Cheetah Cub in Samburu

ACK Mary's picture
Mon, 2013-05-20 11:30 by ACK Mary · Forum/category:
Cheetah cub tied outside manyatta Discussing the situation with rangers and community Exhausted cub falls asleep in my lap while rangers and community search for mother At the Nairobi Orphanage Calabash gets a real bottle and consumes it heartily Leaving Calabash in the hands of KWS nursery

In this year’s IUCN Conference of the Parties meeting it was stated that IUCN recognized the threat to cheetahs posed by the illegal pet trade. As explained in previous blogs, our fecal detection dog project will assist in gathering necessary information about the region of origin using genetic markers. Currently it is not known if the confiscated cubs originate in Kenya or if our country is the passing route for cheetahs from other countries. For every one cheetah that gets confiscated we know that an additional 10-20 cubs make it into the trade, and another 10-20 cubs die of malnourishment or mistreatment during the transport.

Last week I was faced with a challenging decision. I have always stated that cubs found in the wild should be left untouched – even if it is feared that the mother has abandoned the cub or if the cub is threatened by other predators. However, if the future of the cub is threatened by human interference I believe it is our role to protect that cub, even if it means removal of the cub. I don’t like seeing cheetahs in cages, and I don’t believe that a cheetah should be a pet. But I do believe in the role of an ambassador cheetah, and I recognize that in situations where a cheetah cub must be raised by humans, the best role it can serve is to educate people about the plight of the wild cheetah. Cheetahs are social animals. In the wild they interact with each other through male coalitions and female family-raising. A well-cared for cheetah ambassador is healthy and happy. A good cheetah breeding facility supplies cheetahs to zoos and education facilities. Strong communication and research in captive facilities give us great insights into cheetah behavior, nutrition and medical care. Much of our technical and financial support comes from zoos and captive cheetah facilities.

On Tuesday, 14 May, I was in Samburu for a meeting with my staff. Our meeting was interrupted by a call to the Meibae Ranger headquarter by an informant reporting that a small cub, believed to be cheetah, was being kept at a manyatta near a hill called N’gupule (meaning a type of calabash used for carrying and curing milk). The ACK team and Meibae rangers rushed to investigate, after over an hour of rough off-road driving we were escorted to the manyatta by the informant. Sure enough, as we walked the last leg of the trip, we found a tiny cheetah cub tied under a tree. The children giggled as they ran around the cub who was pulling at its leash and hissing at the people who gathered around it. The mzee (elder man of the manyatta) who had picked up the cub pulled the leash to get the cheetah closer to us. The cub tried to stand, but it was weak and as it pulled against the leash it fell over several times. I walked behind the cub, picked it by the scruff of the neck and slowly calmed it by bringing it closer to me. The cub seemed to be about 4 weeks of age. While I calmed the cub and loosened the noose that was tied around its neck, the cheetah scouts and rangers gathered information on the origin of the cub. The scouts and rangers talked to several men at the manyatta about the cub. It was wrong for the man to have picked the cub even though he thought he was doing the right thing because he believed the cub was abandoned. The men were told that in the future they should leave any baby or injured animal in place and contact the conservancy to allow the rangers to see the situation and determine the best action. The men agreed to avoid taking this type of situation into their own hands in the future and to assist us in searching for the mother and trying to keep the cub in the wild. Although they were very concerned that the mother and her cubs may take goats, they also agreed that we need to live with the wildlife and that if a conflict did occur they would contact us.

The mzee said that he found the cub alone three days ago (Saturday) for the first time. After returning to the area on Sunday and Monday the cub was still alone under a small bush in a gully. On Tuesday morning he noticed that the cub could no longer stand, so he took it back to the manyatta. He took the scouts and rangers to the location while I attempted to get water into the dehydrated cub. One of my scouts stayed with me at the manyatta to translate my questions to the mamas. Although the man said that he had only picked the cub this morning (it was now after 4pm), the mamas told me that the cub has been sleeping in the manyatta at night (a contradiction to the mzee story that the cub was only taken to the manyatta this morning). They had given the cub small pieces of cooked meat which it has been chewing. The cub was too small to be eating meat, and really needed liquid. The guys were gone about 30 minutes, and just before they returned I was able to get the cub to lick/suck water from a shallow bottle top. I was very excited that it consumed about 50ml of water – I am guessing the first water it was given in at least 3 days.
The scouts found old cheetah tracks – more than 3 days old – in the area the mzee said he collected the cub. But there were hyena and jackal tracks that were from that same day – less than 24 hrs. The scouts were told that goats have been grazing in the area as of Saturday, so any fresher tracks may have been buried. The grazing goats were everywhere and if there was a cheetah around earlier, it would be very hard to believe that it was still in this disturbed area. We talked about all of our options and decided that we could bring the cub with us and see if some milk and rehydration could improve its strength. We would return to the area in the morning, before the goats are brought out, and would look for fresh cheetah tracks. The adorable cub seemed to start purring in my arms as we made this decision – I think it was a coincidence, but at least she felt safe enough to purr. My heart was breaking as we walked away from the manyatta. Although the man said he only had the cheetah for a day, we were uncertain of how long it really was, or how disturbed the area was. Several of the mzee and some murran offered to help us search for the mother - who we believed had an additional two cubs based on other herder reports from the previous week.

