Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Cubs First Run and Farewell to CCF

Greetings All,
Our month at CCF is nearly over.  We have had an amazing time and even more new experiences in our final week.  We got to watch the cubs, Rainbow and Aurora on their first "cheetah run".  They picked it up quickly and were racing around the field after the rag lure just like their adult counterparts.

Cubs First Run

This past week we were busy doing game counts.  We did an afternoon circuit count, a night count and the highlight, a 12-hour waterhole count.  That's right, we had to sit at a waterhole for 12 hours and count all the animals that came to drink.  We were set up in a brick hide with an open window slit in front through which we could watch and photograph animals.

Marc in the hide


View of Waterhole from the Hide


We started at 6:00 and it took about an hour for the animals to show up.  The first visitors were elands, the largest of Africa's antelope species and a steady stream of animals visited the waterhole throughout the day.

Eland


At one point there were nearly 30 zebra at the waterhole.  Not only did we have to count the number of animals, we had to determine how many males and how many females there were as well as indicate the number of adults vs. subadults vs. calves.

Zebra

During the few lulls in animal visitors we were able to enjoy the beautiful birds frequenting the waterhole.  Our favorites were violet-eared waxbills, black-faced waxbills and acacia pied barbet.

Black-faced Waxbill 

Violet-eared Waxbill

A curious slender mongoose came to visit no doubt attracted by our lunch.

Slender Mongoose

Before we knew it our 12 hours were up and it was time to return to CCF.

What's more fun than a wheelbarrow full of goats?  Why cleaning the goat pens of course.  They didn't make it easy jumping into the wheelbarrow and knocking over our rakes and shovels but you had to laugh at their inquisitive nature.

Peggy Cleaning the Kraal

Being a model farm, CCF raises goats and sheep and host workshops to teach local farmers better animal husbandry.  Along with the flocks are the livestock guarding dogs that we have continued to walk throughout our stay.  I'll miss our walks up Leopard Hill and along the Savannah Trail.

We got to watch the Ambassadors run one final time yesterday.  I continue to marvel at the cheetah, the fastest land animal.


Cheetah Run

We thank CCF for the privilege of spending a month with these amazing cats and the opportunity to learn more about them.

Cheetah Cub


I will miss their purrs, hisses, spits and chirps.  I hope they will win the race for survival and that humans can learn to coexist with these magnificent predators.  I can't imagine a world without cheetahs!

We hope all is well back home.
Marc and Peggy

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Leopard Hill Dogs and Pangolin Power

Greetings All,
Another week has passed at CCF.  We had a new task assigned to us: walk the Anatolian shepherd dogs guarding the goats in the corral.  This enabled us to explore the farm and get some much needed exercise.  The dogs felt the same way.  A new game emerged - what dogs could make it to the top of Leopard Hill?  Although not very high, maybe a 200 foot climb, most of the dogs had never been to the top.  The first to make it was Hediye.  We shared a great view of the CCF farm.

Peggy and Hediye on the way down from Leopard Hill

The next day we took Kiri and Firat to the top.  There were some that didn't think Firat would make it but not to be out done by Kiri, he was the third dog to become a Leopard Hill Dog!  Kiri was happy to escape her brood of 11 puppies for awhile.  They loved sniffing  the white pole on top!

Marc with Kiri and Firat on Leopard Hill

The following morning, Spots made his bid.  Along with Hediye (already a Leopard Hill Dog), Spots joined the esteemed ranks of a Leopard Hill Dog.  The last two dogs to be inaugurated were Cheetah and Spikey.  Cheetah was particularly proud as he was recovering from a tick-born disease.

Peggy with Cheetah and Spikey on Leopard Hill

In addition to guarding livestock, some dogs at CCF are trained to detect cheetah scat.  We helped Steph one morning in continuing her training of Tiger, a springer spaniel from Australia.  We hid a few pieces of cheetah scat, then Steph gave Tiger the "find it!" command.  Using his acute sense of smell Tiger found the scat in no time and would sit next to it waiting for Steph's approval.  He was rewarded with play toys.

Tiger, the Scat Detection Dog

I'm sure most of you are wondering "why on earth would you want to find cheetah poo?"  There are a few reasons.  First, the scat is analyzed to determine what the cheetah has been eating.  This data is useful to show farmers that cheetah prefer wild prey over livestock.  Secondly, DNA can now be extracted from scat and individual cheetahs identified.  This is helpful in determining how many and which cheetahs are in an area.

