Saturday 25th June saw the beginning of one of the biggest translocation and release programmes ever attempted in Namibia and certainly the biggest release operations at N/a'an ku se. 7 cheetahs and 1 leopard. 2 release sites. Our convoy clocked up a total of 5,268km travelling through 3 regions and 7 districts of the country. All in just 8 days. N/a’an ku sê has never embarked on a challenge to relocate so many big cats at the same time. But we’re never one to shy away from a challenge...
Every moment of the release was filmed by Homebew Films for Animal Planet who covered the event for 2 episodes of our new television series to be aired on Animal Planet across Africa, NBC in Namibia and KykNET across sub-Sahara Africa in March 2012.
Read on for all the details and photos from the whole week:
Day 1 – Capturing and Collaring the Cats
Removing 8 cats from their enclosures, carrying out welfare checks, attaching tracking collars and moving them into transit cages, in one day is no mean feat. With a full team of 9 staff and 15 volunteers to co-ordinate this task, N/a’an ku sê Directors Rudie and Marlice set out the plans for the day to ensure there are no slip ups and the welfare of the animals is our top priority.
We begin with 4 cheetahs to be released into a soft boma in Solitaire. This is a brand new 500 hectare enclosure built especially for these cats to acclimatise to the area for a few months and adjust to living independently before a hard release back into the wild. It is extremely important to carry out a soft release for cats who have lived in captivity for a long period of time to ensure they are fully capable of surviving on their own.
The 4 cheetahs include 2 young females, 3 years old (previously referred to as Female A and Female B but now called Annie and Bettie!), a strong 9 year old male called Spartacus and a young 3 year old cheetah male called Boris.
Rudie works with the volunteers to get all the necessary drugs and medicines in place and then darts the animals to put them asleep. Marlice and her team then carry the cats out of their enclosure and asses their physical condition – checking their teeth, feet, eyes, fur – all indicators of their physical strength and nutritional development. Whilst under heavy medication, the volunteers monitor the cats’ heart rate and temperature to ensure they remain stable.
We have just 45-60 minutes before each cheetah wakes up so the process is like a military operation. Then the big moment of attaching their tracking collar – a symbol that their release shall be carefully monitored to ensure their safety. Head Researcher Flo attaches a VHF collar onto each of the cheetahs – these collars had been generously donated to us by US Conservation Foundation IdeaWild and are used on cats which can be easily located on the ground without requiring the use of GPS telemetry devices.
The 4 cheetahs are then shown into their temporary homes for transit to the release site. Annie, Bettie and Spartacus move into a large trailer to be towed by a LandRover Defender 110 whilst Boris is loaded onto the back of a LandRover Defender 130.
Next up – the leopard. Named Derek (!) our very wild, but young 3 year old leopard was to receive a hard release in Sandfontein, far south of Namibia near the Orange River on the border of South Africa. Capturing and collaring a leopard is a very different scenario as the wild nature of this animal requires an extra level of precautionary measures. Only Rudie and Marlice ventured near the leopard’s enclosure, protected by the doors and windows of a LandRover, with the remaining staff and volunteers a safe distance away so as to not stir the leopard’s interest. This ferocious animal needed a few darts before he was successfully immobilised and then we were finally able to do what we’d always wanted to – attach his release collar!
Derek received a GPS collar which is the only device that can monitor a leopard’s free-roaming movements across a diverse landscape such as mountain ranges and deep thickets of bush. It is important for carnivores that have been held in captivity to be carefully monitored when they are released back into the wild, to check they are able to hunt properly and are strong enough to protect themselves from predators. Continuous monitoring of re-released cheetahs and leopards also enables us to gather ground-breaking data, gaining a better understanding of their ecology for future conservation. Attaching a GPS satellite collar will enable us to carry out post-release monitoring to establish his home range development, health, hunting and other ecological parameters. It is huge thanks to generous individuals who fundraised or donated money such as Claudio Frateschi and Dan Mortimer who enabled us to buy this collar for Derek.
