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The AfriCat Motorbikes, Harley, Aprilia, Ducati and their mate Starsky!

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The beginnings . . . . 

Harley, and his two sisters, Ducati and Aprilia - aka 'The Motorbikes' - arrived at AfriCat at the age of five months back in 2009. Their mother was shot, and after the farmer caught the orphaned cubs he kept them in a chicken cage for four weeks. Yet again another sad story of the condition of cats when they arrived at AfriCat . . . They all showed signs of calcium deficiency, skew legs and limps, however, after getting introduced to the right food enriched with vitamins and mineral supplements, their condition improved visibly.
Starsky came to AfriCat together with his brother, Hutch, as three-month old cubs; sharing the same history as The Motorbikes - their mother had also been shot. Due to their similar ages, Team AfriCat introduced these two groups of orphaned cheetah cubs to one another; however, six months after a successful introduction, Hutch sadly died due to natural - unknown – causes, whereas Starsky remained with his new companions.

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The release . . . . 

After almost six years of captivity, the anticipated day finally came, when space opened up in the 200km², Okonjima Nature reserve, and in September 2015 Harley, Starsky, Aprilia and Ducati were released into the wild. In preparation for their release, all cats were fitted with a VHF-radio collar and additionally received a hormonal temporal contraceptive implant to
1) prevent breeding (AfriCat believes that as long as there are cheetahs in captivity that are waiting in line for rehabilitation and their second chance in the wild, reproduction should be lowered to an extent that first allows the rehabilitation of our captive cheetahs), and
2) to increase chances that a coalition of cheetahs will also remain in that coalition after their release. We have found this to be one of the basic conditions for their survival - when a coalition of previously captive and inexperienced cheetahs are released into the wild.

There have been three occasions witnessed (Oct 2015, Dec 2015, April 2016) where the two males, Harley and Starsky were found in close proximity to our oldest coalition of cheetahs, 'The Siblings' - Coco, Spud and Bones, who were released in May 2010. There has also been one occasion, where the girls have had another encounter with the dominant trio. (Dec 2015)

In the past, The Siblings, who use to include Hammer, (killed by a spotted hyaena in Nov 2011), always seemed to be rather intolerant of the presence of other cheetahs and often reacted aggressively, even seen killing cheetah cubs.
Bones - as well as their brother Spud, who sadly passed in December 2015 - received a temporal contraceptive implant in July 2015. Coco, was re-contracepted because she has been on contraception since her release in 2010, due to a weak back leg that was broken when she was a cub and which never healed correctly. The contraception might be the reason why there has been more tolerance shown towards the Motorbikes – this observation and theory is still very young, but it might be a way forward when groups of rehabilitated cheetahs are released into an area from where they cannot migrate?

Contraception in females, suppresses the production of two gonadotropin hormones and thus prevents menstrual cycling. In males the implant effects the testicles and sperm production, and thus, a decreased production of testosterone, as less testosterone is directly linked to less aggressive behavior. Over the past years we have observed that group behavior doesn’t seem to be affected by temporal contraception, except the fact that coalitions tend to stay together longer and captive males were found to be less aggressive. These two side effects have proved to be beneficial for the purposes of rehabilitation since larger coalitions are more vigilant and tend to detect danger faster than a single individual, and male cheetahs have shown less aggressive behavior towards other rehabilitated non-coalition members.

Even though The Siblings didn’t exactly show amiable behavior towards the Motorbikes on the 4 witnessed occasions when both groups encountered each other, there was definitely less aggression involved while the two coalitions circled each other with some snarling and high-pitch yelping, but no vicious attacks were recorded.

At AfriCat, the cheetah and leopard contraception programme started in 1998. The ideal contraceptive for wildlife should have no side effects. It should be safe, as it is also used also in pregnant females, should have minimal effects on behavior, and it should not pass through the food chain. In many cases a reversible method is preferable to permanent methods so that animals can breed again at a later stage, especially among the rehabilitated carnivores. At AfriCat, we prefer our inexperienced carnivores to focus on honing in their skills, through trial and error, learning to hunt and to survive the dangers, instead of coming on heat and producing young while they themselves are still 'inexperienced survivors' of the wild.
Because Okonjima is an island-bound nature reserve, in the middle of thousands of commercial farms – the perimeter fence must protect these carnivores from being persecuted by man if they were ever to leave the safety of the 55,000acre wilderness, If these carnivores were to feel dominated by other cheetahs, or threatened by a high density of leopard, they may feel that they have no choice but to try to leave this area of safety; another reason to continue the contraceptive programme.
Read more: Contraception in wildlife.