The last couple of days we've been helping Ryan feed 35 of CCF's 50 cheetahs.  This involved taking a 45-minute drive to Bellebeno Farm to feed the less habituated cheetahs.  Along the way there is always the chance to see other animals such as these graceful Kudu at Eric se Pos waterhole.

Greater Kudu

Warthog families would frequently trot across the road with tails held high as "follow me" signs.

Warthogs

We also encountered Oryx, Giraffe, Steenbok and this handsome Black-backed jackal.

Black-backed Jackal

One of the cheetahs at Bellebeno is Athena.  Ryan told us her fascinating story.  She was brought to CCF last November along with 3 other female cheetahs after being trapped by a farmer.  One of her paws was in bad shape and a toe had to be amputated.  After lots of TLC by CCF vets and staff she recovered and was released on Bellebeno.  Unfortunately she did not stay on CCF land and ended up on a neighboring farm where she started killing livestock.  She was trapped and returned to CCF where it was determined that her teeth had gone bad (probably why she resorted to killing livestock) and that she was pregnant!  She gave birth to one or two cubs at Bellebeno.  Unfortunately they did not survive.  A wild male cheetah broke into her pen and may have killed her cubs.  She may be pregnant again.  Athena is a stunning cat and we hope she can be returned to the wild one day where she and her cubs can roam free.

Athena

Last night we visited The Big Field to watch the sun set and a nearly full moon rise over the Waterberg Plateau.

Moon Rise over the Waterberg Plateau

An unexpected surprise waited for us.  Bruce and Laurie had found a pangolin!   In all our 17 trips to Africa we have never seen a pangolin.  It was the one African mammal that I had most wanted to see. We raced off to Laurie and Bruce's location and there he was, a beautiful Ground Pangolin (Smutsia temminckii) also known as Temminck's Pangolin trying to hide under a bush.

Ground Pangolin

He (not really sure of the gender) resembled an over grown tailed-artichoke with a wee head and beady eyes.  What a prehistoric looking creature and an incredibly lucky sighting!  I was overcome with emotion.  What a privilege to see an amazing animal in such a beautiful location!

Ground Pangolin

Here are a few more of our favorite photos:


Rainbow and Aurora Grooming

Eland Bull


Cheetah Run

We'll see what surprises CCF has in store for us during our final week.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rarely Seen Creatures and Cheetah Run

Greetings All,
Sorry to hear about all the rain back home.  In Namibia it's dry as a bone -  the summer rains never came and the waterholes are drying up fast.  I hope the animals can survive the dry season and that the rains come in October.  Here at CCF water is pumped from a well called a bore hole but we have to conserve as much as possible.

Our duties and experiences continue to evolve.  One evening we visited another CCF farm called Cheetah View where two scientists, one from Israel and one from SUNY were studying air flow in a termite mound.  They invited us out to watch an experiment they had devised in a lizard burrow to test their model.   A green laser was set up to project horizontally across the burrow and a red pencil laser pointed straight down into the burrow. Smoke was blown into the 45 cm deep hole and it was lit up by the lasers revealing how the air flowed out of the hole.  Green swirls were formed showing the turbulent nature of the air near the entrance to the burrow.

Swirling air at the Entrance to a Lizard Burrow

I'm sure most of you are wondering who cares about air flow in a termite mound? The scientists hope that the same principals can be applied to buildings to improve ventilation.  I'm not sure how practical this information is but it sure made for a cool laser light show.

Part of our duties at CCF is to conduct game counts to assess the availability of prey species in order to develop management strategies.  We drove along a select route noting the number of animals seen at a given location.  We were seeing plenty of oryx, steenbok, warthogs and then an unexpected surprise, an aardvark!  What a crazy looking creature with the ears of a donkey, the snout of a pig and the tail of  a rat.

Aardvark

The aardvark is a nocturnal, burrowing mammal that feeds almost exclusively on ants and termites. It's name means earth or ground pig in the Afrikaans language due to it's burrowing habits.  Marc caught a glimpse of another one on our third game count before it disappeared down its burrow.

On our third game count we encountered another rarely seen animal, an aardwolf!  This is the first aardwolf we've seen on all our trips to Africa.  The aardwolf is in the same family as hyenas but unlike it's carnivorous relatives, the aardwolf eats insects, mainly termites.  It's name means earth wolf in the Afrikaans language.

Aardwolf

It is CCF's mission to get cheetahs back into the wild if possible.  However, there are circumstances that make this impossible.  Nearly three years ago a farmer shot a female cheetah and took her four 3-week old cubs.  They were later confiscated and brought to CCF.  The decision was made to hand rear them and make them ambassadors for their species.  We got the opportunity for a "Meet and Greet" with these beautiful cats.  In the presence of their handlers we were able to get close to the cheetahs and hear their rumbling purrs.   Yes, cheetah purr like overgrown house cats.  We were able to take photos next to the cheetahs.

