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Rescue and Release - Does it work?

rescue and release cheetahs rescue and release lion
rescue and release leopard

Lions were rescued from certain death off farmland adjacent to Etosha by the AfriCat north Team in 2012; the same lions were recently seen with a heavily pregnant female in a park west of Etosha, their new territory.

Leopards were collared and released in non-conflict zones and a farmer agrees to the release of a conflict leopard in her original home range; AfriCat monitors her whereabouts regularly.

A Cheetah female and 5 cubs cage-trapped by a farmer in December 2012 and AfriCat is called for assistance and advice; these wild-caught cheetah will soon be released in the Okonjima 20 000 ha Nature Reserve with a good chance of survival, but also because no other suitable relocation site has been found as to date.
Because of the low rainfall Namibia received this year, both relocation sites that were earmarked as reliable release sites, were cancelled at the last minute due to a lack of grazing for prey in the area.
NOTE: If the suitable prey base is high an area may be able to support a reasonable number of carnivores, but if the prey base is low, the number of predators will also be low or leave the area completely. Prey will move with the rainfall. An area with much game today, can become all but devoid tomorrow if the rains fail to come.

 

Over the years, AfriCat has rescued and released many cheetah and leopard
see Latest AfriCat Statistics
A Rescue and Release program is always going to be a high profile, emotive, excitement-driven drama. But will it work? Do they run off into the sunset – with newly found freedom?

 

Let us start with some definitions:

  1. At a population level
    1. Introduction: The deliberate or accidental establishment of a population outside of its former natural range
    2. Re-introduction: The deliberate establishment of a population in an area of natural habitat within its former range.
    3. Re-inforcement: The addition of individual (s) to an already existing population (what AfriCat mostly has been practicing since 1993)
  2. At an individual level
    1. Translocation: The moving of wild-caught animals for release into the wild at a second site
    2. Release into wild: of captive-bred animals or those born in the wild but then subject to a captive existence; usually requiring some degree of
    3. Rehabilitation: A process designed to 'teach' the skills for efficient exploitation of their future habitat, with an anticipated improvement in performance and survival, through trial and error.

leopard awarenessresearch lionsleopard darting

A rescue and release programme, such as AfriCat has practiced since 1993 therefore can involve either reintroductions or reinforcements through translocations, releases into the wild and rehabilitation.

What are some of the factors which should be considered when attempting a rescue and release programme:

 

1) A feasibility study to determine what the likelihood is of the released animal surviving

Research has shown that there are two types of male cheetah, resident ones which live in a relatively small area and nomadic ones which range over much larger areas. So if a resident cheetah is taken from the area it knows well and placed in a completely new environment, it first has to find it’s way around. In doing so, it may come in to contact with other cheetah which are already established; in this case the possibility of intra-specific conflict is high. Individuals may fight, some will be injured, some may even die.

How many cheetah can a particular area sustain? If the suitable prey base is high an area may be able to support a reasonable number. But, if the prey base is low, the number of predators will also be low. In a country such as Namibia one must always be aware that prey will move with the rainfall. An area with much game today, can become all but devoid tomorrow if the rains fail to come.

The rate of human population growth continues exponentially. Available land for wildlife to live and roam as it once did is becoming less with each passing year. Conflict between farmer and large predator has seen the eradication of many carnivores throughout much of the world. There is little point of taking the cheetah "out of the frying pan and placing it straight into the fire"!

 

2) A standard operating procedure to set out the process to be followed in the case of a rescue and release

rescue releasehuman wildlife conflictleopard in cage

Not all trapped cheetah need to be translocated far away. In deed the best release is the one which returns the animal straight back to where it came from. If a farmer can be convinced to release it back on the farm, thereby preventing a void which another cheetah is very likely to fill in the near future, this is the number one prize. The farmer should be encouraged to use one of a number of workable techniques to prevent his livestock form being taken by predators. It can be demonstrated that cheetah territories are often consistent in both time and space. If a farmer’s livestock are in a cheetah’s territory, it will not make any difference how many are removed; they will keep coming back to cause him problems. The only solution will be to protect his livestock and learn to live side by side with the carnivore.

If the predator has strayed from a protected area such as a national park, it may be possible to return it to the area it knows within the protected area. In this case the question should be asked why did the predator leave an area of relative safety and foray into a danger zone. This is what our AfriCat North programme is involved with and is researching.

Unfortunately, some predators may become habitual stock raiders and will automatically return to killing a farmer’s livestock. For these, the only realistic solution may be to place them in captivity or destroy them. Captivity is not a solution for most predators. A few may have a value in education, most make unsuitable candidates for reintroductions since they become habituated and have to under-go a lengthy and often unsuccessful process of rehabilitation. If a translocation is the only solution it is preferable to take the animal from "veldt to veldt" or "wild to wild". The question here is - how many sites are there across the country- like the private, Okonjima 20 000ha Nature Reserve? An island-bound, conservation area – where no predator can migrate from- and any farmer bordering the reserve is not threatened by such a translocation?

leopard on okonjimacheetah by okonjima fence

Namibia is a country where cheetah and most predators come into conflict from time to time with farmers. This suggests that for the most part, there are sufficient numbers for the areas available to them; there is therefore no need to have captive breeding programmes. These only add to an already over abundant captive population of non-releasable individuals which require large amounts of meat which is often supplied through the killing of large numbers of donkeys and/or horses.

And therein lies the problem. There are of course very few sites where cheetah (and even less so lion) can be rehabilitated to or translocated to. Thus the solution in the vast majority of cases is not to translocate or rehabilitate, but rather to conserve (through all the many ways that are still possible) that which is still wild, where it is still wild. The wild places are getting less with each passing year, and we should be putting all our energy in to understanding the conflict and finding ways of mitigation for those animals which are still wild.

Where a solution is not possible for a conflict situation , after all avenues have been tried, is it usually preferable (in the greater scheme of things ) to destroy the animal, than to expend huge resources in an attempt "to save" an animal which will more likely than not end up as captive and be lost to the species and its ultimate conservation? A harsh question we are forced to ask in present times?

 

3) A post release monitoring phase

It is essential to be able to follow and record a new release. If it has worked it may be worth while trying again. If has not, one should not repeat the exercise. Released animals will often start to move large distances in order to try to find a place to settle. Today, with the power of the GPS technology fitted to a collar, it is possible to follow animals for months or even years over very large areas. Today, it is even possible to use this tracking system to provide an early warning system to a farmer when a potential released predator might be in his area, and thus give him a chance to round up his animals and place them in a protected area.

These are just some of the factors which need to be considered when the cheetah or other predator has been trapped by a farmer, believing it to be a threat to his livestock. It is because it has become evident that the removing of cheetah from one area and placing it in another far away from where it originates in many cases is not in the best interest of the animals concerned, that Africat has moved away from its original "Rescue and Release" programme to one of “Rescuing” predators through working with farmers and helping them to find alternative solutions within the conflict zone. It is in this way that there is the greatest chance of man and beast continuing to live side by side in the years to come.

The AfriCat Foundation
Mark Jago, Veterinarian and AfriCat Trustee.

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