The following is a summary of progress, findings and the re-aligned action plan of the NatGeo/Wildlife Direct Athi Kapiti Cheetah Project.
Formerly the study focused solely on the proposed Athi Kapiti Conservancy (AKC) area, which encompasses 6 private ranches and is bounded by the Mombasa highway to the North, the Mombasa Railway to the South, Athi River town to the West and the proposed Konza ICT-City to the East. However the killing of no less than 3 cheetahs in areas just outside the AKC boundary to the North and South, by pastoralists and ranchers between August and November 2011 in human wildlife conflict incidences necessitated the expansion of the projects range. This is to safeguard AKC cheetahs who all use this extended range.
The onus of the project was to confirm a high density of cheetah to justify more focused measures in the conservation of the critical Athi Kapiti land mass. We have however realised the urgent importance of prey species monitoring, anti-poaching, conflict mitigation and community awareness and education for the future survival of not only cheetah but all big cats on the Athi – Kapiti.
The project has benefited from a prior history of photographs from Simon Thomsett and residents of Game Ranching. Simon Thomsett had identified 15 cheetahs in the North Western sector of the AKC encompassing Portland and the Western halves of Game Ranching and Machakos Ranching. Of the 15 cheetahs identified (between 2008-2011); 5 are females who are still seen in the area – mostly with new litters of cubs, a coalition of 3 very shy males, Pepo the white young male who is seen from time to time and a few of the adolescent cubs who are not very easy to approach and identify.
Needless to state is the fact that cheetah observation, photography and positive identification is quite difficult especially in areas with livestock presence, human aggression during conflict incidences and with the lack of continued positive exposure to humans or vehicles like tourism.
This is further illustrated by the biased locations of IDed individuals within the Game ranching, Portland and Machakos Ranching areas – which is possibly due to tourism and a high density of friendly human traffic within Game Ranching (a cheetah stronghold), which has made them easier to find and work with.
This elusive nature of cheetahs underscores the need for such a project to be conducted over a long period, before patterns emerge and true densities are revealed. Much work can be done using residents photographs and this we endeavour to follow up.
As set by Simon Thomsett (2011) the Athi-Kapiti cheetah data sheet ‘strives to eliminate all but the most reliable data that is corroborated by photographic evidence. Anecdotal observations without photographs, known identity or location have been deleted. Identification of individuals has proved easy only when photographs have been later compared. Although some individuals can be positively identified in the field they are only entered as data if certain.’
To quote Simon Thomsett; “Significantly despite a fairly equal search by aircraft especially on Kapiti, Lisa, Astra east GRL and East Machakos Ranching, few to no cheetah were recorded in these areas. Vehicle searches did however focus more on the area in which most of the observations were made. This, despite the fact that cheetahs are regularly recorded by others on Kapiti and Lisa especially, alerts us to the need to develop a more representative method that covers the area using similar methods and effort equably.”
With this in mind I have endeavoured to scour the plains on the eastern half of the AKC, and the results so far have been;
6 frequently observed females; 4 of whom are in pairs – the first pair (Kapiti girls- no usable ID photos as yet) presumably mother and daughter have 6 cubs of 2 ages (approximately 6 and 10months), the second pair is very elusive with 1 cub of about 8 months; 1 of the other females we regularly observed resurfaced last week in the same area as before with her 2, 4-5month old cubs, after a conflict situation and disappearance 3 months ago on the northern edge of AKC ( Mwambi Hill). For now this female is distinguishable only by size, colour, her peculiar habit of hunting between 1100 and 1300hrs in cattle grazing areas and her location – unfortunately she doesn’t allow us close enough to photograph.
In addition I have repeatedly observed 2 coalitions of males; the older coalition of 3 males (the 3 musketeers), who have been in residence around the Waami Hills since 2000 and are well known though without usable ID photos, seem to have had a major portion of their range taken over by a younger coalition of 2 males (photographed and IDed as Dob and Bob).
