Highlights

Well hello there.

I have been very neglecting of you lately, and for that I apologise. I have been very busy, and just honestly living life and enjoying every moment of it. Also, when I do have time for blogs, I have been writing some blogs for Panthera’s Field Notes blog (which I always re-post on here for you too).

How is it nearing the end of August? It might as well be 2019 already for how fast this year has blown by! So where all have I been this year? Let’s see (and feel free to Google, because I am just going to drop reserve names here)….. Pilanesberg, Lajuma, Lapalala, Mapeu, Mapungubwe, America (Maryland, Pittsburgh, Virginia Beach, and New York City) to finally sort my visa, Lapalala again, Cape Town, Madikwe and still left for the year Makalali, Timbavati ANNNNNNDDDD MAURITUIS! Basically, I have been doing a little bit of travelling.

I have been trying to keep my Instagram (@jotaylorafrica) and Instagram story pretty updated, so hopefully you have been following along with the photos and the videos on there. If you are not an IG person, no worries, I still post often-ish on Twitter (@tigerbushcat) and my new Facebook page (facebook.com/jotaylorafrica). Because of those platforms, I am not going to make this a hugely picture heavy post, and also because I have horrible connection at my recent site.

Let’s do an overview of the past six months. Highlight reel?

– First survey of the year ended (I actually blogged about this – go me!)

– During that first survey, I met the most incredible man! I finally found someone who works in the bush and shares my passion and love for nature and wildlife. His name is Byron and he is a field guide. Our schedules have us both kind of all over the place, but we manage to make it work out to visit each other as much as possible, and a cool perk is we both get to see and experience incredible reserves together! We’ve now been dating five months and things are going great! He challenges and inspires me to learn new things (I have even gotten into birding!) and he has become the adventure buddy I never realised that I was missing in my life. We have some really cool things planned and I am greatly looking forward to where all these adventures will take us.

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We are heading off in two weeks with his family for a week-long holiday in Mauritius!! I have not been on a proper holiday (especially not to the beach) in probably five or six years and am beyond excited for it! Plus, just spending time with Byron and his family is always wonderful, they are all so amazingly sweet, and have adopted me into their family! I cannot wait to unwind a bit, shut off from work for a week and just take in the island life.

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– I spent nearly two months in the states (it was only supposed to be two weeks) to finally sort my visa out and I am excited to announce that I now have my five-year Critical Skills visa!!! It has been a painful year-long process, but it has finally come through. Now the next step? Permanent residency! (Here we go again). Since I now have my long term visa, my trips back to the states will be way more infrequent (sorry, guys). So it was really nice to be able to spend some time there and see so many of you! Diesel has my heart, always, and spending anytime with him is simply the best. My baby nephew, Atlas, is getting cuter by the day and it was cool to be able to spend quality time and take in the baby phase which passes so quickly. I made a trip up to Pittsburgh to spend not enough time with Becca and Andy, stop by the zoo to see all my furbabies and grand-furbabies and just hangout with my Pittsburgh crew (Pgh will always be my home in the states). I got to enjoy family time and the small town charm of Poolesville and then the chaos and big city lights of New York city when I went to go visit Panthera’s head office. It was a packed full, but great trip. My next American trip probably won’t be for another two years or so.

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– I have been running all over Limpopo and North West provinces setting up camera trap surveys. Although it is a ton of driving, I cannot express how lucky I am to be able to see some of these incredible places and to meet the amazing ecology teams at these reserves! I love that I have friends all over here.

– I spent a week down in Cape Town meeting with my Panthera and UCT teams and have gotten things more sorted and figured out for my Masters (yay)! I have made the decision to officially relocate to Johannesburg, because let’s face it, it just makes sense. I am on this side wayyyy more than I am in the Cape, and I plan to keep it this way. I will pop back over a bit more next year during write up on my dissertation, but home is this side. Ryno has even flown across the country and now resides in Joburg!! He stays with Lisa and Gareth, whom I cannot thank enough for taking in me and my baby boy. I do not know what I would do without those two. I have good people. It is still in the works, but I am hoping to be able to bring Ryno to my latest site for some time too.

