As seen in National Geographic:
My first day in the field with Cheetah Conservation Botswana staff, I met Keith. Manager of the Ko Mogotlhong Game Farm, he drove up with his work crew to check out our activities. Blonde, with boyish looks and an expression that gives nothing away, he is new to Botswana, having left the uncertainty in Zimbabwe for a better life.
Extending my hand to introduce myself I try to find something pleasant to break the ice, “You must have incredible photos living on this land”. He doesn’t crack a grin, only answers, “The only thing I shoot with is a gun.”
OK then, I’m a little out of my element, I’ll just hang out and listen.
Since CCB has many camera traps on the farm in addition to the cage trap, I meet Keith a number of times. He is welcoming but of few words.
By the day the conversation rolled around where he and Andrea disagree on the fate of the captured cheetah family, he’s concerned but starting to take an interest in this big cat that calls his farm a piece of its territory.
In the end he agrees to CCB’s original plans, even helps with carrying the box and sticks around throughout the exam and release. As the team gathers in full for the work-up, Keith motions me over. He leads me through dense undergrowth to get the best view of the cheetah that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It’s his farm, he knows all the angles, camera or gun.
MONDAY LATE AFTERNOON:
The pace continues to accelerate. Andrea has the radio collar programmed and Kyle is prepared with her medical kit. Everyone is jumping back into the trucks to drive to the cheetah once again and do the ‘work-up’ (a health analysis & collaring under anesthetic).
On the road we encounter a delay none could have expected. A scene of devastation; an overturned pickup truck, people laying on the gravel, a tire missing, shocked faces, and Andrea’s truck parked next to the scene. Gavin pulls over and runs down the road to see Andrea and Kyle aiding a gravely injured man. The smell of diesel fuel fills the air.
Nearly a dozen people were thrown from the back of the truck, and this man was crushed beneath it. Painfully thin, he is bleeding from the mouth, blood covers his face and hands, he is moaning in pain. The stretcher meant for the cheetah is used to gently transport the man away from the overturned vehicle and leaking fuel. CCB’s medical kit provides a blanket for his state of shock, and Setswana speakers translate for us, “The ambulance is on its way”. Andrea, Kyle and myself try to comfort and keep him still. The driver sits on a box, his head in his hands, while the other passengers who walked out of the wreckage unscathed pace around in the gravel, shaken and far from their destinations.
“The ambulance is on its way”, we tell the man over and over. The ambulance is not on its way. Less than a forty minute drive from town and despite numerous calls to arrive ‘NOW NOW’, the ambulance never arrived. Disbelief led to problem solving as police officers on the scene were convinced to transport him to the hospital.
Meanwhile, time is ticking and the cheetah waits. The team must shift their focus. After the harrowing event of the last few hours, we’re back on track to Keith’s farm. We push on to our destination, hands shaking from the scene but no time for thinking about the devastation just witnessed on the gravel.
It’s hot, the light won’t last forever and the workup must happen onsite for the lowest impact possible on
an already stressed animal. Clouds are gathering, the skies turn a dramatic shade of blue and lightning surrounds us on the farm. It hasn’t rained in over six months in this part of Botswana and we all hope it can hold off just a few more hours.
The mother cheetah, still in the box, is quietly carried away from the caged cub. Kyle darts her through the air holes and we wait for the anesthesia to kick in.
From the point where the anesthetic takes hold, the workup is fast. Everyone from CCB makes use of what little time they have before she wakes. All at once people remove burrs and ticks from her coat, measure teeth, take spot-pattern photos and check for injuries as camp managers, Gavin and Andrea place the collar that will provide her signal.
Keith points out two figures in the distance, her cubs are not far. They are watching us. They run off briefly, but remain in the area.
With the collar fixed and the workup complete, its time for the cheetah mother to wake up. Gently she is placed back into the box, away from the vehicles. A few minutes pass and Kyle checks up to be sure she is ok and the team return the box next to the cage that holds her cub. Tomorrow at dawn, both will be released and the family will be reunited.
Note: While audiences all over the world can tune into nature programs and witness anesthetized wild animals being collared and studied in the multitudes, this is not an event that is taken lightly. This is ‘high impact’ on the animal, and a responsible conservation organization does not put undue stress on a cheetah unless absolutely necessary. Cheetah Conservation Botswana is studying population densities to move forward in helping the farmers create a viable co-existence strategy in the region. The mother cheetah is the first trapped since June, 2011, and a big event in the life of the research. During my stay I never expected a cheetah to be caught; it felt a bit like winning the lottery.
Coming up: Part III – The Release
all images & video Marcy Mendelson © 2012 / Cheetah-Watch.com