Friday, 26 November 2010

Killing Fields

King Henry and Princess made a complete cleaning of the blesbuck 42 Ha Tigers Roar camp so nothing was left for them to hunt. We decided to swamp them with Hulooo brothers who had been in the 100 Ha Hunters’ Palace camp. Hunters Place is very open in most parts of the camp with little cover, which presented a huge challenge for the tigers who are stalking ambushers that need cover. Dr. JD Smith remarked that if the tigers can hunt here in such open habitat, they should have the skills to hunt anywhere in the world, and would probably even have a much easier time hunting in their native habitat in China.

Despite the difficulties, Hulooo brothers managed to take advantage of stormy weathers, making kills of a good number of blesbuck and implalas who either took shelter in the dense bush areas that they avoid in calm weather conditions, or were disoriented by wind, thunder and lightening. We understand the challenge for a cover-needing tiger to hunt the third fastest African antelope –blesbuck, so we released a few bush-loving impalas into Hunters’ Palace. Interestingly, soon after two impalas became Hulooo brothers’s victims, the rest took to joining the blesbuck herd, running as the blesbuck run and eating as the blebuck eat. Still, another impala lost its life to the brothers.

Time for King Henry & Sister to give it a go in Hunters Palace as well. They were swapped with Hulooo brothers on November 14th. I can only say Bravo, youngsters! Since they went in, we had been unable to see them often, as they would hide themselves to consume fruits of their labour. Princess, being the shyest tiger at Laohu, was even a scarcer sight. On the rare occasions I did see her, she was on the lookout for her next victim. Just like her petite, shy mother Madonna whose hunting skills had been underestimated but proved she was a stealth hunter after having been observed making two kills in the space of 25 minutes, Princess had to demonstrate that she too, even smaller than her mother, had to prove her worth. But having witnessed the way she stalked the prey, I have no doubt that she is more than capable of doing her job. In fact, experience over our seven years of rewilding shows that tigresses are in fact better hunters! Helped sometimes by the stormy weather lately ,Princess & bros made kill after kill. A total of four blesbuck were hunted by them in a 10-day period, in this most challenging rewilding training camp.

Meanwhile, a fresh load of blesbuck were introduced into Tigers Roars and after a resting period for the blesbuck to settle down, Hulooo brothers were moved inside on Nov 18th. A Kill was made instantly during our monitoring, nevertheless inside the trees. What followed in next couple of days became an enigma for us for days to come, making us brood over as to what exactly happened. In the morning monitoring on Nov 19th, only five blesbuck were seen in the open area in Tigers Roars. This was highly unusual as Blesbuck are open land animals. However we took it that the other thirteen were temporarily taking shelter in the trees, disoriented from the storm the previous night. And they were sure to come out soon!

However, evening came and gone and another day came and gone. Still no sight of these missing blesbuck. Further, Hulooo brothers themselves were nowhere to be seen. They couldn’t possibly killed thirteen blesbuck in one night, could they? We started to wonder. This was a most unlikely scenario though. Last year in August, the brothers made a heavy toll on prey by hunting 11 blesbuck in a short period. But that was still in 10 days. Killing thirteen blesbuck in one night seemed just too distant a possibility!

Four days went by so we must solve the riddle. We drove into Tigers Roars on Monday Nov 22 to try our luck. When we eventually found Hulooo and JenB, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Their whiskers and nose were dirty and smeared with blood. If we didn’t know about the missing blesbok, we would have thought they had a bloody fight among themselves. What was more, their bellies were like balloons, particularly that of Hulooo who always has a weakness for food. It was clear that they had been feeding non-stop, not even bothering to lick themselves clean. After putting in their acknowledgement of us, Hulooo and JenB quickly disappeared into different directions again, as if afraid something could happen to their booties. We can hear the sound of bones getting cracked coming from inside the trees and river bed.

There was no doubt now that Hulooo brothers did make a killing-field out of Tigers Roars. But what happened to Coco?? Was he simply too fat to come out to greet us? Or was he injured during the hunting spree?? I couldn’t bear of the thoughts any longer so sent out a “search” party on Nov 24th to find Coco. Fortunately, he responded to the predator whistle, albeit feeling deceived. He refused to come out again next day the whistle was blown.

We continued to marvel at this most unusual hunting event, where three tigers wiped out three quarters of their entire month of food supply in two days. Could this because Hulooo was turning three on Nov 23rd and the brothers threw a hunting party for him to celebrate his coming of age??
Thing didn’t stop there. In the stormy night of Nov 25th, a further blesbuck lost its life.

Laohu Valley Reserve

It's cool down here

I hate heat

One by One
Caught in the Act
Why Hulooo so happy?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Goodbye Snarl?