The originally IDed cheetahs are observed and I have Identified on Kapiti (Pepo and the GRL coalition of 3), Machakos Ranching and Portland (Jackie with 2 cubs and Juliet) and on Game Ranching (Safi with 3 cubs).
Much more coverage of the area is required, before any good statement can be made regarding the total cheetah density on the AKC.
Methods of recording cheetahs
Simon Thomsett asserts that, “…while 10 of 37 records were made from a plane, the use of a plane greatly facilitates locating and photographing these extremely shy cheetahs. About one cheetah per hour flying as opposed to 3-4 days driving and camping out per cheetah is realistic. However ground location may allow for behavioural observation missed while flying. But given that behaviour is not the primary focus, but establishing density is; flying remains a useful tool. Vehicle location requires long distant observations of other animals. Early morning watches of perched Lappet faced Vultures had proved very useful as they will fly towards hunting and resting cheetah. Alerting prey animals may be, frustratingly, the only evidence of hiding cheetah as they crawl away below grass top level. Data cannot be collected, although presence is certain.”
I have not had the opportunity to use an aircraft but have been using vantage points – hills and Kopjes, where it was possible to watch for cheetah at peak activity times; early and late day, monitor prey species at distances and keep a look out for poachers.
It would be worthwhile to invest in long distance photo equipment and to explore digiscoping (attaching a compact digital camera to a high powered telescope).
In May 2012 we will be working with an MSc Conservation Biology student from Antioch University New England, affiliated to Action for Cheetah Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service, Erica Hermsen who is studying the effectiveness of different bait types in luring cheetahs. During the course of her study which will be conducted both in the Salama area – East of the AKC, and the AKC per-se she will put out 30 camera traps on 5 cheetah ‘play sites’ on the AKC laced with different scent baits for a period of no less than 3 months.
Simon Thomsett stated that, “Over decades of observations only about 10 sites (Play sites) have been recorded visited by cheetah, and none with a frequency that warrants the use of camera traps. Exceptions may have been made when a captive female cheetah was upwind of a water tank and possibly more visited when she was in oestrus. Therefore the use of scent, plus a habitual play site combined may reveal results from camera trapping in those areas of excellent security.”
We have identified 7 play sites and are choosing secure regularly used ones for this study. We hope that this will be a break -through developing the individual cheetah database and establishing more concrete population numbers.
Masters’ research students
In the same period of May to December we will be working with another two students also affiliated to ACK and KWS;
Morgan Maly; who is affiliated with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) and North Carolina State University. Her master’s project will assist in developing successful methods in cheetah health monitoring. In the short term her study will evaluate the fecal glucocorticoid levels in cheetahs where human influences have increased (Salama area) compared to that of cheetahs in large scale ranchland (AKC) along a wildlife corridor where there is greater prey and competitive predators.
Nelson Owange is a student with the University of Nairobi. He will analyze feacal samples to evaluate cheetah prey selection in recent subdivided and settled land in the Salama area and to use the Athi-Kapiti wildlife corridor as a control site. The long-term goal of this study is to utilize cheetah expertise from CCF-Namibia and SCBI to assist in developing laboratory functions at KWS for carnivore hormone and DNA analysis. Nelson will work closely with Morgan and train on cheetah extraction techniques to improve our ability to compare Kenya cheetah health with cheetahs in other range countries.
In late September 2011 with help from Action for Cheetahs Kenya, we trained 3 cheetah scouts from representative areas around the AKC.
The scouts are; Kalinge Kingola from Konza/Malili area, Patrick Mulinge from Kyumbi/ Pota area and Pius Maato from Kapiti/Stony-Athi area.
The scouts received training in the use of GPSes, digital cameras, binoculars and their care, they learnt how to identify different animal tracks and signs, how to record different data pertinent to big cat monitoring, line and point transects, scat collection, public relations and predator human conflict recording and liaising.
They have been equipped with; mountain bikes, cell phones, binoculars, digital cameras, GPSes and data collection and predator information sheets.
Scouts duties are;
1. Liaise with ranch staff and the adjacent community:
Collect reports on cheetah, lion and leopard sightings from herdsmen and other ranch staff and peripheral communities – including GPS coordinates on confirmation.