 

Before their final release into the 20,000 ha nature reserve, The Motorbikes and their mate Starsky, were transported to a 5 ha soft release / recovery enclosure we call Alcatraz, due to its isolated location within the Okonjima Nature Reserve. It also has  high, predator proof, electric fencing for protection against other predators. The cats spent three days at Alcatraz before the gates of freedom eventually opened for them. A soft release gives the released animal more time to orientate itself in the new environment. It also gives them a chance to acclimatize before their actual release, and to restore their energy reserves which may have been depleted from previous handling and transportation.

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After initial hesitation The Motorbike gang left their temporary home and made the first steps into their new lives. Aprilia was leading the group and maintained her dominant position within the group.
Unfortunately it didn’t take a day before The Motorbikes split up in two groups. While the sisters Aprilia and Ducati remained close to their release site and just made occasional visits to close-by water points, Harley and Starsky started to cover large distances and wandered off into the northern direction. A few days later the two sisters were found together with Starsky, again close to Alcatraz; but were was Harley? We eventually found him only about a kilometer away from his siblings, but all attempts to lure him back to his companions failed; instead he started walking into the opposite direction and was found close to North Dam (approximately eight kilometers from his siblings) the following day.

After several different group compilations over the following days, all four cheetahs were eventually found together a week after their release. They were found in a patch of open woodland just below the Omboroko mountain range chasing Shanti, one of our resident, female leopards. Shanti eventually fled into the safety of the mountains, leaving the cheetahs behind and most probably - and unfortunately - believing that they had won this encounter . . .

These 'newcomers' have had several more leopard/cheetah encounters, and while most of them have not been so 'mild' as this one, they have had more luck than sense in dealing with such confrontations, and still have a lot to learn in order to survive as wild cheetahs in the bush.

From there on Harley, Starsky, Aprilia and Ducati moved together westwards, within Okonjima, into the open, 'Serenjima Plains', along the western perimeter fence-line, before moving back into the northern-central part of the reserve. Even though they located some water points, we regularly supplied them with water for the first three weeks. The team always provides newly released, rehabilitated cheetahs with supplemental feeding every third to fourth day to keep their energy levels up. Supplemental feeding is continued until they figure out the tough business of hunting their own meals, through trial and error.

[This is what the 'sponsored support' of the rehabilitated carnivore’s funds: fuel and supplemented feeding]
Read more:
AfriCat Program - rehabilitation
Adopt a Carnivore in the Okonjima Nature Reserve
Adopt a Carnivore that will be Rehabilitated in the Okonjima Nature Reserve

 

On the 26th of September, the quartet managed to make their first kill - a juvenile oryx - followed by a warthog kill on the 5th of October. In both hunts Aprilia played the leading role when it came to subduing the prey, while her three siblings only joined her after most of the work was done.

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Harley, Ducati, Aprilia September 2015
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All four motorbikes
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Harley and Ducati  September 2015

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Chasing Shanti

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Harley, Starsky and Ducati November 2015
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First warthog kill
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First warthog kill

 

Harley and Starsky

On the 6th of October, The Motorbikes split once again. While Aprilia and Ducati moved southwestwards, Harley and Starsky moved into the direction of the eastern perimeter fence line where they stayed for the following three weeks, only occasionally moving to the closest water point. When we consider their overall rehabilitation process, Harley and Starsky remained close to the fence line to a large extent. We have already observed this phenomenon in the past where rehabilitated animals have spent the majority of their time in close proximity to the fence - which is also the area in which we observed the most fatal encounters between cheetahs and leopards or hyenas. It might be that these cheetahs that have lived all their life fenced in, so that to some degree some kind of habituation has taken place and the fence is providing a familiar and safe environment?

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Three weeks later, on the 26th of October, the two boys temporarily joined up with their sister, Ducati. All three were found on a Red Hartebeest kill only two days later - although we are not sure if they actually made that kill themselves, or if they took advantage of somebody else’s hunting abilities. Approximately four weeks later, the group joined up again with their lost sister Aprilia, who left them again only two days later, together with Ducati.