Nov 19th, 2010

THE world's small cat authority, Dr. Jim Sanderson told us in September during our Rewilding Workshop that the caracal Snarl who had been under our care since last year looked strong and mature enough to be released back in nature and suggested we radio-collar her as well before releasing her. We started preparation immediately afterwards.

Our chief scientist Petri organised the re-fitting of an old collar once used by Cathay which was ready and sent back to Laohu Valley by the manufacturer just before our planned release time for Snarl. Petri and Hein tested the radio collar, tracking receiver and antenna- all working fine.

In order to put the radio-collar on her, we would need to sedate her. Though about third bigger than an average domestic cat, the caracal is strongly built with powerful legs and muscles and can do serious damage if she feels threatened by us monstrous sized humans.

Therefore it was not an easy task to put the radio collar on Snarl. Our Reserve Manager Hein built a trap cage and a few days before the collaring and release, the cage was introduced into Snarl's enclosure with food inside, in order to entice her into the cage. The plan was to make her comfortable going inside the cage to retrieve food for a few days. Then during the day before she was due to be released, food was put much deeper inside the cage so her body will have to be completely inside to retrieve it, which would actually activate the trap that triggers the cage door to drop, closing the cage.

All went according to plan and Snarl ended up closed inside the cage today. The Vet Gavin, who was very resourceful in treating Madonna's dehydration a few years back (he used a blanket to capture Madonna), was recruited to sedate Snarl with anaesthesia so she can be radio-collared. Gavin and his wife arrived at 3pm punctually, after one hour's drive from his clinic in Colesburg.

To avoid doing damage to the caracal, Gavin chose to apply contact-injection, in lieu of darting her with a dart gun. He was worried that the dart gun's strong force might fracture Snarl's leg if the dart went into the wrong place, which was not unlikely given that she was extremely agitated with human presence. Gavin's invention worked. He tied an old nylon bag to two strands of steel wires and pushed the bag into Snarl's cage. Snarl, not knowing what this large white-ish thing was, backed into the end of the cage, making it easy for Gavin's wife to inject her with sedative.

An antidote was applied quickly as soon as the caracal was collared and Snarl woke up soon after. She was still drowsy so we waited till about sunset time to release her when it was cooler.

We loaded up the cage to the back of the truck and drove to an area about one km from Hein's house, where a little stream runs with a lot of trees for cover. Snarl certainly didn't know she was going to be free, snarling along the way and trying to attack our us when we carried her cage.

She was about 4 months old when Snarl was brought to us, her mother poisoned by farmers. Caracals are formidable hunters and can take down a sheep in no time. They can even take down a blesbok which is probably at least 6 times their body size. Farmers continue to poison them as well as other smaller predators such as jackals in our area to protect their livelihood.

Snarl was wild and got her name because of her non-stop snarling when humans are present. Although she calmed down a bit, it was not possible to tame her. So we had to take the decision to release her back into the wild instead of letting her spend the rest of her life inside the enclosure. Thankfully, even those hand-reared caracals are known for their wild survival ability. We waited till she would be 1.5 years of age, fully grown so she would be able to deal with competitors such as jackals or other even other caracals. Meanwhile, we started training her to eat wild animal carcasses.

Now, while time had come to open the cage door so she could be free, I wondered how she would survive her first night? Where would she make her territory? Would she stay in this release area, go far away or return to Hein's house? How soon would she be able to hunt? Snarl's pretty little face with beautiful, shining and intelligent green eyes stared at us with hatred, and rightly so. We humans killed her mother, making her an orphan. Now she has to learn, all on her own, how to fend for herself.

We opened the cage door telling her to go out into freedom, expecting her to dash out and disappear into the trees. But she was not aware of her predicament, snarling at us continuously without budging. We had to move the cage eventually to leave her out of it. She turned around to look, suddenly realising she was no longer confined. Crouched low, she slunk away towards the densely forested little stream.

I repeated to her, "Go Snarl, Go! You are free". Inside my heart, I was tortured by the desire to have glimpses of her again, and the hope she can strike it out on her own in the wild.

Nov 22 2010

Hein went early the next morning to check on Snarl's movement again. She moved about 1 km away from the release spot within 6 hours of her release, but walked a only few hundred more meters overnight. The food left for her during her release was untouched. Hein even saw her standing on a cliff during his evening tracking.

Yesterday, she was found to be moving towards north, the springbuck carcass left for her was again untouched.

This morning however, no signal from her radio-collar could be detected. Where did Snarl go?

P.S.: a regular update of Snarl's radio-collar info map can be seen HERE.