Visit sites of livestock loss to big cats and collect verification data.
Help to advice and assist ranches and communities on livestock loss prevention.
2. Seek out and record big cats in the ranches.
Record sightings, tracks and fecal matter/territorial markings, including GPS coordinates for mapping.
Photograph or film big cats encountered and any unique wildlife phenomenon.
Assist in the creation and maintenance of a cheetah, leopard and possibly lion databases.
3. Collection of research materials e.g. scat for hormone, DNA or prey analysis etc.
4. Conduct regular game transect counts for prey species distribution and density analysis.
5. Assist in anti-poaching (de-snaring, surveillance and intelligence collection).
The scouts work an average of 30 hours per week. This time is however flexible depending on the weather, big cat sightings and seasonal wildlife behavior. They work from their homes covering their assigned areas –which have been strategically appointed, in a systematic manner.
They were deployed at the start of October 2011, each with a designated area of operation that includes a portion of the AKC and important peripheral areas.
Notable scout achievements to date are;
Determination of areas more regularly used by cheetah in their areas and pin pointing 7 cheetah play sites so far.
Attending cheetah, leopard and hyena conflict cases; recording the occurrences and giving predation mitigation information to the affected stock keepers. Relaying predation information and locations to the local KWS personnel. In a few cases they have had to intercede against retaliation (dog hunts, trapping, spearing and poisoning) especially around Mwambi’s, Kapiti station and Emarti areas. Three
retaliatory attacks have been stopped since October, one of which was in response to the 2 females (Kapiti girls)with 6 cubs after they killed 4 goats. The stock owners put together a group of 6 men and 11 dogs to hunt the cheetah down but fortunately cheetah scout Kalinge arrived at the nick of time and convinced them otherwise and discussed future preventive measures with them afterwards (Kapiti station area).
Visiting communities adjacent to the AKC; educating them on the status of cheetah and their conservation and involving them in developing cheetah conflict mitigation measures and their implementation.
Monitoring conflict hotspots and calling me and KWS in when conflict escalates to forestall killing of cheetahs. Explaining conflict mitigation measures to herders and stock owners as well as accompanying the most vulnerable stock to pasture to ascertain points of vulnerability so that we may later formulate a way to reduce it. Progress has been made on Mwambi ranch, Emarti area, Kapiti station area, Machakos Ranching, Ilpolosat area and Konza settlement.
Keeping track of cheetahs especially known ones with a proclivity for stock raiding.
Conducting weekly set line transects with GPS coordinates, bearing and distance data for density and distribution analysis of animals on the AKC since February 2012.
Anti-poaching which includes removal of snares which can kill cheetah as well as other game and poaching surveillance in their designated areas which includes giving relevant information to KWS anti-poaching personnel.
Monitoring animals enclosed in the 5,000 acre Konza ICT site for the last 2 months which includes regular total ground counts, helping in provision of water for the animals, occasionally helping KWS keep Somali cattle away from the water, hanging bottles on the ICT fence-line to discourage animal collisions and discouraging opportunistic poaching along the fence by locals.
They have established good relations within the ranches and periphery and are well placed to gather information on big cat occurrences including lions and to influence grass root attitudes towards big cats.
One of the greatest threat to the survival of big cats, cheetah included, all over the world is human predator conflict. In the greater Athi Kapiti area we have lost 3 cheetah and a leopard since September 2011. These were victims of retaliatory attacks after they preyed on sheep and goats primarily during the day.
With cheetah depredations it is relatively less complicated than other big cats because they happen during the day when the stock is at pasture. One defence method used is the herding of donkeys within the herd of shoats – donkeys chase away any cheetah and jackal that try to attack the shoats.
It has been noted that donkeys are not wholly committed to this task and we have reverted our attention to the use of dogs to prevent predation.
In a number of the areas with the highest predation we have realised that leopards are using cover to attack during the day and always go unseen as they slink and hide on the herders approach, this leads to the herdsmen blaming cheetahs for the predation since they are the only predators commonly seen. With dogs this kind of attacks can be stopped, since dogs are extremely sensitive to the presence of leopards (their natural enemy).
