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The Aeroplane Coalition

The Aeroplane coalition – consisting of three males, Sniper, Spitfire and Quattro and their sister Hurricane – was released from the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre into the 20 000 ha Okonjima Nature Reserve at the beginning of December 2016.

Spitfire and his sister Hurricane came to AfriCat in 2009 when they were about three months old. After their mother was shot, the two cubs were caught by a farmer, where they stayed for the following three weeks before AfriCat was contacted for assistance.

Quattro was seven months old when he was hit by a car. The crash resulted in severe concussion and a broken leg. His front left leg was broken in four different places and needed to be pinned and plated in the Rhino Park Veterinary Clinic in Windhoek. After his major surgery, Quattro recovered from his injuries at AfriCat in a limited space enclosure to ensure that the bone could heal properly.

Sniper originated from a farm close to Okahandja where he had been held captive for a couple of months. When he came to AfriCat in 2010, he was overweight and was immediately started on an appropriate diet. Sniper and Quattro were introduced to Spitfire and Hurricane and the four formed a tight coalition.

When, after almost six years in captivity, the Aeroplanes were released into the Okonjima Nature Reserve, they stuck together as a group, and after two weeks started to make the odd kill. During the first few weeks after their release, the quartet covered the majority of the reserve excluding only the extreme south and south-east. Sniper struggled with a superficial injury on his left hind leg, possibly caused by a warthog tusk or a branch he hit while running, but because the wound seemed superficial we decided against any interference, but monitored him closely.

As with every newly released cheetah coalition, Team AfriCat still needed to supplement the Aeroplanes with food every now and then in order to keep their energy levels up, but they kept on moving and exploring the reserve, finding water and hunting. Even though not every hunting attempt resulted in a success, their instinct was strong.

On 22 January 2017, Hurricane was killed by a leopard. As there are a relatively large number of leopards in the reserve, interspecific competition frequently claims the lives of released cheetahs. Vigilance and the avoidance of higher-order predators like leopards and hyenas are the most important tools that rehabilitated cheetahs need to hone to be successful in the wild.

After Hurricane’s death, the three males stayed together and mainly roamed the open plains in the western and central parts of the reserve. Even though their hunting success was irregular, the trio made the odd kill to sustain themselves and they were found on a kill at least every two weeks.

Four months after Hurricane’s death, Quattro succumbed to the same fate. He was killed by a leopard on 17 May 2017. After Quattro’s death though, Sniper and Spitfire hunted very rarely. Quattro had normally led their hunting missions and without him Sniper and Spitfire appeared to be quite helpless and inexperienced. Unfortunately, despite several hunting efforts, the unusual male coalition (with Spitfire being the largest and Sniper the smallest of our cheetahs) was only occasionally rewarded with a successful kill and they relied strongly on supplementary food from the AfriCat team.

On 27 June 2017 Sniper and Spitfire were darted within the framework of AfriCat’s annual health checks. Blood and urine samples were collected and haematology and serum biochemistry profiles were performed. Both were vaccinated against rabies and other infectious diseases. Their teeth were checked for dental abnormalities and additional ultrasound examinations and gastric biopsies were performed in order to evaluate and compare the degree of gastritis in captive and previously released cheetahs. Except for a lipoma that was found on Sniper’s spleen, both cheetahs were in excellent condition and were released back into the reserve the next day.

After the loss of Hurricane and Quattro, Sniper and Spitfire were constantly on the move, extending their ranges into the far northern parts of the reserve. In July 2017, the duo eventually started to hunt successfully again. During the last months of 2017 the two boys increasingly roamed the areas close to the eastern perimeter fence where they often meet up with Swakop and Mundi. Even though there was a bit of a territorial dispute every now and then, they seemed to tolerate one another for the most part.

During the present rainy season, many of the ungulates have dropped their young. With the increase of impala lambs in the reserve, the hunting success rate of our cheetahs has increased proportionally. Two years after their release into the Okonjima Nature Reserve, Sniper and Spitfire are found on a kill regularly and only require a minimum of additional food support.