The Desert Cheetah: Part II
Imagine four people; one researcher, two volunteers and myself in pursuit of wildlife on foot across an expanse so large it defies description. We’re searching for Lilly, the translocated cheetah and her cubs. Rising before dawn for the second day in a row, we drive to one of the most remote spots in NamibRand (well, everything is remote) where Stuart Munro, researcher for N/a’an ku sê, is convinced she is lingering. Our starting point is The Chateau, an empty hilltop bungalow of stark beauty possessing a toilet with the best view in the world.
Unlike the day before (In the Land of the Desert Cheetah Part I), we don’t have a mountain to climb, just a steady, deceptively simple trek. Spread before us is the veld (Afrikaans for field), an expanse of golden grass stretching in all directions out of the red sandy earth that covers NamibRand. It is like walking across a vast golden sea making its way between the mountains and the dunes as we head for a point beyond the horizon. As we walk, I nearly face-plant looking about at the scenery and realize this mistake immediately as my foot slips into a burrow. The veld is riddled with thousands of snake and varmint holes, so paying attention to every step becomes vital.
Stuart is convinced Lilly is close to the edge of a mountain that looks like a dot on the horizon. The clouds disperse, the heat rises, and eight miles later we reach the edge of a rising hill. The Chateau had disappeared from sight miles ago. This area of NamibRand is less populated with wildlife, a lonely oryx and a few random springbok are all we see. It feels very quiet, but soon we discover clues. At the base of the rocky hill, finding cheetah scat gives proof we’re on the right track, but it might not be Lilly. The scat is very old so today might not be our day. While I nurse my sore feet, Stu and the volunteers climb to a high point with the antennae in the hopes of receiving the signal from her radio collar. Lilly and her cubs have disappeared once again.
Considering our long return trek, we realize that we are running out of time and turn around to recross the inhospitable terrain – overwhelmed by the heat, vigilance for burrows and snake holes, and mind-bending mirages, everyone reaches complete exhaustion well before our destination as my legs spasm for the last four miles. On the sixteenth mile we reach the Chateau and collapse before dragging ourselves back into the Land Rover to check various camera traps along the way.
The theme of this grueling but exhilarating work keeps running through my brain, a word I’ve heard from many conservationists: perseverance. To successfully release a cheetah, it must be monitored. One cannot simply open the cage and let her go, hoping for a monitor signal every few weeks or months; conservationists must put people on the ground to get a sighting as well. Though we found Lilly’s signal and know she is alive in the region, a sighting to be sure she is healthy and thriving is crucial. Stuart and the researchers of N/a’an ku sê are confident in her well-being, especially if she is moving around so much with the cubs.
According to Researcher Florian Weise of N/a’an ku sê: “The field monitoring is very important to be accountable for releases, and a variety of parties involved, e.g. the landowner where the animal came from (source site), the landowners which properties the animal uses after release (recipient site), the government’s wildlife agencies which issue permits for the releases, and the scientific community which can learn crucial facts from monitoring of releases. As for the why: We need to be able to document the post-release ecology of these animals as closely as possible to assess translocation success for the following parameters: survival, breeding success, prey selection, homing behavior (whether the animal returns to its original capture location), home range establishment, conflict reduction at the source site, potential conflict at the recipient site, interaction/competition with other predators at the recipient site and so on.”
Three weeks after this trek, a research team flew over the region on an aerial search. Lilly’s signal was found but a sighting of her and her cubs has remained elusive. As of this publishing date, Stuart has returned to NamibRand to go on foot in search of his cat.
Addendum: N/a’an ku sê is also monitoring a translocated leopard in the region who is doing well and was recently spotted with healthy cubs. N/a’an ku sê is not the only organization monitoring released predators in Namibia; however, they are doing some of the most comprehensive post-release monitoring for the highest numbers of translocated cheetah and leopard in the region.