Founded in 1991, the AfriCat Foundation was officially registered as a non-profit organisation in Namibia in August 2003. Director of AfriCat, Carla Conradie, reports that what started out primarily as a welfare organisation has since identified education and research as being essential for achieving its overall mission to save Namibia’s large carnivores.
Since its establishment, AfriCat’s raison d’être has been to promote the tolerance of large carnivores, particularly cheetah and leopard, and to alleviate the conflict between livestock producers, game farmers and these predators on Namibian farmland. Namibia is home to approximately 25% of the world’s cheetah population, of which 90% live on commercial and communal farmland. Over the past 10 years a total of 757 cheetahs and leopards have been moved through the AfriCat Project.
AfriCat offers to remove cheetah and leopard from traps to prevent them from being shot, giving the farmer an alternative to destroying these perceived problem animals. The contact with the farmer enables AfriCat to promote ecologically sound farm management practices and effective farm management techniques, including targeting problem predators as opposed to indiscriminate removal. This greatly enhances farmer goodwill to predator conservation.
A record is kept of every cheetah and leopard that moves through the AfriCat programme. This data includes where each animal was caught, the reason for its capture, its characteristics, such as age, measurements and weight. Blood and hair samples are also taken, providing insight into the health and genetic make-up of Namibia’s wild cheetah and leopard populations.
In the second quarter of 1998, NGOs ceased paying compensation to farmers. This, combined with a ban on the live export of large carnivores, effectively closed a market for these animals, which could account for the decrease in the number of cats being captured.
Although there may be some correlation between the number of cheetah and leopard captured in the various farming districts over the last ten years and the distribution and density of the wild population of these large carnivores in Namibia, the data doesn’t prove this in any way. The information does, however, highlight those areas where there are varying degrees of conflict between predators and livestock and game farmers.
With a shift in focus from cattle farming to a livelihood dependent on tourism and/or hunting, there has been an increasing trend where the predation of game has become the motivation behind trapping cheetah and leopard. The perceived ‘problem animals’ removed in the past for preying on livestock, are now also being captured for hunting one of their natural prey species.
Once a cheetah or leopard has been caught in a trap, the surrounding area is checked for any signs indicating that the animal might not have been alone before being caught, e.g. spoor around the trap. While capture situations differ, every effort is made to keep social groups together – coalitions, siblings and especially a mother and her cubs. If required, attempts are made to either capture those that have not been caught yet, or release those that have been caught to reunite with the other members of the group.
Demographic analyses of captured animals
The figures used in the demographic analyses exclude all orphaned cubs, as well as those animals that were in captivity elsewhere before coming to AfriCat.
The total ratio of male to female cheetah caught (adults and cubs) is 1.54:1. Excluding cubs, the ratio of males to females is 1.79:1. This poses the question of whether the male cheetah population is larger than the female population – or are adult males easier to capture? With the ratio of cubs captured with their mothers being almost equal at 1.16 males to every female, is it a possibility that females are more vulnerable from the time they reach independence? Could this be explained by the fact that male siblings often stay in groups forming coalitions, giving them the advantage of strength in numbers – as opposed to the solitary female, that not only has to hunt on her own, but also has to provide food and protection for her offspring?
Cheetah caught under playtrees
Another factor that could influence the sex ratio of cheetah captured is the method used to capture them. Of the cheetahs captured, approximately 48% were caught in box traps set under playtrees, which cheetahs use for territory marking.
Both males and females (solitary and in various social groups) were captured at playtrees. However, when comparing the proportions of the various social groups making up the total number of adults captured, to the proportions of these same population segments caught at playtrees, the proportions of male social groups caught at playtrees are significantly higher than that of the social groups containing females, indicating that more males frequent playtrees than females.
The social structure of leopard differs from that of cheetah, with the only ‘group’ observed being that of a female with her cubs. Once cubs reach independence, both the males and females become solitary. The ratio between adult males and adult females captured is relatively equal at 1:1.2. The number of females with cubs as a percentage of total adult leopard captured is 5.04%, which is significantly lower in comparison to the same group in cheetah (16.67%). Although the number of cubs captured with their mothers only represents 6.8% of the total, the ratio of male to female cubs is 1:0.7.
Just over half the cheetahs captured are under the age of two years (51.7%), with the largest majority of adults being captured between the ages of two and four years. Of the cheetah cubs captured together with an adult female, 59.06% fall into the age group of six months and under, 22.15% are between the ages of 6 and 12 months and 18.79% are over a year old.
As with cheetah, most of the leopard captured are between the ages of two and four years (31.6%), although this majority is marginal with 30.4% falling into the four-to-eight-year age group. The majority of leopard captured are over two years of age (69.7%), indicating that the average age of leopard captured is significantly higher than that of cheetah.
This figure could, however, be influenced by the fact that the number of leopard cubs captured with their mothers is substantially lower in comparison to cheetah, with smaller litter sizes also having an impact. The average litter size for leopard females caught with cubs is 1.38, whereas with cheetah the average litter size (including all cubs from birth to 18 months) is 2.97.
Release and relocation
It has always been AfriCat’s aim to return as many cats as possible to the wild. Over the last ten years 87.54% of cheetah and leopard rescued from traps have been released or relocated, 3.97% have died or had to be euthanased, and 8.49% have remained in AfriCat’s care.
Some of these cats have had to spend time at AfriCat before their release or relocation – to recuperate from an injury or, in the case of some of the leopard cubs that have been caught without their mothers, until they have reached the age where they would have been independent.
Over the last decade the AfriCat welfare programme has fed, cared for and provided a home for those cheetahs and leopards that could not be released back into the wild. The main reason why some cats have to remain in AfriCat’s care is that orphaned cubs are often too young to cope on their own. These cubs have either been captured without their mothers or their mothers have been killed.
Many of the cheetah and leopard have been in captivity elsewhere for extended periods of time; they have become habituated to people, making them unsuitable for release. These animals are either no longer wanted, have become too expensive to care for, or have been confiscated by the authorities for being held illegally or with improper care.
Most of the cheetahs and leopards that have suffered injuries have been returned to the wild after recuperation, but in cases where the injuries have been too extensive, the cats have had to remain in captivity.
Cheetah rehabilitation programme
AfriCat’s Cheetah Rehabilitation project was initiated to give some of the captive cheetah an opportunity to return to their natural environment. Although hunting in carnivores is instinctive, many of the cheetah at AfriCat lack 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 10 000-acre TUSK Trust Cheetah Rehabilitation Camp provides these cheetah with the opportunity to hone their hunting skills and become self-sustaining. The cheetah are fitted with radio collars before their release into the camp so that their welfare and progress can be closely monitored. The objective is that once they have proved they can hunt for themselves and cope on their own, they can be relocated to a private game reserve, where their progress will continue to be monitored.
Besides giving the cheetah a chance to return to the wild, the success of this project provides other substantial benefits. It gives AfriCat the opportunity to assess whether rehabilitation is a successful means of conserving an endangered population and also allows for the number of cheetah in captivity to be reduced.
This article appeared in the 2004/5 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
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