RESEARCH IN THE OKONJIMA NATURE RESERVE
This research project is investigating the inter- and intraspecific relationship between different carnivore species in the 200 km2 Okonjima Nature Reserve, an enclosed conservation area. Study animals include cheetah Acinonyx jubatus , leopard Panthera pardus, and brown hyena Parahyaena brunnea. Interactions between predators, both within and between species are studied with the aid of VHF-telemetry, GPS-collars and camera traps. The study will assess the extent of intraguild predation and determine the size of home ranges and territories for individual animals within the reserve and how they relate to those of other predators. In addition the study will provide valuable information on the success of carnivore rehabilitation in the reserve.
To effectively manage carnivores within a closed reserve, a thorough understanding of their altered ecology is needed to make informed management decision.
Thus, this research is aiming to assess the interactions between different large carnivore species that are sharing a limited space, to determine the degree of intraguild predation among the sympatric carnivores in the nature reserve and which predator avoidance strategies are implied by lower order carnivores such as cheetahs in an area of high leopard abundance. Regular monitoring allows us to establish data on whether and to what extent the perimeter fence that surrounds the reserve affects the self-regulation of population densities and if it represents a disadvantage for carnivores with large home range requirements, such as cheetahs, due to habitat saturation. The findings obtained will constitute a valuable input for the national and range-wide carnivore programmes that can be theoretically and practically be applied in large carnivore conservation.
CHEETAH REHABILITATION PROGRAM
The AfriCat Foundation has been involved with the rehabilitation of carnivores into the wild since its inception. Given that they are surrounded by farmland, the 20 000ha |55 000acres | 200km² Okonjima Nature Reserve served as the protected wilderness in which those animals were released.
Defined by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council as “the process of providing aid to injured, orphaned, displaced, or distressed wild animals in such a way that they may survive when released to their native habitats”, rehabilitation is a complex affair.
It seeks to return wild animals who, for a variety of reasons, have been removed from the wild back into their native environment, both for the individual’s sake and for the conservation of the natural population.
In the last decades, rehabilitation has been a growing trend, with huge efforts being funneled into various programmes. However, there is little scientific data and follow up which assesses if this is a worthwhile strategy in the fight for conservation of wildlife.
In an attempt to rectify this, AfriCat incorporated follow-up and analysis of data into their cheetah rehabilitation project. Alongside the more ‘obvious’ aim of rehabilitating captive cheetahs to the wild, the project provided the means by which that can be assessed.
Rehabilitating animals who have been in captivity for any length of time is a complicated process. Either orphaned or removed from the wild at an early age, Cats released ranged from 10 months old to 8 years of age. Many of AfriCat’s captive cheetahs are inexperienced in hunting, despite it being instinctive, and this renders them vulnerable when released. Hence the strategy for release was multipronged, and required patience.
Immediately prior to release, the animals were fitted with VHF radio collars to enable regular monitoring post release. Camera traps contributed to the data collected on the animals as they created their new lives in the wilderness of the Okonjima Nature Reserve.
Data have been collected since 2000 on the success of the rehabilitation programme and which enabled to make strategic decisions regarding the methodology, and, generally, to assess the worth of using rehabilitation as a tool in conserving wild populations of cheetah.
COLLABORATIVE CHEETAH STUDIES
Many of the large carnivore involved with The AfriCat Foundation undergo an annual health check. This is a seminal part of the year for the Foundation and its’ partners, as it allows for far more than simply checking if the animals are healthy.
Invited specialist veterinarians are given the opportunity to conduct research on various aspects of animal health and welfare. This is especially important work in relation to the health of large carnivores held in captivity, or who live in protected – yet enclosed – Nature Reserves, such as Okonjima.
The examinations of the cheetahs at AfriCat provide expert information on the health of AfriCat’s animals, and also allow for the comparison of results with similar studies being conducted on large carnivores in other captive facilities, and also of those who are free-roaming in the wild.
In captivity, cheetahs are known to suffer from several chronic diseases that do not occur in their wild-living counterparts.
Many factors have been proposed as the cause of this phenomenon – stress, lack of exercise, low genetic variability and the provision of unnatural diets in captive facilities. It is probable that all do play a role, but to date no satisfactory or convincing pathophysiological explanations for these diseases have been presented.
AfriCat has been fortunate to collaborate with Dr Adrian Tordiffe on this issue, investigating the health differences using a ‘Systems Biology Approach’.
This attempts to understand as many of the components of the cheetah’s metabolic system as possible, by using untargeted metabolic analysis of serum and urine.
Samples were taken from both captive and free-ranging cheetahs, thereby generating physiological data for the same species, but which live in different situations.
Data generated allows comparison and analysis with the aim of better understanding cheetah’s metabolism in response to different environmental cues and triggers.
Valuable insights have been achieved, which allows for ongoing discussion and hypotheses into the potential mechanisms of metabolic disorders in captive cheetahs.
As for all dynamic research in this field, such data provides a platform for discussion surrounding the health, well-being, survival and management of large carnivores in protected wilderness, and for the larger conservation conversation.