Dogs are widespread in the region as they are the primary source of security in a land without security lights, fences or locks. Every homestead has atleast a dog in the community area to the south of the AKC – the area with most conflict cases.
We would therefore like to propose a dog survey in conjunction with organizations like KSPCA and IFAW that will look into solving the following;
Proper care and nutrition of the dogs, taking into account locally available resources,
The proper size of dog (breed) and numbers per herder to keep predators away but also avoiding poaching and harassment of game by the dogs,
The right breed (for temperament) and training,
How to control dog numbers and safeguard against infectious canine diseases that could affect wildlife as well.
We have seen that active conservation of the cheetahs on the Athi Kapiti is necessary, the density may be high but factors such as human-cheetah conflict, snaring, road accidents on the Mombasa highway*** , subdivision of land for settlement and subsequent reduction of prey base may challenge the effectiveness of this population in contributing to the national/regional population.
The key focal points are community education and involvement in conflict mitigation, developing better ways to reduce cheetah predation on shoats, finding more effective individual monitoring methods that will help create a conclusive database and partnering with relevant organisations for the long term benefit of cheetah conservation.
The land owners on the AKC need to be galvanised to make a united commitment towards securing the future of the Athi Kapiti as the urban sprawl of Nairobi and the proposed ICT city have increased pressure on this land mass as well as putting it on very high demand for industrial, commercial and residential use.
***Action for Cheetah Kenya have documented three adult males, three adult females, one sub-adult male, one sub-adult female and two cubs less than four months between 2005 and 2011 hit by cars between Konza junction and Kima junction – about a 25km stretch of road.
We monitor the Mombasa highway from Konza junction to Kyumbi junction – a 15km stretch of road, and have not as yet recorded any accidents though cheetah have been seen crossing the highway.
We Plan To;
In light of our findings and depending on funding we plan to continue the project for a further year to reap the fruits of consistent effort, to participate and benefit from the upcoming study projects and to benefit from longer term monitoring and conflict mitigation.
We plan to follow up the pledge by East African Portland Cement Limited to fund/second an additional cheetah scout primarily for the Portland area, who we will train and equip. We endeavour to device ways for the land owners and managements of AKC Ranches to develop more awareness of big cat and participate in their conservation.
We plan to upgrade transportation for the scouts from bicycles which are a challenge due to distance and terrain to motorbikes; this will ensure timely coverage of the area, fast response to big cat sightings, conflicts or poaching incidents. It will also ensure they can seek out cheetahs and patrol till late dusk or very early dawn without fear of distance from home, visibility or harassment by hyenas which in parts of the AKC are very aggressive and attack people on bicycles at night.
We are looking to acquire a digi-scoping kit or long distance Nickon lenses (upto 500mm) to augment the camera in use for ID photography.
As has been documented in many protected area the number of large competing predations such as hyena and lions account for high cheetah kill appropriation, displacement of cheetahs and high infant mortality. The Athi Kapiti has several high density pockets of spotted hyenas Crocuta crocuta, especially on the AKC ranches which may account for the spatial distribution of cheetah and their biase for pastoral community land were hyenas are fewer.
We would like to sample hyena densities by use of our set line transects and random spot sampling by counting tracks and the use of camera traps at known hyena denning sites which are also social meeting points. This will give us a clear picture of the relationship between the two and implications thereof to the cheetah population on the Athi Kapiti.
We plan to conduct a dog survey as outlined above.
For the dog survey we will need to enlist an assistant for 3 months to collect dog statistics, interview stock owners and collect comprehensive predation data. This will include a 1 week training and equipping with a bicycle, camera, GPS and data collection sheets.
Last but not least we are looking to acquire a projector and power source to aid community education by showing them conservation documentaries and especially the big cat oriented ones at their homesteads.
The African Environmental Film Foundation have been kind enough to give to the project 35 community education oriented wildlife documentary DVDs (in Swahili, Maasai, Kamba and English)