regularly and approached the team on her own, demanding her food. Her wounds appeared clean and dry and gave no reason for concern and we were hopeful that she would make a full recovery.
A week after the attack and completely unexpectedly, Aprilia died in the early morning of 15 November. Post-mortem results revealed a severe toxemia caused by the accumulation of puss under the skin around the initial bite wounds and in between all neck muscles, despite the administration of a long-acting antibiotic and careful cleaning of the wounds. It was also found that her skull had been penetrated during the attack and had resulted in bleeding, which had caused the first seizure and could easily have led to further seizures at any time.
We say goodbye to Aprilia with sadness. She was a fighter who narrowly survived a snake bite a few years back and who managed to adapt to live her life as a solitary cheetah after the death of her sister Ducati. Without a doubt she was a special cat that will be deeply missed.
HARLEY & STARSKY
Despite their initial struggles within the first months after release, Harley and Starsky seemed to get the hang of it. Initially staying close to the perimeter fence and barely taking down any prey, the two brothers extended their movements within the reserve, concentrating their activity on the Superhighway – the main road access road in the reserve – and the central eastern part of the reserve. The two brothers were sighted altogether 209 times in 2016. The duo were taking prey down on a regular basis and were completely independent from artificial food supplies. With the introduction of springbok into the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve in the middle of 2016, rehabilitated cheetahs were presented with an ideal prey species for the first time. Since July, a high number of springbok kills were observed among cheetahs in the reserve including the two brothers, indicating that the presence or absence of the right prey species can be crucial for the success of rehabilitated carnivores.
On 26 November 2016, Starsky was found severely injured and rushed to CCF – the Cheetah Conservation Fund - whose vet was on standby for us since AfriCat’s part-time vet Dr. Rodenwoldt wasn’t on the property. After a thorough examination three claw or bite wounds were found on Starsky’s top right shoulder blade. X-rays of his shoulder and spine were clear and didn’t show any fracture. His wounds were cleaned, disinfected and stitched, and a drain was inserted. Back at AfriCat Starsky was placed in a small holding camp with his brother Harley. When waking up from the anesthetic, Starsky had trouble straightening and remained flat on his side despite a few unsuccessful attempts to stand up. The following day his condition hadn’t improved significantly as he was still unable to get up. He was treated with a series of analgesics and antibiotics to fight off bacterial infections. Even though he drank a bit of water, we were worried about his hydration status and thus applied a drip system of 2x2 liters of fluid.
Despite all efforts, Starsky died two days later, most likely from multi-organ failure caused by the shock of the attack. It is likely that there had also been some kidney or liver damage.
We said good-bye to a brave cat that made the most of the time he had in the wild.
His brother Harley is the last remaining survivor of the Motorbike coalition that was released in September 2015. Because we are worried that he will not make it in the wild alone, he was temporarily brought back into AfriCat’s care, where we are currently trying to bond him with a single female. If bonding is successful, both cats will be released back into the wild.
After the loss of her two cubs Ayci and Nyx shortly after the family had been released out of Alcatraz in May 2015, Dizzy was left again with one remaining cub. Despite 10 months of captivity, Dizzy quickly found herself back in her hunting routine, proving that she is an excellent hunter and is teaching her male cub Juba the necessary life and hunting skills.
But life can be tough in the bush especially for a single cheetah accompanied by a dependent cub who relies on its mothers’ surveillance and life skills. On 6 August 2015, Dizzy was found with an eye injury. After 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, possibly as a result of snake venom or penetration by a thorn.
For their safety, Dizzy and her cub were relocated into Alcatraz since we needed to observe her daily to determine how much sight she had left For about three weeks a difference in pupil size between the left and right eye was visible and another examination revealed a complete detachment of the retina causing permanent blindness in that eye. The cornea has evidence of scar tissue formation with a weakened corneal structure. To date, snake venom 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 permanent. On 7 September Dizzy and Juba were released back into the wild. Dizzy was monitored closely for any improvement or deterioration of the eye and was given anti-inflammatories every second day.
Dizzy adapted quickly to her "new" situation and remains the successful hunter she always was.
On 20 November 2015 Juba, Dizzy’s remaining cub, was found dead close to the northern perimeter fence. Bite wounds around his neck suggested that a leopard was to blame for the death of the 16-month old cub. Cub mortality in cheetahs is sadly the rule rather than the exception.
Due to the large 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.
In 2016 Dizzy was sighted 146 times. Because of the large home ranges cheetahs occupy naturally, Dizzy doesn’t stay at the same place for long and is therefore found in all corners of the reserve. We rarely have to worry about her and only very occasionally have to help her out with food.
Dizzy was fitted with a new VHF radio collar during the 2016 AfriCat annual health check. Even though her previous collar was still working fine, battery life depending on the type of collar usually ranges from 1 to 3 years. Since Dizzy was last fitted with a collar in September 2012, we played it safe to avoid malfunctioning and replaced it. Gastric biopsies were taken at the same time to compare gastrointestinal health between captive and free-ranging cheetahs.