On the way home we purchased a goat and some goat milk so I could see if the cub would take a little milk with water and/or some tiny pieces of meat. We arrived at the camp at 2030. The cub was a bit awkward in the way it would lick/suck liquid from a bowl, but I set an alarm for every two hours and took the cub into my tent with me for the night. During the night she consumed 50-100 ml with every feeding. By morning we had developed a system where I would hold the bowl at an angle and she would suck the fluid from the inside edge. As she got stronger, she would get over-excited about the bowl and would spill far more than she consumed. Six in the morning came quickly.

We decided to leave the cub in a safe place inside a box in the HQ office while we went in search of the mother- and hopefully her remaining two cubs. The group of elders and murran were true to their word and met us to assist in the search. The rangers asked me to drop them off, but wanted me to continue building up the strength of the cub, so I went back to the camp to continue regular feedings and await word to bring the cub to them. I made a paste of milk, water and smashed meat, but the cub seemed to avoid the meat as it sucked out the milk. At this point I decided that we needed to contact the KWS authorities to inform them of our decisions so far. I spoke with Dr. Mutinda, the area veterinarian to confirm the best solution to build strength in the cub. He agreed with my decision to take the cub from the mzee, and felt that leaving the cub where the mzee had claimed to collect it would not be in the best interest of the cub if there were so many hyena tracks around the area. The rangers had consulted with the Northern Rangelands Trust in the evening so people were aware of our actions thus far. After 6 hours of searching, the guys called to tell me there was no sign of the mother. I tucked the cub back into her box in the office and drove out to pick up the guys in our truck. They again saw many hyena tracks, and the area became disturbed by goats as of about 9AM. The guys said that the area may have been quiet for the previous few weeks, but that the people were starting to bring stock back into the area after the recent rains, and the area was now very disturbed. Some young herders had seen the mother with the three cubs following her earlier in the previous week, but had not seen her since Friday.
Although the cub was eating a small amount, I knew that my bush diet was also not enough to sustain it for long. I also feared that the non-hygienic conditions of our little bush camp could easily result in bacterial infection for the cub. I looked through my vehicle medical kit and found a pair of latex gloves. Just to see what would happen I filled one finger of the glove with the milk/water solution. I poked a small hole in the tip of the finger. The cub suddenly went crazy. She latched on to the end of the glove and began to growl. Once she realized I was not going to pull it away, she sucked the 20ml of fluid out of the finger. OK, so I realized now that she was definitely still very dependent on mother’s milk and although she did lick from the bowl, she could consume a lot more if served to her from the glove. I refilled the glove and prepared to do battle with her again. Because of her sharp teeth and claws, both my hands and the glove were shredded after three feedings, but she had consumed nearly a half liter of liquid. All along I had been assisting her in urinating by using a damp cloth to assimilate the licking her mother would be doing. Up until now, she had urinated every time, but she had not yet defecated. I had only one more glove left, and I could not continue feeding her unless she had a proper bottle. In the process of trying to keep her from actually eating the latex glove, my hand and fingers were bitten and scratched. Although I had used antiseptic ointment, the scratches were getting infected. We needed to make a decision on the fate of this cub.

This was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. The life of this cub was in my hands. At this point she was able to walk and would follow me around the tent area – she wobbled on occasion, but she was so much stronger than she had been two days ago. If we had found the mother, I was confident she could keep up… but we had no clue where the mother could have gone. The kids at the manyatta had been playing with her, so the scouts believed that if we left the cub, the kids would pick her up again. The cub at this point had made no vocalizations and had little reaction to noises – we wondered if it were possible that the cub had a hearing problem. Maybe the mother had abandoned her and the mzee had found her alone because she was not well. The scouts and rangers felt that the cub would either be eaten by hyena, or played with by the children if we were to leave her out in the area where the mzee had picked her up.

It is the mandate of the KWS to assist in the life of any animal that they feel can be rescued. In many cases, the baby is put back with families or herds whenever possible. But in the case of a cheetah, there is no facility in Kenya with the capacity to raise a cheetah to be wild. In other countries where such facilities are attempting to figure out the rewilding capabilities, they have found that only cubs orphaned at over 6 months are capable of surviving when they are released after they reach adulthood. Cubs as young as this one will bond with their human parent. Thus they will not know how to “be a cheetah” and they become imprinted. On several occasions where people in Kenya have attempted such a release, the cheetah is killed or wounded when it tries to approach other people. On other occasions the cheetahs are injured when trying to take down inappropriate prey, or are killed by other predators. The few documented successes of cheetah rehab in Kenya have been of cubs that were at least 5 months old and were not held in captivity. For the sake of the life of this little cub, we decided that she needed to go the orphanage were people are qualified to give her the proper baby care diet.

I offered to drive her into Nairobi since I needed to return there anyway. I was alone in the vehicle most of the way, so I would stop to check on her. I cried several times along the drive thinking of how afraid she must have been with the kids teasing her at the manyatta. How hungry she was when we took her from the manyatta. And how sweet she was. I slept with her in my tent, waking up to feed and “pee” her. My clothes and all my camping gear smelled of sour milk and cheetah pee. Although I know that KWS staff knows how to raise baby cheetahs far better than me, I did not want to let her go. This little cheetah girl stole my heart – we have named her Calabash for the hill where her mother and siblings will range in the future. She will be in the nursery quarantine for some time, but at some point I will help write a sign for her to share her story with the visitors to the Nairobi Orphanage. She will become a voice for the plight of the Meibae cheetahs.