Peggy with Peter, one of the Ambassadors

Since the Ambassadors were orphaned at such a young age there was no choice but to hand rear them.  Because they are so tame, blood and vaginal swabs can be done without anesthetizing the cats.  This causes less stress to the cheetahs and allows for genetic and cytology studies. In addition, if farmers can get up close to a cheetah and see how magnificent they are, they may be less likely to shoot them.

Peter, One of the Ambassadors

Yesterday morning we got to participate on a "Cheetah Run".  CCF regularly exercises some of their cheetahs for physical exercise but more importantly for mental stimulation.  A set-up similar to the one used to run greyhounds is used.  It consists of rag lure on a rope that is propelled around the field by a battery-operated motor.  The speed and direction of the lure is controlled by a switch.


Peggy holding the Switch of the 'Cheetah run" Set-up

Cheetahs are built for speed making them the fastest land mammal reaching speeds of up to 70 mph!    They have a large heart and lungs to rapidly get oxygen to their muscles. They are lean and have a flexible spine.  When they are at full speed their back legs surpass their front.

"Cheetah Run"

 
Their long muscular tail acts like a rudder and aids in balance.

One of the Ambassadors Chasing a Lure


Unlike most other cats their claws are semi-retractable.  They provide traction and act like cleats on a runner's shoes.

World's Fastest Land Mammal

They catch their quarry in a cloud of dust with claws extended and teeth bared.


Success!

After all the fun and games it was time to feed the cheetahs.  We had to travel to another CCF farm called Bellebeno to feed 12 cheetahs that are kept in a more wild setting in the hopes that they will be able to be released one day.


Bellebeno Cheetah

As we drove into their 64 hectare enclosure, the cheetahs followed us to their feeding pens.


Lunchtime at Bellebeno

It's hard to believe our stay at CCF is almost half over.  Stay tuned for more stories from our next two weeks at CCF.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Down on the Farm, Cheetah Style

Greetings All,
We have been working at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) farm near Otjiwarongo, Namibia for nearly a week.   We arrived last Sunday and settled into our home for the month. 

Marc on the Front Porch of our New Home

We are sharing a 2-bedroom house with another couple from California.  Our bedroom is furnished with two twin beds and a 3-drawer nightstand.  Marc has set up his MiFi so I can work on my iPad from the comfort of my bed.

Peggy in our Cozy Bedroom

We have a little kitchen with a table, chairs, shelves and a sink.


Marc in our Kitchen

We bought an electric kettle so we can make fresh pressed coffee in the morning.  Our first task on Monday was called husbandry.  We helped Ryan, the assistant Cheetah Keeper, feed some of the cheetahs. They are fed approximately 2 kg of meat per day,  6 days per week.  The meat is mostly donkey with some horse (sorry Joanne).  Since there are 50 cheetahs to feed, donkey is the most readily available meat to buy from local farmers.  The cheetahs are fed in small pens where the keepers can observe what they eat and make sure each cat gets its fair share.  They are fed out of enamel bowls which keeps sand out of their food.
 

Lunch Time at CCF

Currently, CCF has 3 cubs around 6 months old.  Each cat has a different story.  Some are orphaned after their mothers were shot by a farmer, others are confiscated from people trying to keep them illegally as pets, while others are found abandoned by their mothers for reasons unknown.  Stitch is a new arrival.  She came from a game lodge that was going out of business.  She has difficulty walking due to a presumed calcium deficiency that has left her bones week.  I had to feed her medicated meat from a wooden spoon with a long handle.

Peggy giving Stitch her Medication

Along with feeding comes cleaning the enclosures.  Some had pooper scoopers for picking up cheetah poo but others had no scoopers so we used our hands.  Fortunately, I had brought a pair of work gloves along.  

Peggy picking up bones & Cheetah Poo

In addition to taking care of the cheetahs, there are dogs, sheep, goats and horses to care for. Anatolian Shepherds are bred as livestock guarding dogs.  CCF works with local farmers to resolve human-wildlife conflicts. The Anatolian Shepherds are effective in protecting sheep and goats from cheetahs.  Over 450 dogs have been placed on farms in the area.  The dogs have to be walked to keep them in good condition.

Marc Walking Felice

Currently, there are two litters of 11 puppies each at CCF that need to be fed twice a day.  It's quite a chore to feed 22 bundles of energy intent on eating their litter-mates food or escaping into another pen.  They settle down once a blue bowl of food is placed in front of them.


