Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Snarl and Night Drive at Laohu

Over the years, I have seen more small wildlife in Laohu and its surroundings than any other national parks or private game reserves: aardwolves, porcupines (one often eats the tree bark at night outside my bedroom door), bat-eared foxes, meerkats, hares of all kinds, and even the very rare anteaters - once in slow motion zigzagging ahead of my vehicle.
My reserve staff have of course sighted other precious wildlife such as black-footed cats, african wild cats and caracals, which I have not had the pleasure of seeing in the wild and have been meaning to make an effort to see them. During this visit, I asked our Reserve Manager, Hein, to take me on a night drive to see if I would have the good luck of finding a black-footed cat, which fascinates me particularly as my cat Sisi probably has some Black-footed cat blood.
Hein has had a lot of experience in wildlife before he joined us. We set out after dinner at 8.30pm. All game were active now at night that the temperature had become very pleasant and they seemed to be less agitated than during the day. We could get very close to game probably because they don't see well in the dark. We saw elands, mountain reedbuck, kudos, etc, etc and herds of black wildebeests - some of them with twin calves. When we passed the tiger camps, Hein showed me the difference in reaction to lights between cat eyes and other eyes. When light is shone on cat eyes, their irises close. In the distance, we saw three pairs of lights in straight line dimming and brightening again, as our spot light shone on and off them - these were eyes of Hulooo and brothers.
In order to increase the chance of sighting the very shy black-footed cat, Hein has to call them. He does this by imitating the squeaking sound of mouse using his own lips, or blowing distress calls of rabbits on a predator whistle. In the first round of calls, he got the attention of an aardwolf. Hein also blew jackal howls on the whistle to which real jackals would respond by howling back, but not tonight, as its breeding season and they are nurturing the young in their dens.
After the second round of whistle blowing at another spot, about 9 bat-eared foxes came from different directions to investigate. They were curious little animals with big ears. They ran off as soon as they realized there were no distressed rabbits.
Still no black-footed cats on my sighted list, I had to contend visiting "Snarl". She is a 8/9 month old orphaned caracal whose mother was poisoned by local farmers and who was saved by a friend of Hein. We offered to take her so she could leave the small cage behind and live in a big enclosure. Four months ago, when I first saw her, she was hissing and spitting. It is very hard to tame a wild cat after she has opened her eyes around 10 days of age and the first object she sees is her mother. The power of caracal is legendary - its the fastest land animal by body weight and size, and they can take down a springbok several times their body size piecemeal. I had seen a tame one jumping in one leap to the top of a room door.
Now that Snarl has moved into her large enclosure, she hid herself under the little rock cave, snarling at us but looked a lot calmer compared to being in that small cage. What happened next surprised us all. Hein was watering the grass in her enclosure with a water tube, while suddenly Snarl dashed out under the shower to cool herself down! She dashed back to her hideout afterwards, licking herself dry with contentment.
Our plan is to rehabilitate Snarl and release her back into nature at her natural dispersal age about 20 months old. Thankfully, like most small wild cats, their hunter instinct seem to be stronger and it would be much easier task to send her back to the wild successfully than the tigers!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Storms & Sadness Strike Laohu

I am very sad to report that 327 and Cathay's new cub may be gone.

Heavy thunderstorm hit Laohu Valley yesterday afternoon. While feeding Cathay, tiger supervisor Vivienne heard a sudden yelp from the cub, as if it were in pain. Cathay dashed back to the trees and didn't come out at night. This morning Cathay seemed to have stopped suckling and spent most of her time away from her cub, while there was no complaining cries from her cub. Was the cub hit by hail? While I was prepared the worst, I was hoping for the best, that Vivienne was simply over concerned.

We had to wait till this afternoon's feeding time to separate Cathay from her camp so we could go inside to check what become of the cub. We searched every corner - under the trees, inside the bushes etc but could see nothing. It suddenly occurred to me that the cub may have been taken by another animal, such as snake or predatory bird! From the way Vivienne described to me it sounded very much like this.

This is one of the worst fears I hold and in fact I often have nightmares about this, ever since Hope was bitten by a baboon. I was worried sick about this when Madonna had her second litter of cubs in this same camp, besides the usual cold rains and strong wind.

Now the worst has happened to the only cub that 327 has sired, during the most "ideal" hot summer time. Although this is a risk of rewilding, I regret I did not insist on having her giving birth in the quarantine camp where the vulnerable young would be more sheltered from such dangers till they become mobile. Its another valuable lesson learned for us, and the number of South China Tigers is too small for us to take such total risks of loosing them to natural hazards.

The bright side is that we have proven 327 can breed, and that in three weeks Cathay should have post-partum oestrus and will be able to mate again. Thankfully, Vivienne managed to take two photos of the cub on its first day, which become valuable record for the project!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

327 Finally Became Dad!

I was exhausted but not able to fall asleep, watching the clock reaching 2am, 3am in the hotel room in Johannesburg. During dinner with Consul General of Johannesburg and other friends, I talked about Cathay being probably pregnant and if so, might be giving birth any time. Now lying in bed, I somehow had the premonition that Cathay may have already given birth and I was counting the hours so I could call our team at Laohu to find out first thing in the morning.
I only fell asleep around 7am in the morning and the first email I saw coming in when I woke up at 10am, told me that baby tiger cry was heard from the trees in Cathay's camp in the late afternoon the previous day ( Dec 16 , 2009) and Cathay had indeed given birth!
After we had almost all given up on his male power, 327 - this city born and city groomed stud, has now vindicated himself and become a father!
327 came a long way. A few months after he arrived at Laohu, we had him to make acquintainces with the two ladies. But he was terrified of Cathay and somehow indifferent to Madonna. We somewhat lost hope. Then we discovered one of his testicles is much smaller than normal, in fact almost invisible! Although we are told this should not stop him from being able to mate or being fertile, but coupled with the fact he did not seem to have much interests in the females, it cast doubt on his abilities nevertheless.
Eventually I had him moved out of the breeding centre and he settled in the 3 ha "grass camp". Initially he would come to greet whatever humans come his way, like he used to do in the breeding centre, and trotting along the fence. After a while he seemed to become indifferent to humans and only came to greet if he was hungry. I was delighted by his change of attitude-perhaps he had some hope!
After separating Cathay from her sons JenB and Coco in August 2008, I was hoping she would come into oestrus in a few months but she kept us waiting and waiting. By Feb this year when she still had not come into oestrus, I decided to rotate her between TigerWoods and 327 and let her spend some time with 327. In the wild, a male tiger could reign his territory for a while but get pushed out by younger and stronger new male, so the tigresses in a male's territory have access to new stud and thus new genetic materials every few years. This also keeps the tigresses' interests in mating and breeding strong.
It came as a nice surprise that the meeting between 327 and Cathay was friendly, unlike their previous encounters. It was further a pleasant shock when 327 and Cathay mated in June this year. I was on the one hand hopeful and on the other hand uncertain about Cathay getting pregnant from 327, and I was indeed terribly disappointed when she came back into oestrus the tenth week after she had mated with 327 - proving he was not able to impregnate her.
Against the advice of others and heeding the traditional Chinese wisdom of "three opportunities", she was allowed to meet 327 when she came back into oestrus at the end of August and demanded being let in with him, even though she was with TigerWoods at that time. What followed after is history. A heated three-day love fest between the two resulted in 327 becoming a Dad, at the age of seven years.