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– Hmmm… what else? From now until December, I will continue running around setting up and running the camera trap surveys. Oh oh! I have registered for FGASA (Field Guides Association of Southern Africa) for my level one certification. This is more or less just so I can learn even more about the bush and ecosystems in which I am surrounded and also to have a certification which will hopefully help reserves feel a bit more comfortable with having some foreign female driving around. I am loving the material so far and have signed up for a tracks and signs course (spoor and animal signs) in October! I will be sure to let you know how that goes. December, after all the surveys are finished for the year, Byron and I are planning on a road trip down through KZN and possibly all the way to Cape Town and back camping and exploring along the way! And then boom, just like that it’ll be 2019 and I will be gearing up to start all these surveys all over again.

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Even without a million photos, this has become a novel – are you still there? Sorry about that. I just wanted to give you a bit of an update on everything that is and has happened! I will truly truly try to get better at keeping up-to-date on here with more blogs. (I know I always say this).

So, until next time – chow!

Cheetah Game of Thrones

(As featured on Panthera’s Field Notes blog, http://www.panthera.org)

During the first 18 months of their lives, cheetah cubs learn the essential skills for hunting and how to be a cheetah from their mums. They rely on their mothers for food and protection against other predators during these vital and precarious months. Then, they reach maturity, gain independence, and separate from their mothers.

But siblings often stay together into adolescence. Around the age of one and a half to two years old, sibling groups will break apart. Bothers usually stay together to form coalitions and female siblings further separate to live out solitary lives.

The “cheetah girls” of Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa are just over two years of age and are still enjoying the perks of collaborative hunting and social grooming. The sisters divided from their brother around three months ago and, at their current age, are expected to part from each other any day.

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The trio continue on their way after an unsuccessful attempt at hunting a zebra in February when the brother was still roaming with his sisters.

I have been privileged to have had some incredible encounters with these siblings over the past six months.

These particular siblings are very important, as they have unique genetics to the cheetah metapopulation in South Africa. Their mother was relocated to the park for her own safety in April of 2014 after being captured on farmlands in the North West Province outside of protected areas and given the name “Rain.” And their fathers (plural because Rain was potentially bred by both bothers of a coalition making it difficult to determine who is who’s technical biological father), colonised the park on their own.

Cheetahs on 53 protected reserves and national parks throughout South Africa are monitored and exchanged between parks as part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project (cheetahpopulation.org.za) to aid in the dispersal of cheetah genetics. Protected areas in South Africa are generally fenced, inhibiting the movement and spread of genetics in species such as cheetahs. The project’s coordinated relocation strategy aims to ensure demographic and genetic viability of cheetahs within these closed reserves.

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The Pilanesberg sisters’ genetics are valuable to the project, but their family history sounds as if it should be straight out of Game of Thrones. Their three older brothers from a preceding litter formed a coalition after they gained independence from their mother. These three now-mature males were a force to be reckoned with. In order to have the highest reproductive success and best access to prey, eliminating competition in the area is a common occurrence in the cat world. Seven percent of cheetah mortalities in the metapopulation are attributed to cheetah on cheetah fighting as larger coalitions will kill smaller coalitions or single males in the area.

When the older father coalition had a run-in with the three younger male coalition and was never seen again, it was presumed that the three males killed their fathers in order to secure territory and breeding rights to the females. Unfortunately, the only females they had access to were all related to the succeeding boys. Management of these populations is not always as clear-cut as ecologists would like it to be.

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The sisters on an impala kill

The male trio was relocated as part of the metapopulation project to bring fresh genetics to other reserves in South Africa and prevent inbreeding at Pilanesberg. After the sisters and their lone brother split up, the brother was not seen again. His fate is uncertain: he could have met his demise at the paws of his older brothers before they left the park, he could have had a scuffle with one of the park’s many lions, or he could even be silently living a secluded life hiding away in wilderness areas where the public cannot access.

His sisters, however, have no issue with being highly visible around vehicles and do not seem to be hindered at all by the presence of humans in the park, often making kills right near roads.

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Over the past few weeks, I have personally seen these beautiful ladies feasting on impala kills on back-to-back days – and enjoyed a serene moment with them as they used a large rock as the perfect lookout point for scanning their domain.

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One early morning, we were enjoying the presence of a large breeding herd of elephants as they stopped for some breakfast. The sounds of an elephant herd enjoying a meal are unlike anything else.