 
All puppies placed on farms have to be spayed or neutered.  CCF has a clinic and vet on hand to preform these surgeries.  Marc got to assist in four neuter operations.  He was in charge of monitoring the puppy's heart rate and respiration.



That's it for now.  Stay tuned for more tails and tales from CCF.  We do have pretty good internet access here so feel free to send questions or comments.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Into the Belly of the Snake

Greetings All,
We have completed our 4-day hike in Fish River Canyon.  Around 160 km long, 27 km wide and up to 550 m deep, Fish River Canyon is claimed to be the second largest canyon in the world.  Local legend has it that the canyon was created by a giant dying snake furiously hammering the canyon into stone with her writhing body.  We started our hike from Fish River Lodge, a private 45,000 hectare in-holding on the other side of the canyon from Fish River Canyon National Park.  We had originally booked a 5-day backpack from the National Park side but the government closed the bottom of the canyon due to the drought.

Fortunately there was an alternative - Fish River Lodge offers a fully-supported 4-day hike into the canyon.  Although not the adventure we were seeking, it still allowed us to experience the canyon. From the rim we had a rocky 500 m decent along a gully to a plateau below.


As we clambered down, two Klipspringers bounded off.  It's amazing how agile these antelope are on the steep rocky cliffs.  Once on the mid-plateau we got our first view of Fish River.  There was still water but in isolated pools only.


We were standing on wrinkled black rock resembling elephant skin.  We were told it was limestone.


We made our way around some cliffs and descended gradually to the river.  A lone Oryx ambled off and we spotted a Klipspringer family.  We arrived at the river and our campsite for the night.  Our camp staff had already arrived and had set up our tent and dining table with chairs.  I must admit it's nice having a cold drink after a long hike through the desert.


Here the river narrows as it cuts through limestone.  Pools remain full of catfish that are concentrated due to the drying river.


The next morning it was an easy hop on rocks across the river.


We climbed up over a bench and descended back down into the dry riverbed.  The terrain alternated between deep sand and water-polished rocks.  Despite the dry barren terrain, life manages to survive here.  Devil's thorn was blooming in the sandy riverbed and black beetles scurried along making distinctive tracks in the sand.




Our guide Colin told us about a lone Black Rhino that roams the canyon.  We could hardly believe that such a massive beast could survive on such scant vegetation.  We saw dried rhino dung heaps but they were very old.

We climbed out of the riverbed to our second camp site on the mid-plateau. Near the top was the dried skin and skeleton of a kudu that had broken her neck in a fall.  It was a poignant reminder of how harsh life can be here.  At our campsite we were treated to a glorious sunset over the canyon rim.


The next day we hiked back down to the river and picked our way through sand and rocks.  There were more pools here but they were drying up fast.  Amazingly, a variety of waterbirds were congregating here feeding on stranded fish and crustaceans.  White-breasted Cormorants, Sacred Ibis, Black Stork and Egyptian Geese flew off at our approach.


And then along one of the pools, rhino tracks!  The legendary creature does exist.


In another pool Black-capped Avocets and Black-winged Stilts were moving their bills side to side in the brackish water filtering out what little food remains.


We left the riverbed and climbed to flat black rocks with numerous pictographs.  Some appear to be old possibly created by the San and Nama people that once lived here.


Others were from a more modern age when farmers used to graze their sheep here.


We arrived at our third camp just above the riverbed.  That night were heard the eerie cry of Black-backed Jackals.  The next morning we were treated to a pair of African Fish Eagles that were nesting  on a cliff above the river.


We climbed back to the mid-plateau enjoying our last views of the river before reaching the Oasis and the end of our hike.  Normally there is water here but it has dried up.  A lone Kudu Bull sauntered off  as we approached.


We returned to the lodge via Land Rover encountering a 300 year old Quiver Tree along the way. 


We thoroughly enjoyed our experience in the canyon.  We hope the plants and animals that make this inhospitable place home survive yet another drought and that the dying snake survives.

To break up the long 750 km drive back to Windhoek, we spent last night at the Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge where we were greeted by Toffee, the resident meerkat.  He followed us to our tent and took a nap with me!


This morning we were treated to a game drive.  Some of our favorite photos follow.

Southern Giraffe
 
Black Wilderbeest
 
Eland Bull

Steenbok
 
Tomorrow we rejoin the working world at the Cheetah Conservation Fund's facility near Otjiwarongo where we will be volunteering for a month.

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc