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Dizzy - A story about a rehabilitated cheetah mother!

dizzy the champion cheetahdizzy cubs

Dizzy – a successfully rehabilitated AfriCat cheetah and first time mother in the Okonjima Nature Reserve, has raised her female cub Spirit to adulthood. And now she’s done it again! In July 2014 Dizzy gave birth to her second litter – this time consisting of four little ones.

Spirit, already weighing in at 32 kg at a year old, was deserted by her mother at 13 months, but is hunting and surviving on her own and is completely independent and self-sufficient. She is the only survivor of the 2013 litter which initially compromised three cubs – the first cheetah cubs ever born in the Okonjima Nature Reserve. 

 

DIZZY GIVES BIRTH TO THE FIRST CHEETAH CUBS EVER BORN IN THE OKONJIMA NATURE RESERVE.

dizzy first cubs 2013dizzy first cubs1 2013 330hdizzy first cubs 2013

Dizzy, whose territory has mainly been the north-western part of the 200 km² Okonjima Nature Reserve, was seen in the south in mid-January 2013, mating with one of our male cheetahs, Bones. She returned, but on 10 April she was spotted in the south again and, lo and behold, six days later on 16 April 2013 she gave birth to three cubs. Our very first cheetah cubs in the Okonjima Nature Reserve!

During the first two months of motherhood, Dizzy stayed mostly in the southern part of the 20 000ha Park, instinct intact and moving her cubs to different den sites on a regular basis. She managed to make a few successful kills, but the prey density in this area was not high. In rough times and in order to keep her energy up, Team AfriCat helped her out by occasionally dropping a fresh warthog carcass etc. when she was found close to a water point or in an area away from her young|den-site.
(Lactating cheetahs require almost twice as much food as non-lactating females and have to hunt every day in order to meet their nutritional needs and feed their cubs.)

On 2 July 2013 one of the Okonjima guides found Dizzy in the south-western part of the reserve – in a fight with the cheetah siblings Coco, Spud and Bones (rehabilitated cheetahs, released in May 2010 – two of the three are siblings), and with only two of the three cubs visible. In search of the lost cub, Team AfriCat monitored Dizzy closer than ever in the following days – with no success. The lost cub remained missing, although Dizzy herself called her cub constantly for days. We are not certain of what happened exactly, but strongly suspect the cheetah trio to be involved in the loss of the cub.

dizzy 2 cubs left 2013dizzy 2 cubs left 2013dizzy 2 cubs left 2013

With only two cubs left, Dizzy moved up north into her former territory and was found on kills more regularly.

Barely three weeks later while out monitoring her well-being, we unfortunately became 'ear'-witnesses to the death of her second cub.

 

On 21 July 2013, Team AfriCat went out to check up on Dizzy and her two cubs. Approaching her on foot, we found her sitting under a tree about 30 metres away. She suddenly ran off into thick bush. Our first thought that she might be on a hunt was quickly dispelled when we heard a leopard growl in the distance. Team AfriCat feared the worst – 'perhaps it was Dizzy who wouldn’t survive an encounter with a wild, un-collared leopard while trying to protect her cubs?'. But what we found was her second cub – freshly killed. Once the leopard had moved away, she went back to her dead cub, started to lick it and kept on licking for quite some time before she and her remaining cub moved off. She never called for it again after moving away. She remained in the north for a few days and then slowly made her way back into the central part of the reserve accompanied by Spirit, her champion three month old surviving cub.

saying goodbye to dead cheetah cubsaying goodbye to dead cheetah cubsaying goodbye to dead cheetah cub13

In mid-August 2013 mother and daughter had to face another daunting experience – once again involving the cheetah trio Coco, Spud and Bones. After Dizzy successfully managed to hunt a duiker, the three siblings who were in the area, immediately moved in and stole her kill. While Coco (female) was satisfied and happy with the free meal, Spud and Bones however (both male), went after the mother and daughter with a vengeance, trying to attack her and her cub, which instinctively disappeared into thick bush. Team AfriCat was able to intervene and chased the cheetah trio away. To make matters worse a wild dog pack of four joined the commotion and started to attack Dizzy as well. Luckily we were present at the time and had the opportunity to intervene and could lure the dogs about a kilometre away from the fracas. Both Dizzy and her cub survived and seemed to be fine. Because we know that Dizzy always defends her kills, we supplied her with a piece of meat to keep her away from the siblings. We went out early the next morning to check the situation and ascertain whether Dizzy and her cub were safe, but again we found the wild dog pack attacking Dizzy. Once more we moved in between the scramble in order to chase the dogs off – successfully! The dogs gave up after a while and Dizzy and her cub quickly moved out of the area.

