By Kyler Abernathy of National Geographic Remote Imaging
Crittercam has just had another first!
We were invited to the Ghanzi district of western Botswana by Andrea Dekrout, Research Coordinator for Cheetah Conservation Botswana (CCB), employing Crittercam to assist in their study of the cheetahs of this region. In some ways this is a good place for cheetahs. Lions, which steal kills from and even kill cheetahs in shared ranges, have been eliminated from this area. This has been an unintentional boon for cheetahs, removing a serious survival risk that makes some protected wildlife areas less cheetah-friendly. But the same factors that lead to the elimination of the lions poses a continuing threat to the cheetahs. Most of the land around here is privately owned and used to raise livestock. Predators of any sort are often seen as threats to the livestock and the farmers’ livelihood.
Studying what cheetahs do and how they use their habitat is challenging in Ghanzi. This region is quite different from the “typical” cheetah habitat that most of us would picture. Rather than the open plains of the Serengeti, the habitat around Ghanzi has fairly dense vegetation, making direct observation of cheetah behavior nearly impossible. That’s where Crittercam comes in.
On the first day of the project, the team was happily surprised to find a cheetah in each of two traps set at a watering hole on the Dqae Qare game farm, a property owned by a local San community that has been allowing CCB to study the cheetahs on their land. These traps were set at “marker trees” (particular trees cheetahs visit to leave scent marks), with barriers made of acacia branches blocking access to the trees except for through the trap. The two were males, nicknamed the Brothers Grimm, who were known to CCB researchers from camera traps set up in the area.
The cat believed to be the older, dominant one–Wilhelm–was selected to wear the Crittercam. Wilhelm was sedated by a veterinarian assisting CCB, a variety of health measurements were made and the Crittercam collar was attached. Both brothers were then released. The Crittercam was programmed to start recording the next morning at dawn, recording video during the morning, around mid-day, and towards sunset, for about an hour and a half each time. This first system was set up to record for just two days before automatically dropping off. We were both concerned about how far the cat might travel with the unit (we need to get it back!), and anxious to get some quick results, to see how the Crittercam was working and what it could show us.
When those two days were up, tracking the signal from the built-in radio beacon we were able to find the Crittercam where the collar had dropped off Wilhelm. The video showed that he did not seem to be bothered by the Crittercam, which is always an important concern. The Crittercam provided a great view of the daily activities of Wilhelm and his brother, roaming through the habitat, grooming each other, and snoozing a lot (they’re cats!).
With that promising start, the team deployed a second system on a female cheetah, a longer deployment with a different sampling pattern. We’re anxiously waiting to see what that deployment shows and are continuing to set the traps for more deployments.