Harley and Starsky kept on following their old patterns and mainly moved along the reserves’ fence line, while only occasionally moving inwards. Since the time of their release in September 2015, Harley and Starsky have only been observed on three kills including a juvenile wildebeest, eland and warthog. Starsky - the smaller of the two males - seems to be the more active, agile and ambitious hunter. Harley instead appears to be rather a bit clumsy and cautious. Both cats are still strongly dependent on the additional food supplied by the team, but as they are found more regularly in open plain areas away from the perimeter fence, we are hoping that these two will still find their way and become as successful as their two sisters.

 

Ducati and Aprilia

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On the 6th of  October 2015 Aprilia and Ducati split once more from their brothers. While Harley and Starsky moved eastwards, the two sisters moved south-west back into the open Serenjima plains. On the 26th of October we found Ducati on a steenbok kill - but without her sister Aprilia? Even though Aprilia was only 600 meters apart from Ducati, she didn’t manage to reunite with her sister; instead Ducati met up with her brothers. For the following four weeks Aprilia remained on her own roaming large areas of the reserve and occasionally making successful kills, including juvenile steenbok and warthog. Only on the 23rd of November did Aprilia meet up with her lost companions again, but left the group once more, together with her sister just two days later. Since the 25th of November 2015, Aprilia and Ducati have been by themselves and haven’t joined up with their brothers again even though both groups have temporarily been in the same areas. In total contrast to their brothers, the two sisters have gradually refined their hunting abilities over the last past months and are now periodically taking down prey and developing a preference for kudus!

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. Over a relatively short period of time Aprilia and Ducati have become a prime example of successful cheetah rehabilitation. They have had to learn how to regain their natural instincts to stalk and eat prey, to hunt, how to take care of, and protect, themselves against other predators and other dangers.

 

On the 22nd of April 2016 Ducati was found early in the morning with what seemed like a severe broken leg. At closer inspection after immobilization, we found that the tibia of her right hind leg was completely separated from her foot. She also bore four additional, shallow 'bite marks' around the rest of her body, which led us to initially believe her injuries were probably caused by a hyena or leopard attack the previous night. (large spacing between puncture marks) After a provisional bandage was applied and her wounds cleaned, Ducati was transported to Windhoek where one of Namibia’s top surgeons, Dr. Ulf Tubbesing and his team were already awaiting the patient.

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.

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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 to allow 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. Given the fact that we were dealing with a massive tissue trauma, it remained a huge challenge to control the bone infection by maintaining draining from the wound and to create an optimal environment for bone and soft tissue healing. The out-come we hoped, would be favorable assuming Ducati accepted her leg-cast, accepted her medicated daily food and remained relatively quiet. Given a healing process without any further complications, we were expecting a recovery not earlier than six to eight weeks. Regardless of the outcome, we had to face the fact that Ducati might have to deal with a reduced joint mobility and arthritis in the long-term.

Although we initially thought that a hyena was responsible for this massive trauma, the results of the x-rays and the fact that the other inflicted skin injuries didn’t cause any further muscle and bone damage (which is usually the case with leopard or hyena inflicted bite wounds), led us to conclude otherwise. We now believe that Ducati’s injuries may have originate from an attempted high-speed chase / hunt in an unsuitable habitat during which her foot possibly got hooked and her skin tears were inflicted by sharp branches or stones. Obviously these are all just theories and possible scenarios; what really happened only Ducati and her sister will know. Ducati and her sister Aprilia, spent the following weeks back at AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre, where they grew up. This is a familiar territory to them which meant there was very little additional stress, even though they were placed temporarily back in captivity.

We had to ensure that Ducati remained as calm as possible to give her the best possible chances of a full recovery. Aprilia stayed with her to keep her sister company. This was a definite set-back for both cats who were on a roll, and on record were more successful at their rehabilitation progress than Harley and Starsky are at present.

 

Ducati is in trouble again . . .