 

Dizzy and Spirit

dizzy spirit cheetah familydizzy spirit cheetah familydizzy spirit cheetah familydizzy spirit cheetah familydizzy spirit cheetah family

From then on Dizzy and her little champ mainly roamed areas in the central and southern part of the reserve and were regularly found on kills.

 

THE SALTPANS, SWAKOP & MUNDI:

saltpans mundi jan2014
Mundi
saltpans swakop jan2014
Swakop

In November 2013, two young orphaned cheetahs were rescued from the saltpans in Swakopmund. They were found close to death and without their mother, lying in the open on a saltpan past 'Mile 4'. Both were about 8 months old – a few months younger than Dizzy’s cub Spirit at that time. Both cubs had been born in the wild, perhaps in the desert, and were not habituated in any way. In fact they were terrified of humans and found captivity extremely stressful in the beginning.

saltpans arrive nov 2013saltpans arrive nov 2013saltpans arrive nov 2013

Placing them into the AfriCat Care Centre would mean a few years of captivity before they were old enough to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild, so we had an idea! Maybe, just maybe Dizzy would adopt these two orphaned cubs and teach them how to hunt and survive in the wild? However there were a few setbacks before this trial project could start: one was the high rainfall late in the season, and secondly, the cubs were so wild and would not allow us close to monitor the situation. They needed to trust man a little more before we could release all of them together. So we only tackled the project in April 2014.

AfriCat supporter, Sue Olsen came to the rescue and generously offered to sponsor the whole project. Dizzy and Spirit were darted and placed in a 5ha enclosure, bordering the 20 000ha Nature Reserve – together with the 'Saltpans'. We placed cameras in the enclosure to monitor their behaviour and movements because we couldn’t be physically present 24:7. But unfortunately the potential fairytale did not turn out as we had hoped . . .

Even though Dizzy did not physically attack them, she also didn’t show any interest in bonding with either of them. She kept them away from Spirit as well and would not share any water and food with them. After a month of trying, we made the decision to release Dizzy and Spirit back into the Okonjima Nature Reserve – without Swakop and Mundi.

We also didn’t want the successful Dizzy-Spirit duo’s fortune to fade and for them to lose their territory. The mission was aborted and the Saltpans returned to AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre. The Saltpans have now joined the long waiting list of healthy, young, captive cheetahs that are in line for rehabilitation at a later stage.

meeting the saltpans first time
Meeting The Saltpans for the first time.
meeting the saltpans first time
Meeting The Saltpans for the first time.
watching the saltpans
Dizzy and Spirit watching The Saltpans.
watching the saltpans
Dizzy and Spirit watching The Saltpans.
dizzy spirit agressive towards saltpans
Dizzy and Spirit aggressive towards The Saltpans.
dizzy spirit agressive towards saltpans
Dizzy and Spirit aggressive towards The Saltpans.

 

Once released, Dizzy and Spirit behaved as if nothing had happened and mainly roamed areas around Serenjima – an open plain in the southern-central part of the Nature Reserve.

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On 21 May 2014 about a week after the release, Dizzy was found on a fresh steenbok kill – but where was Spirit?

Dizzy wasn’t showing any signs of stress and neither did she call for her lost cub. Alarms were ringing everywhere and everyone was alerted to be on the look-out for one of our favourite cheetahs. The next days passed, but there was still no sign of Spirit. Because mother and daughter were always together and because Spirit was only a year old and still growing fast, we had previously decided not to collar her. Cheetahs are known to wean their cubs between 13 and 24 months, but Penta only weaned hers after they turned two. We were sure that Dizzy and Spirit still had a lot of mother-daughter time together and collaring Spirit was not on the agenda for now.