Elephants can move so quietly through the bush that, despite their size, you would have no clue you were in their presence. When they are feasting, however, it is a very different story. Leaves crunch audibly as twigs break in their massive jaws. The occasional creak accompanied by a loud crack as a branch, or even a whole tree, is ripped up permeates through the morning chorus of birds waking up to a new day. This herd was happily munching away and in no apparent hurry, so we left them to head off in search of leopards.

Moments past the herd, just off the road, was a spotted cat heading our way. However, this cat did not have the rosette spotted pattern of a leopard. Instead, she was dotted with small, solid spots over her lean build—it was one of the cheetah sisters.
The morning light provided the perfect colours for this shot.

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She appeared to be on a mission as she made her way across the road in front of us. Not far behind her came her sister following the same pathway. The pair, unfazed by our vehicle, continued on their way into a drainage line. We could hear the alarm calls of nearby impalas announcing the predators as they disappeared into the bush.

Someday very soon, these sisters will go their own ways. Hopefully, each will raise their own litters of cubs and add their contributions to the threatened cheetah population.

 

An Unlucky Leopard

Meet Tokoloshe, a female leopard living in South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains.

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Tokoloshe was named after a dwarf-like water sprite in Zulu mythology that can become invisible and is rarely seen. Luckily, camera trap surveys have made Tokoloshe less elusive than these fabled creatures, and researchers have been able to watch her mature into a beautiful leopardess. Since first spotted on cameras set by the Primate and Predator Project (PPP) in 2013, she has reared two cubs: Judoka, who disappeared from the camera grid after some extensive forest clearing on a neighboring property, and Schrodinger.

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Tokoloshe wasn’t born in a national park or reserve protected by reinforced fences and anti-poaching units, and she isn’t a leopard you would come across while on a guided safari game drive. Her range is comprised of true wilderness surrounded by multiple private properties and farms, the owners of which sometimes come into conflict with local wildlife.

Research in this area has found rapidly declining leopard densities since studies began in 2012, likely due to illegal snaring, shooting, and poisoning. Farmers have been known to set snares and kill leopards due to perceived livestock predation risk, as well as to potentially sell their skins and body parts. PPP Community Engagement Officer and ecologist, Philip Faure is currently working with the local communities not just to educate them about wildlife mitigation solutions, but also to assist in the building of predator-proof bomas to protect their livestock from predation.

However, despite these efforts, leopards continue to be snared. During a recent Panthera camera trap survey, this image was captured of Tokoloshe.

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As you can see, she has a snare embedded into her abdomen causing deep lacerations. Her overall body condition has deteriorated as a result of her injuries. She is 5 years old and should be in her prime, a cub at her side. But now, thanks to human cruelty, she is fighting for her life.

Sadly, helping Tokoloshe is not as clear-cut as one might think. First of all, she is a wild leopard not at all habituated to vehicles or people. Her only human interactions have likely been negative since she has grown up in such a highly persecuted area. This will make it nearly impossible for a veterinarian to get close enough to dart her.

A cage trapping method would also likely be unsuccessful, as she probably has the wherewithal to recognize the trap and keep her distance. Furthermore, the wilderness that Tokoloshe calls home has very limited road and trail access, making matters even more difficult.

The PPP’s predator ecologist has been diligently checking the local camera traps for any signs of Tokoloshe, trying to determine her current status and location. After weeks without a sighting, she was presumed dead.

But then, three weeks later, another photo series showing Tokoloshe popped up.

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The snare is still around her abdomen and her body condition is poor, but she is alive. Ecologists are still trying to devise a plan to capture Tokoloshe and remove the snare, but the situation isn’t promising: It has been over four weeks since she was last photographed, and time is not on her side.

As for her young cub, Schrodinger? He was captured on a camera trap nearly 5 kilometers from where Tokoloshe was last seen and appears healthy. Although at only a year old, Schrodinger has dispersed earlier than expected—leopard cubs will typically remain dependent on their mothers until around 18 months of age—it is possible that he will survive on his own.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story for leopards, or for many of Africa’s other large carnivores. Because snares capture animals indiscriminately, Panthera’s cameras show many different species affected by illegal snaring, like the hyena in the photo below.

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Photo (c) Panthera and CameraCATalogue

The leopard is one of the most persecuted large cats in the world. Leopards have vanished from at least 49 percent of their historic range in Africa and 84 percent of their historic range in Eurasia, and have been declared extinct in six of their former range countries. With such swiftly declining populations, each leopard’s life is important.