Last but not least, and just before nightfall, our 3 remaining cheetahs aka the Chipmunks – Alvin (2 and a half years old), Simon (3 years old) and Theodor, (2 and a half years old) were immobilised, removed from their camp and collared. These 3 have lived together at N/a’an ku sê and so shall be released in their existing coalition into a soft boma in Sandfontein for a month or so for acclimatisation before being released fully. Simon, the older and more “sensible” one of the 3 was attached with GPS Argos collar and the other cheetahs received VHF collars.
Just before nightfall the task was completed! All 8 cats had been safely removed from their enclosure, collared and moved into their transit vehicles, ready for the big translocation...
Day 2-3 – Solitaire Soft Release
Volunteer Sandy Kinnon from New Zealand was lucky enough to attend the release and tells us her story:
I was very privileged to be one of seven volunteers lucky enough to be part of N/a'an ku se's largest carnivore release to date. The 7 cheetah and 1 leopard had been residing at N/a'an ku se in temporary holding camps for different lengths of time and the staff had been careful to ensure all 8 cats remained as wild as they could to maximise their chances of survival when released. Some of the cats had been brough to N/a'an ku se as young cubs while others, such as Spartacus and Derek, had been removed from farms where they had been hunting livestock. With the exception of Spartacus who was a proven problem animal, all the cats were destined to be re-released back into the wild eventually.
It was a cold winter's morning when we volunteers along with 7 N/a'an ku se staff packed the 4 LandRovers for the journey - the Chipmunks together on the back of one car, Derek on the back of another, and Spartacus, Annie and Bettie in an animal trailer. Rudie and Marlice were to follow us later that day making the journey by plane. Also travelling with us on the road was a South African film crew whose job it was to film this milestone event for N/a'an ku se's new television series. During the 5 hour drive to Solitaire (the first release site), they filmed shots of our departure from N/a'an ku se, driving on route and our arrival at Solitaire Guest Farm. The scenery approaching and in Solitaire was incredible - pastel hued landscapes contrasted with vivid colbalt skies and striking flame coloured mountains as the sun began its descent.
After feeding and watering the cats we retired for the night to enjoy the beautiful surroundings and facilities of the guest farm. The soft release site is a brand new venture for N/a’an ku sê as they’ve partnered with Simone and Walter Swarts of Solitaire Guest Farm to host a new research base where two N/a'an ku se biologists, Matt and Kate, shall be stationed to look after the cats and monitor their acclimatisation. Day tourists and volunteers will have the opportunity to reside at the research base and work alongside Matt and Kate as part of the Carnivore Conservation Research Volunteer Programme, managing the daily maintenance of the cheetah enclosure and carrying out research into the home ranges and territories of resident free-ranging large carnivores in the area.
On Monday 27th June we helped complete construction of the newly built 500 hectare soft release boma by pinning the fence down with rocks. As the boma is so large (5km square) 14 springbok had accidently been fenced in. Whilst the intention is to leave some game in the camp for the cats to practice their hunting skills again, 14 springbok is quite a lot! Despite our attempts to remove them from the enclosure the springbok outsmarted us and so we had to leave them be.
Later that afternoon, staff, film crew, volunteers and guests at Solitaire, all gathered excitedly for the big moment. The first trailer door holding in the 2 female cheetahs (Annie and Bettie) was the first to be opened. Everyone waited with baited breath, ready for them to shoot out, but the cats were hesitant to leave. Suprisingly the girls were very quiet, perhaps a little daunted by their new environment being revealed to them after being enclosed in the trailer for a couple of days. After a while Rudie gently and very tentatively entered inside the trailer and opened the partition between them and Spartacus. Rather than spurring them out, the 3 cheetahs then moved further back inside of the trailer seemingly uninterested in exploring their new home. Eventually, Spartacus got the idea and shot out, running far into the distance, soon followed by the females who stopped around 60 metres away to reunite with one another and observe their surroundings. Next it was Boris’ turn, the other male cheetah, who didn’t hesitate for a second as his cage door was opened and rushed out, keen to stretch his legs.
Watching the cats venture into their new environment was especially extraordinary in the late afternoon light. We watched them for a while longer, with the sunset providing a glowing background before leaving them to settle in and returning to the guest farm for dinner and drinks to celebrate the first successful release of the journey.
Day 4-5 Sandfontein Hard and Soft Release
4 cats down, 4 cats to go. The second leg of the trip required a smaller team to manage and so 5 N/a’an ku sê staff and 6 volunteers returned to N/a’an ku sê whilst Flo (Head of Research), Lucy (Fundraising and Marketing Manager) and Tessa (Wildlife Co-ordinator), myself and the film crew, commenced the long drive down to Sandfonteiin at 6am. Rudie and Marlice were to fly later that day while we transport the luggage, equipment and cats. We were now down to 2 LandRovers - one carrying the Chipmunks and the other carrying Derek and the equipment/luggage trailer.
4 hours into the 720km drive, Tessa received a phonecall from Marlice asking her to check inside their luggage for one of Rudie's shirts which may or may not have the keys to their plane in the pocket. Unfortunately it did! Swinging the keys in her hand Tessa told Marlice the "good" news, much to everyone's amusement including Marlice's. Luckily we were at Mariental where we were able to leave the keys at a nearby gas station for Rudie to drive and collect (a journey which he managed in 1.5 hours in contrast to our 4 hours towing trailers and cats!).
The journey continued to throw up a few more suprises throughout the day, just to keep us entertained. While stopping for lunch in Keetmanshoop we discovered one of the wheel bearings on the luggage and equipment trailer had worn out. Not suprising after 14 hours of intense driving on gravel dirt roads across half of Namibia! Miraculously a local garage had the correct parts in stock so our trip was only delayed by a couple of hours. During this time, the cats were doing well to draw attention from every employee and customer of the gas stations we stopped at for refuelling! Protecting these cats is a big responsiblity on a relocation programme of this scale - ensuring they are well fed, watered and not too scared by their ever changing surroundings.
At around 8.30pm we finally arrived at Sandfontein Nature Game Reserve and Lodge, exhausted from the 14 hour drive from Solitaire. Sandfontein is another new area for N/a’an ku sê as this is their first release on the 80,000 hectare land, edging on the Orange River. The location is home to more than 4,000 animals including leopard, cheetah, kudu, eland, zebra, giraffe, springbok, impala and aardvark. It also provides protection to 5 of the world’s extremely endangered black rhino. N/a'an ku se's new partners, Willie and Rodica Agenbach, who manage the reserve and lodge, have extensive experience in animal husbandy, particularly with cheetahs and so we know they are the perfect partners to look after our 3 cheetahs in a small boma for the next month or two before they receive their hard release.
On our arrival, Willie and Rodica had prepared a delicious 3 course dinner for us which was a welcome end to a very long day. However, our journey didn't end there - while we put the cats to bed with sleeping bags and blankets over their cages in the cars to keep them warm over night and the film crew settled in for the night at the lodge, Flo, Tessa, Lucy and myself still had another 20km to drive to our Misson House accomodation - an abandoned mission settlement by the Orange River on the border with South Africa.
The old Mission is a group of buildings built about 40 years ago that used to be run by 2 sisters with a school and church. At its peak the settlement was home to around 70 people, farmed goats and sheep and had a vineyard and an orange orchard. After Namibia gained independence from SA in 1990 the number of people visiting the mission dropped so much that it was abandoned.
On our drive back to the lodge for breakfast the next morning we had our first chance to view the local scenery. It was very beautiful, rugged and remote, almost untouched by people. Rocky hills and mountains, open valleys, sandy riverbeds and small patches of bush combined to form an amazing landscape. Perfect for the leopard and 3 cheetahs we were to release here.
After breakfast we met Rudie and Marlice at the lodge's airstrip for their arrival. Apart from the standard driving shots, the film crew also wanted to set up a "motion picture" shot of Rudie's plane flying low overhead our 2 LandRovers driving. Amazingly this shot worked prefectly on the first take!
It was Wednesday 29th June and after a number of days in cages, we were all eager to release the cats so we fed Derek with some fresh hartebeest meat Willie had prepared for us and hosed down the cheetahs to keep them hydrated before driving them to the newly built 1 hectare boma, constructed in a valley specifically for the soft release. The site is set in a stunning valley surrounded by rugged mountains and rocky hills.