Fortunately luck was on our side and four days after Spirit went missing, we found her not too far from her mother – looking lost and alone, but alive! We decided not to let this opportunity slip and darted her the following morning. After a short recovery at the AfriCat’s Care Centre, we released her the same afternoon close to Dizzy who had been found on a kudu kill the previous day. After a while of eye contact between mother and daughter, Spirit ran off into the bush while Dizzy continued eating the last bits of her kill. Spirit started calling her mother – but there was no response. While Dizzy was still found in the same area the next day, Spirit had moved away. Female cheetahs usually leave their cubs when they are about 18 months old, so why did Dizzy decide to leave her 13-month-old cub so early? What we didn’t know at that point was that Dizzy was already preparing for her next litter. We then remembered that we had seen her on 4 April 2014, again with Bones – one of our male cheetahs and most likely the sire of her previous litter.

 

DIZZY DOES IT AGAIN . . .

During the end of June, Dizzy left her usual territory and moved into the south of the Okonjima Nature Reserve – exactly as she had done shortly before she gave birth to her previous cubs in April 2013.

dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter7 july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014

The gestation period of cheetahs ranges between 90 and 98 days, which gave us an indication that she might drop soon again. She was seen regularly by the Okonjima guides and also monitored closely by our AfriCat field/research team – all keeping a close eye on her since her 'rendezvous' with Bones did date back to three months. On 6 July 2014, we found her with four newborn cubs in dense grassland – well hidden under an acacia scrub.

At the same time, the cheetah siblings – Bones, Coco and Spud, were seen close to the area where Dizzy was hiding her newborn cubs.

On the evening of 9 July, one of the Okonjima guides alerted us that the sibling trio had surrounded Dizzy’s den. When Team AfriCat arrived, Dizzy was trying to protect her cubs from the cheetah coalition. Our research team tried to lure them as far as possible from the den, since there wasn’t much Dizzy could do to keep all three at a distance. They followed us for quite a distance and we hoped that they would move off in the opposite direction.

The next morning Dizzy was found with only one cub back in her den. In search of the missing three cubs, we found two of them lying a few meters away from the den – wet all over, but still alive. The third one unfortunately wasn’t that lucky, and we found it dead on the other side of the den. The trio of adults was found close to the den, so we assumed that they had turned around the previous night and were responsible for the cub’s death.

After that incident and having the recent loss of Penta’s cubs in mind, the decision was made to dart Dizzy and move her and her three remaining cubs to a protected area – a 5ha enclosed area where she can raise her cubs under monitored conditions for the first few months. When her cubs are strong enough and can run from danger, we will release them back into the 20 000 ha Nature Park, back into her own territory.

Until we can raise the funds to open more plains in the Park, we will have to manage our rehabilitated cheetahs and for now, all female cheetahs have been given long-acting, reversible contraceptives.

 

stressed dizzy with cub

 

Back to Dizzy. The first night and day in her new 'unfamiliar territory', Dizzy was very stressed – carrying her one cub up and down the perimeter fence and ignoring the other two. The team spent hours monitoring the situation and when she left the one cub unprotected, we returned it to the den and fed her close to the cubs to encourage her to go back to them and to settle down.

By the end of the second day she had calmed down and we realized that she must have picked up Spud’s scent everywhere – as he had been released from that area, recovering from an accident while hunting), only days prior to her arrival and she wanted to get as far away from him as possible.

dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014dizzy 2nd litter july2014

In order to monitor Dizzy and the well-being of her cubs and to cause as little disturbance as possible, we installed a remote camera trap next to the den site for the first weeks. It took a few days before Dizzy acclimatised in her new environment, but she soon showed us what great potential she has as a mother. Following her natural instincts, she changed her den sites regularly and protected her cubs fiercely if anyone dared to approach too close. Within two months, Dizzy moved her cubs between three different den sites, where they were almost invisible beneath thick layers of branches.

 

At the beginning of August, Team AfriCat observed the three cubs outside their safe den site for the very first time.

The cubs are now five months old (December2014) and have developed from tiny fur balls into active and curious cheetah cubs that follow their mother’s every step.

In a few months, when the cubs are older and strong enough to recognize and run away from danger, Dizzy’s new family will be released back into the Okonjima Nature Reserve.

Dizzy’s pregnancy explained and confirmed at least one of the theories why she didn't accept the two orphaned cubs, Swakop and Mundi. She had other plans that we were totally ignorant of!

cubs2 karen pics oct2014cubs karen pics oct2014cubs karen pics oct2014cubs karen pics oct2014cubs karen pics oct2014cubs karen pics oct2014

 

DIZZY’S FAST FACTS:

  • Dizzy and her group – Ruff Tumble Dash & Baxter came to AfriCat during 2008, and the five grew up together at AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre.
  • When caught, both Dizzy (8 months of age from Windhoek area) and Baxter (6 months) were alone, without their mother or any siblings. Ruff, Tumble and Dash came from the Windhoek area – Baxter from the Okahandja area.
  • 1 June 2012, the cheetahs were released into the 200 km² Okonjima Nature Reserve.
  • Sadly, Baxter was killed by a Spotted Hyena only a short time after their release. He was the weakest of the coalition, always lagging behind, and was not especially alert (weak genes maybe?).
  • On their release into the Okonjima Nature Reserve, they stayed near the roads and the boundary fence, which was more familiar to them from their time in captivity. They started hunting very slowly, killing a steenbok or small warthog once a week. However, this was insufficient food to satisfy four cheetahs and consequently we had to supply them with meat on a regular basis. Four weeks after the release, Dizzy broke away from the coalition. Female cheetahs are solitary by nature and a few weeks later Dash, also broke away from the remaining males, Ruff and Tumble.
  • Dizzy was constantly on the move, making the odd kill for herself, in contrast to the others who mainly stayed in one place, did not hunt and waited to be fed by us every third day. This situation continued, and six months later Dizzy was making more and more kills, whereas the others had still not made any progress. Dash had rejoined her brothers by this time. Therefore, the tough decision was made to bring Dash, Ruff, and Tumble back to the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre, so that they could be better cared for. They have now become ambassadors for AfriCat, and are integrated into our education initiatives.
  • Dizzy’s hunting skills became better and better each day. From February 2013, she was found with a kill every third day, kudu calves being her favourite.
  • Dizzy turned 7 years old in 2014.

 

CUB MORTALITY

The first few months in a cheetah’s life are tough! We sadly had to discover that Penta’s four newborns (born 6 June 2014) were killed by wild dogs and didn’t even make it through their first month.

A high rate of offspring mortality in a cheetah population is, unfortunately, not exceptional.

  • A study conducted in the Serengeti Plains revealed a survival chance of only 5% from birth to adolescence with 70% of the cubs not making it through the first eight weeks. Predation by lions was found to be the major reason, among other factors such as abandonment, disease and environmental causes. Leopards accounted only for a small portion of deaths.
  • A study in the southern Kalahari, however, reported considerably different results: Even though lions and spotted hyenas were present, the chance of reaching adulthood was found to be almost seven times higher than in the plains of the Serengeti, with more than half the cubs surviving the first two months.
  • Studies in South African game reserves found an average survival rate of between 60% and 75%. from emergence to one year of age.
  • In a lion and spotted hyena-free area in Namibia, 78% of the cubs survived from emergence to independence – whereas fewer than 50% survived in another area under the same conditions.

These results suggest that the survival rate does not necessarily depends on the presence or absence of large predators. In many cases the cause of mortality is unknown and often falsely attributed to lions or other large carnivores. In a number of occasions, smaller carnivores such as jackals, honey badgers or even raptors have been observed killing cheetah cubs.

The extreme rate of cheetah cub mortality in the Serengeti may also be attributed to the large open plains that make it more difficult to find suitable dens and sufficient cover and therefore make cubs more vulnerable to predation.

Cheetahs are not the only species that are prone to cub mortality; it is an integral part of a multi-species ecosystem.

Interestingly, the survival rate of cheetahs in the Kalahari (33%) was found to be similar to the survival rate of leopard cubs (37%) in South African game reserves.

saying goodbye to dead cheetah cubsaying goodbye to dead cheetah cubsaying goodbye to dead cheetah cubsaying goodbye to dead cheetah cub9saying goodbye to dead cheetah cubsaying goodbye to dead cheetah cub

 

CONTRACEPTION

Contraception in Wildlife

Research Programmes

ALL our female Cheetahs have now been given contraceptive treatment. We will maintain this method of park-management until:

  • There is more funding available to debush more areas and create more open plains
  • We can introduce more springbok and impala, ideal cheetah prey-base – again funds permitting.

Contraception is a reversible process– and therefore all females will be able to have cubs in the park in the future, but will need to be managed. An island-bound conservation environment such as this needs to be managed differently to a wilderness area.

The ideal contraceptive for wildlife should have no side effects. It should also be safe in pregnant females, have minimal effects on behaviour, should not pass through the food chain, be affordable and delivery should be easy – ideally allowing remote delivery. In many cases a reversible method is preferable to permanent methods so that animals can breed again at a later stage.

dr henk bertschinger contraceptiondr henk bertschinger contraceptionwildlife contraceptive methods

WHY CONTRACEPTION RESEARCH IS NECESSARY

The annual health examinations of the cheetahs at AfriCat give invited specialist veterinarians the opportunity to conduct research on various aspects of animal health, particularly those relating to the health of large carnivores in captivity.

As well as providing expert information on the health of AfriCat’s animals, the examinations also allow for the comparison of results with similar studies being conducted on large carnivores in other captive facilities. Some of this information can also be used to gain insight into the health of large carnivores in the wild, hence AfriCat allowing the contraception research work on Okonjima.

  • At AfriCat the cheetah and leopard contraception programme started in 1998.
  • Deslorelin is a gonadotropin-releasing hormone(GnRH), which is very similar to the body's own GnRH which is secreted by the brain.
  • The implant, a small pellet, is injected subcutaneously on the side of the neck.
  • For cheetahs we use a 4.7mg implant which lasts approximately 18 months.
  • In lions we use double the dose and this lasts about 30 months until females conceive again.
  • In cheetahs it works in both females and males. In males it functions as a spermatogenesis and is an ongoing process. It takes 6–8 weeks for sperm to become nonviable. In females the effect is almost immediate.
  • Deslorelin can be used in baboons, monkeys, mandrills, wild dogs, leopards, tigers and a number of other species. It does not work so well in larger animals like elephants, where instead use is made of a contraceptive vaccine.
  • Deslorelin is self-reversing. After 18-24 months there is insufficient hormone released to suppress the release of the two gonadotropin hormones and so, slowly the animal will start cycling again. The first few cycles of a female will be infertile. The recovery in the male will be slow as well. Testosterone recovery is more rapid than the production of sperm, which will take months to recover. If we want to maintain contraception in male and female cheetahs we treat them annually during the annual health check. If on the other hand a cat is released into the wild and we want her/him to breed, we simply stop the treatment and allow the implants to reverse.
  • Group behaviour doesn't seem to have changed over the year, although males are less aggressive. In cases of aggressive or over-dominant males we can double the dose of the implant, which helps reduce aggression.
  • Most coalitions are siblings, although unrelated cheetahs can be habituated to form a group – contraception in this situation is beneficial, as it means fewer camps are needed and therefore the cats can have a bigger area to share.

NOTE: The modern wildlife contraceptive methods are: immunocontraception using either the porcine zona pellucida vaccine (successful in elephants) or GnRH vaccines (used to control aggression in elephant bulls, boar taint in male piglets, oestrous cycle of horses and many others) and hormonal contraception using a GnRH agonist implant.
Information supplied by Professor Henk Bertschinger.

 

Spirit

GENDER: Female
AGE: (2014) 1 year
WEIGHT: (2014) 32Kg
ORIGIN: Okonjima Nature Reserve
MOTHER: Dizzy
FATHER: Bones

Spirit is one of our cheetahs in the Okonjima Nature Reserve. Spirit was born 16 April 2013 and was one of the three cubs of Dizzy’s first litter. They were the first cheetahs that were born wild on the Okonjima Nature Reserve. Her father is Bones – leader of the infamous Siblings group (Coco, Spud & Bones). Her two siblings got killed at the age of 3 months. The first one unknown (suspect: one of the cheetahs) and the second one by a leopard. After the sudden death of her siblings, Spirit stuck to Dizzy’s side, learning all the skills of how to survive in the wild. She escaped three leopard attacks and an attack from the wild dogs and that is only the ones we know of. Carrying very good genes from mother Dizzy and father Bones, she already weighed 32 kilograms at 12 months old. Dizzy left her at the very young age of 13 months after she fell pregnant again from Bones. Spirit was a bit lost for the first two weeks, but then started making regular kills and now at 17 months old she is a beautiful, self-sustained female cheetah and solid proof that cheetah rehabilitation can be successful.

spirit may2014spirit may2014spirit may2014

DIZZY is another success story of the Okonjima Cheetah Rehabilitation Programme. http://www.africat.org/first-cheetah-cubs-born-wild-in-the-okonjima-nature-reserve

PENTA a reality check of how stressful rescue and release is.  http://www.africat.org/penta-and-cubs-the-quandary-of-rescue-and-release

 

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