Field Research and Conservation in Africa
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Cheetahs Killed in Salama
When I left the Salama camp this morning I was excited about heading up to Samburu for the coming week to work with our staff in the Meibae Conservancy. Morgan and I stopped to drop supplies with the other researchers who would be remaining in Athi-Kapiti for game counts, camera checks and poop searches. We picked up the fresh scat (poop) that was collected from Machakos Ranching so we could get it in the freezer and we stopped for a few supplies on the way into town.
Shortly after three PM I received a call from Pius, one of our community officers. He was called to attend a conflict of a cheetah killing a goat and found that some herders had followed the tracks of a mother cheetah to her five cubs. The herders killed four of the cubs and took one. A neighbor who assists in caretaking for the property on which the cubs were killed found out about the incident and called Pius. Pius found the men with the cub and talked to them about their plans. They intended to use the cries of the cub to draw in the mother and kill her. He called me to ask for advice once he calmed the herders.
After confirming that the herders were no longer an immediate threat to the mother I recommended that Pius take the cub back to its nest. When he got there he found that the four dead cubs were removed from the nest. The mother’s tracks were in the soil, so Pius was certain that the mother moved the dead cubs in the two hours that passed since the herders took the cubs. He placed the cub under the bush and left the area to wait for Cosmas.
By this time the head-man of the area had also heard about the incident and arrived to see if he could help. I called KWS to inform them of our plan to hope for the mother’s return, and of our concern that the herders may still attempt to kill the mother. The Machakos Senior warden arrived at the scene just as it was getting dark. Using flashlights Pius and Cosmas took the Warden to the location of the cub to find it shivering in the cold. Pius and Cosmas estimated the cub to be about 10days old – its eyes were not yet opened. Leaving the cub overnight could have resulted in hypothermia due to the near freezing temperatures in the hills of Salma. We also feared that the tiny cub would be dehydrated if it did not get fed during the night. The decision was made to remove the cub and take it to the KWS orphanage.
I spoke to the warden asking if she thought we could try for a couple of days to return the cub to its mother, but together we agreed that since the mother had taken the dead ones she may not return again. We made the choice to intervene because the incident was a result of human interference. If this would have been a natural occurrence we would have left the cub, but in this case it was humans who caused the mother to be frightened away. We also agreed that it was likely that she would leave the area and cycle again, but maybe choose a less conspicuous location for her next litter.
Despite the rapid subdivision in the Salama area, the cheetah numbers have varied between 6 and 15 adults for the past three years. With the new ICT park and an increased interest in the land in this area there is a new surge of settlement. The current influx of settlement is not sustainable for the environment or for the wildlife. Our scouts are in the field every day trying to mitigate the conflict occurring as more and more people move in. We have tried presenting information on sustainable land use and wildlife friendly farming… but we have not been able to convince the many new land owners that there are better alternatives. Predator tolerance has decreased dramatically in the last two years. Community meetings and information sharing has not been enough to keep these herders from taking matters into their own hands. Pius is especially upset that he had to be a part of the decision to take the cub, but agreed that the mother is at risk if she remains in the same area. He will return to the area during the next several days to continue speaking to the neighbors who have implemented livestock security and who are also upset about the herders who have taken the lives of the four cubs and the freedom of the one.
I am quite upset about this incident, but because of the hostility of the herders in the area I feel that continuing to try to return the cub to the mother in this location would put her and the cub at risk. If we believed that this cub would have had a chance to be safe with its mother again we would have left it. There are several new people who have moved into their plots from other areas due to the good rains this year. What is most upsetting is that this incident occurred less than 2km from our research camp. This is the first known targeted killing of cheetahs in our area.
It is very unfortunate that this little male cub will spend its life in the already overcrowded orphanage. The orphanage has a high success in raising cubs of this age, so we will keep being informed of the progress of this little guy.
We have developed protocols and materials, we have held repeated meetings, we have assisted in building hyena and leopard proof bomas, and Pius has been talking often to the herders in the area who have not been grazing on their own plots. The goat killed this morning was killed by a cheetah while the herder was letting his stock graze on someone else’s property. Nearly 90% of the cheetah attacks occurring on livestock in the Salama region are to herds being grazed on neighbors' land (sometimes with permission, but often illegally). This incident is a sad reminder of the detrimental effects of human encroachment and the need to expand and improve our programmes.
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