The smaller group at the release made it feel much more intimate and Willie and Rodica were given the honour of lifting up the gate on the 3 cheetahs. It only took a few seconds before Simon, the "sensible" one, jumped out, closely followed cautiously by Theodore, the "follower", while Alvin, the so called "adventurous" one, was last to leave.
Sticking together, they slowly made their way across to the fence and proceeded to explore their new temporary home, surrounded by mountains and wide open space. The transparency of the boma will help these cats really fit into their new environment without feeling to overhelmed.
We could have stayed watching the cheetahs' reaction to their new home for hours, but the light was fading and Derek was waiting. Willie and Rodica led us to a suitable spot for our last and final release. This was the most special moment we had all been waiting for - partly because it was a hard release so we knew we may never see him again and partly because it was a leopard, a truly wild animal which can never be tamed.
We chose a spacious plain with nearby hills and set Derek's cage on the ground and tipped it onto it's side so that the gate could be pulled opened from far away. Derek ferociously growled during the move, daring any one of us to mess with him! Once everyone was safely locked inside vehicles, through the window Rudie pulled the rope attached to the gate to slide it open and off. We all waited, but Derek did not stir.
After around 30 minutes we decided it was best to leave this solitary creature to come out on his own terms, alone. After spending the last few days on the back of a car with strange noises and movements, it is no suprise that the leopard was weary of our presence. 3 of the 5 cars nearby left - Rudie, Marlice and family in one, volunteers, staff in another and the film crew in the third. Just 2 cars remained - a lone camerman with Flo, and Willie and Rodica, when they saw Derek's head poke out of the cage, look around, spot the remaining cars and then hide back inside! The sun was setting and finally everyone left Derek to his peace, happy and content in the knowledge that he was going to live a very good life in Sandfontein!
Day 6-8 Follow up on our cats
After a few well needed, relaxing celebrations on Wednesday night, we were up early to check Derek's cage - fortunately it was empty, much to our delight. So we quickly headed to the lodge to get out the tracking equipment to see where he went. From the information we downloaded onto the computer from his GPS satellite collar we could tell that he left the cage in the early hours of the morning and made a steady and cautious approach towards the hill directly in front of his cage. We headed back out with the tracking receiver to see what direction he had ventured into during daylight and we were excited to find a faint trace of him moving in the far distance.
We then went to check on the Chipmunks to see how they were settling in. The 3 cheetahs were patrolling the back fence line, looking eager to explore the rest of their surroundings which is a great sign that they will adapt well here and shouldn't need too long to acclimatise.
The film crew headed back to South Africa whilst Flo, Tessa, Lucy and I stayed on to show Willie and Rodica how to use the tracking equipment and computer software so they can monitor Derek. We also set up 2 camera traps by waterholes in the hope that one day we'll see him for ourselves as well as capturing the other incredible wildlife in the area. The evening was spent enjoying a beautiful sundowner on the Orange River and we hit the road once again, a little lighter, on Friday morning to spread the long journey back to N/a'an ku se over two days. We arrived back home on Saturday lunchtime in very high spirits after a very successful release.
Post-Release News on our Cats
In Sandfontein, our downloads show that Derek continued to move at a gentle pace over the next 4 days and on 5th July, Willie was lucky enough to spot our gorgeous leopard, looking full bellied, sitting relaxed on a mountain hill! He was near the waterhole where we placed the camera trap so hopefully we'll have snapped him too. The fact that he was well fed and near the waterhole suggests that he has succesfully hunted and sourced the water supply in the area - a perfect start to his new freedom.
All of us at N/a'an ku se would like to thank every single person, company, foundation and organisation involved in making this release programme such a success. Thank you LandRover for donating the vehicles to make the trip possible, thanks to IdeaWild for donating 2 VHF collars and Claudio Frateschi and Dan mortimer for donating towards Derek's GPS satellite collar. Thank you to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism for supporting this release programme and our new partners in conservation - Walter and Simone of Solitaire Guest Farm and Willie and Rodica of Sandfontein Nature Game Reserve and Luxury Lodge. And a huge thanks to all the volunteers and N/a'an ku se staff for caring for these precious cats whilst at our sanctuary and for all their efforts in organising and running the Release of a Lifetime.