Rehabilitation of carnivores often involves supplemental feeding until they start hunting for their own meals. The highly specialized hunting technique of a wild dog pack requires a lot of skill and cooperation among pack member, which is one of the reasons why the rehabilitation of wild dogs often remains unsuccessful. Against all odds, Team FIFA, consisting of the orphaned wild dogs Jogi, Messi and Robin and 10-year old wild dog female Ricky, started hunting successfully four weeks after release and, since then, were seen regularly on kills and with full stomachs. To what extent Ricky – an experienced hunter – was responsible for the success of the pack remains unclear, but we are sure that she was able to teach the youngsters some important life and hunting lessons.
During the beginning of the year Messi was found more and more often cuddled up with Ricky, while Jogi and Robin formed an inseparable duo. At this time Ricky’s condition deteriorated noticeably and she looked emaciated. Additionally Ricky seemed to be on heat, causing trouble within the family. On 26 February 2016, Team FIFA was found split for the first time since their release in July 2015. Jogi and Robin were moving together southwards, while Ricky and Messi remained in the central part of the reserve. When the two groups encountered each other again two days later, the situation resulted in severely escalated fighting between the two 2-year old brothers Jogi and Messi.
With the breeding season usually taking place between February and May, an increased intrapack aggression can be observed in wild dog packs as a result of subordinate animals trying to improve their ranking within the hierarchy. During that time severe attacks on individuals can occur that may even lead to mortalities. It was found that intrapack attacks are the most common cause of death in captive wild dogs, but are less common in free-ranging dogs due to less space restriction, and thus more chances to avoid the situation.
Even though both dogs suffered bite wounds around the head and neck and Messi was left with a floppy ear, Messi successfully defended his dominant position in the pack. Both males are vasectomized meaning that they are sterile and cannot father any pups, but will still show normal male behavior (such as marking territories or mating with females in estrus) as the testicles are not removed and therefore still produce testosterone.
After this severe clash between the two brothers, the situation calmed down again. Even though Messi was still sticking with Ricky and was fiercely protective of her, Jogi showed clear signs of submission towards his brother, and the pack at least started to move together again.
On 6 March we found Ricky once more guarded by Messi, but from one day to the other she seemed to have serious problems and struggled to walk without falling down. It seemed as though she had developed a serious hip injury and that Messi must somehow have hurt her aging body during several attempts to mate with her. We observed her for the following two days hoping that her condition would only be temporary and improve, but when she deteriorated, we decided that at her age it was most humane to euthanize her to prevent unnecessary suffering. Ricky died on 8 March 2016 at the age of 11 years. Ricky was the smallest pup of her litter but she proved that that doesn’t necessarily mean the weakest. She was determined to survive and outlived all her siblings, and was to a large extent responsible for the success story of Team FIFA. Rest in Peace, brave Ricky.
After Ricky’s death, Messi started to project the exact same behavior he showed with her onto his sister Robin. Messi didn’t leave the side of his sister and tried to keep Jogi at a distance, even inflicting some minor bite wounds on his back side. In a regular sized pack of 5–15 adults and yearlings (Creel and Creel, 2002) similar behavior is not generally seen, since a pack consists of one alpha male and several subordinate males of different ranks. In an artificial pack situation like ours, where a pack consists of only three dogs, Jogi found himself as the only subordinate dog left. These disrupted pack dynamics were also mirrored in the dogs hunting behavior. Not working as a team anymore, the dogs struggled to take down prey.
A week later, things returned to normal. Messi stopped guarding Robin and no more rivalry or fighting was observed between the two brothers. The sibling trio started to get back into their old routines of moving large distances and were observed on several hunting expeditions.
On 6 April Jogi and Robin were spotted together close to a dry riverbank, but without their brother Messi. The previous night all three dogs had been seen together close to a dam where they had been feeding on a warthog. But where was Messi? Due to the fact that Jogi is the only collared dog of the pack, tracking Messi down turned out to be harder than expected.
A few weeks previously Robin had also been separated from the rest of the pack. While Messi, Jogi and Ricky were found resting underneath a tree in the eastern part of the reserve, Robin was located a few hours later, five kilometers west of them. Eventually the team was able to lure both groups back together. Robin’s constant calling for her pack mates did the rest and the dogs were soon united again. So we thought Messi had probably got lost in the heat of the moment during a hunt or chase, and would soon re-unite with his siblings. Nevertheless, Team AfriCat as well as Okonjima guides and trackers started searching the surrounding area on foot, but there was no sign of Messi. The searches at nearby water points were also unsuccessful. Robin and Jogi kept returning to the spot where they had supposedly lost their brother and stayed close to it.
To date there have been no signs of Messi’s remains, but we believe that he was killed by either a leopard or spotted hyena.
We are currently trying to bond Jogi and Robin with AfriCat’s latest litter of orphaned wild dogs.
Both packs have been placed into Alcatraz, divided by a fence, to initiate the bonding process in a controlled environment.
Team Fifa was spotted 207 times throughout 2016.
POOH / PADDINGTON / RUPERT
The hyenas Pooh and Paddington are seen occasionally by the Okonjima Guides pursuing their favorite activity –snoozing somewhere in the shade. Rupert is still without a collar but is regularly seen on camera traps. We are aiming to trap him in one of the box traps that are spread over the reserve to fit him with a radio collar again.
Paddington – the shyer of the two brothers – has only been sighted 10 times while Pooh was seen 83 times by Okonjima guides and guests.