On Tuesday 26th April 2016, we arrived to check on Ducati & her sister Aprilia, but found more unfortunate newe . . . the screw that Dr Ulf Tubbesing had inserted a few days previously had somehow dislodged itself, and was sticking out of her leg.
We had to decide our plan of action as the costs of her treatment were spiraling . . . at this point the current VET BILL was standing at N$ 8219.51 (389.08 British Pounds & 566.83 US Dollars), resulting from travel costs that mounted from taking Ducati to Windhoek for proper treatment and the treatment itself. At this point, with her dislodged screw, it was obvious that she would have to be immobilized again to assess the new damage, which would incur further costs.

We also always consider the overall aim of AfriCat’s Cheetah Rehabilitation project, which was initiated to give some of our captive cheetahs an opportunity to return to their natural environment. Although hunting in carnivores is instinctive, many of the cheetahs at AfriCat lack hunting experience due to being orphaned or removed from the wild at an early age. This inexperience, as well as their conditioning to captivity, makes these animals unsuitable for release on farmland. The cheetahs (usually a coalition of brothers and sisters) are fitted with radio-collars before their release into the 20 000 ha Nature Reserve so that their welfare and progress can be closely monitored.
Besides giving the cheetahs a chance to return to the wild, the success of this project provides other substantial benefits; it gives us the opportunity to assess whether rehabilitation is a successful means of conserving an endangered population, and it also allows for the number of cheetahs in captivity to be reduced.

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AfriCat pays tribute to a brave cat called Ducati . . .

Clinical examination of surgical site: Ducati, Cheetah female, on 6th May 2016, at the AfriCat Foundation Veterinary Clinic:

Ducati was anaesthetized by means of a dart for the sixth time since her injury on the 22nd of April. This time she was brought to the AfriCat veterinary clinic and maintained on a gas anaesthesia for the duration of the clinical examination. Her evaluation was done by Dr Diethardt Rodenwoldt, part-time AfriCat veterinarian.
When the bandage|cast was removed, the lateral and medial wound was found to have a wet, foamy /bubbling fluid in and around the injury, with a faint distinct foul odour. This meant that infection was settling in – even though she had been given 2 bouts of long-acting antibiotics and other meds, which had been placed daily in her meat, and which she took without hesitation.
The injury was then re- opened for an immediate wound-site inspection. Unfortunately the break was yet again found to be dislocated, as it had been on the 3 previous occasions, post operation. Obviously, the cast, the splint and the type of bandage structure had not maintained the stability of the 'leg joint'.
Evidence was also found of the start of separation of the distal tibial epiphyseal line, (lower long bone growth line). The soft, growing bone had become porous with a slight crumbling of cortical and spongiosa – which can also be explained as the 'bone material' around the screw and pin-holes (both had migrated loose and were removed), and were starting to show a distinct colour change of the tibial cortical distal bone.
The tibial articular surface (joint surface) also showed evidence of the start of multiple avascular necrotic foci - (dying off of bone tissue due to lack of blood supply). Multiple avascular tarsal / central bone cartilage (some bone structures that form part of the hock joint) were seen to be in a similar state to those of its tibial counter parts. Curettage scrapings of the distal tibial periosteum into its cortex, the tibial distal spongiosa and the tarsal bone, sadly, did not show evidence of vascularization.

As we explained previously, when Ducati was injured all lateral and medial co-lateral ligament structures were destroyed, including a piece of the long digital flexor tendon. We believe the accident did not include a confrontation with another predator, but most probably rather occurred during a high-speed chase in rough, thorny terrain. She was operated on immediately, over two weeks previous to this decision point, but sadly she showed no positive progress, but rather a progressive deterioration.

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.

A sad day for all at AfriCat!

Ducati had 9 months of freedom and became a successful team member, together with her sister APRILIA nearly right from the start.

A brave cat she was!

A HUGE THANK YOU TO ALL WHO HELPED SUPPORT DUCATI, AND GAVE HER EVERY POSSIBILITY AND OPPORTUNITY TO RETURN TO THE WILD, BY HELPING US COVER HER MEDICAL BILLS!
DANIEL PINFOLD, HILKE STEFFENS, SARAH CULLEN & ANNE LINDER

The 20 000ha Okonjima, Private Nature Reserve provides orphaned cheetahs with the opportunity to hone their hunting skills and become self-sustaining - thereby giving them a chance to return to the wild! The sad and unfortunate death of some of our cats does not detract from the overall goal of the project - orphaned cheetahs did have the instinct to hunt and were able to sustain themselves.

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