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Rolling, rolling, rolling…

Good morning! Well it probably will not be morning by the time this actually goes live on the blog. You see, there is barely any network connection here, so I am not even going to attempt to HotSpot my phone to get this online right now. Ryno and I are currently at a campsite in the Karoo about 10-15 km away from Beaufort West called X-Ventures. It is a cute little place and Ryno absolutely adores it because there are tons of dogs running around to play with and loads of waterholes and pools he can swim in. It really is the perfect stop for us since he really has the chance to stretch his legs. Although he has completely abandoned me to go play with all the other dogs. Hehe, I guess 10 hours of my singing concerts was too much for him.

There are, however, the biggest abundance of mozzies here! Just this morning, I swear I have klaaped at least 30 while they were biting me. Mozzies absolutely LOVE me for some reason. Trust me, I have looked up every reason I can online and I gots zero clues why they like me so much. When I was in Malawi just a week plus ago I had over 79 bites at one time (Andrew and I counted)! Do mosquitos love you as well or are you one of the lucky ones that they seem to leave alone?

The Karoo is super dry, since the campsite has both green grass and water, there are wild tortoises everywhere here!!

Yesterday, we did about 10 hours of driving and about 900km. It looks like Dirkie (my Toyota Land Cruiser) is getting about 13.8 liters per 100 km. Which is something I need to know because I am hoping for some big overland trip this year and need to plan out my fuel stops and how much extra fuel I need to carry in Jerry cans.

The Karoo is endless and just so vast in every way – I LOVE it. It is such an incredibly harsh landscape. There are hardly any trees or bushes, just short dry grasses and shrubs. And it seems as if they are always in endless drought. It is amazing to me that anything can survive here. My friend, Michelle, who has done extensive camera trapping and small mammal trapping across the Karoo for her PhD (follower in on Instagram – @karoolady17) told that back in the Voortrekker days, there used to be so many springbok that when they migrated (which apparently used to be one of the biggest migrations before men put up fences, farms and killed out most of the springbok), it would take an entire day for the herd to pass by a single point. I need to look up more on where it ranks as far as land mammal migrations go, but from the tip of my memory (and this could be completely wrong), I want to say that it rivaled the Great Migration of bison in Kenya/Tanzania.

I have seen some cool birdlife during my drive so far along with farmed herds of springbok, sheep and even a big herd of Watusi cattle!! Ryno and I got a little lost and GPS had us turn a bit early trying to find the campsite yesterday evening, but the sweetest couple ever stopped to help us out and invited us to stop by the nearby airport this morning to say hi and learn about what they do there. I really think we should take them up on that!

If you have been following my Instagram, I have been trying to post more in my stories about the trip, so I hope that you have been enjoying it so far. There is a lot of videos of me just rambling and then photos of Ryno sleeping through the whole things and that is about it.

Much needed beer poolside at camp

Well, I think we are going to go ahead and pick up camp and start getting things ready to hit the road again. We have about 6 more hours worth of driving and then we will be in Cape Town!

Update: we made it to Cape Town and drove directly to the beach!!

2020 – does that mean we all have perfect vision now?

Hi there.

Welcome to a new decade!

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I will start this out in pretty much the same way I start out most of my blogs on here that are not designated for publication elsewhere, with an apology. I am so sorry that I have been really horrible at updating you. The only excuse I have is, well, life. Life happened. I think I am going to try and really make it a goal to post something, anything, even if it just is super short. And hey, if I post regularly, then I do not have to make these super long novels each time.

Okay. That’s out of the way, let’s move forward. I am not going to give you a super detailed report of the past two years or however long it has been since I have posted a proper update. Chances are if you follow my Instagram or Facebook stories you more or less have an idea.

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Our little crew for Christmas at Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi

So, where am I at now? I am currently in my house in Johannesburg that I have been renting since June of last year. I spent the holidays in Malawi at Majete Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park and am in Joburg for a week now and then am off to Cape Town on Tuesday. Ryno and I will be driving and sharing our trek across on the country on my Instagram stories, so be sure to check them out.

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We spent the last day of 2019 with this lioness and the rest of her pride in Liwonde National Park, Malawi

What the heck am I doing with my life? Great question. Let’s aim for a little simpler one. What is going on in my life right now? I am currently finishing up my Masters looking at camera trap deployment and how it influences estimating serval densities. Hence this upcoming trip to Cape Town. I am going to finish up my dissertation (knock on wood) in the office at UCT where my supervisors and colleagues are all based out of. While my focus is 110% on finishing this dissertation, I am also keeping an eye out for my next employment adventure. In the meantime, I have spent most of the past year working as a freelance ecologist, taking odd jobs for minimal payment or sometimes just for the experience of it and working on building up my CV. I do have a few ideas and different directions life can take me after this dissertation is finished, but I think I will wait a bit more before I reveal those to you.

How’s Ryno? He is doing great, currently, he has abandoned me in my office for the couch instead. I know he is going to love this next trip; Cape Town is one of his favourite places. He loves the beach and hiking in the mountains there!

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And Diesel? Unfortunately, he is not doing so great. He is my old man at nearly 11 and was diagnosed with liver cancer last year, so I made a special trip out to America to go and see my gentle giant one more time. If you know me, you know how important my furbabies are to me and saying goodbye to my soulpuppy was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am so grateful to my sister and her family for providing the most amazing home for him in his senior years. I am happy I did the trip when I did and that I was able to spend some good quality time with him.

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What else? Ummm…… I am having a bit of a brain fart, but if there are any questions you have, feel free to ask me in the comments or just send me a message and I will post them in my next update.

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Bringing Cheetahs to Malawi

As published in Africa Geographic on 13 December 2019 (www.africageographic.com)

A total of 5,645 kilometres… That is 845 km more than the distance across the United States of America, 2,500 km further when travelling east to west across Australia, and 2,845 km more than the distance across South Africa. That distance does not even count all the little trips in between, including the time spent travelling to and from the various holding sites along the way.

Three countries and 5,645 km later it all comes down to this moment… The gate is pulled open and everyone holds their breath, waiting. Cell phones set to video mode are held out, GoPros and professional cameras held steady. All eyes are stationed on the impala leg that is positioned just outside of the gate of the holding boma (enclosure)  a lure, an offering, one last easy meal before the uncertainty of hunting in the wild. After what feels like an eternity, a flash of spotted gold races out of the gate and passes the free meal. He then stops, briefly assessing the situation and his newfound freedom. The large male doubles back and grabs the leg before disappearing into the bush.

Smiles break out throughout the group and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. It has been a long journey of 5,645 km and now the first wild cheetah in southern Malawi in over 90 years has left his footprints in the soil.

🎥 The moment the male cheetah is released into Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi © Jo Taylor

Moments later, the sound of branches snapping and a bushbuck races past us, barking loudly, with a spotted predator in pursuit. There is a new danger on the block. The cheetah gives up his half-hearted attempt on the bushbuck and heads back to the meat that does not require chasing. He eats a portion and then heads off past ancient baobabs to explore his new home in Majete Wildlife Reserve.

The female cheetah, named Samara, remains cautious and on alert after being released into her new home in Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi © Jo Taylor A female cheetah, named Samara, remains cautious and on alert after being released into a holding enclosure in Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi © Jo Taylor

In the beginning of the 20th Century, over 100,000 cheetahs roamed Africa and Asia, but by the end of that century, the wild cheetah population had reduced to 15,000. Currently, the total population is estimated at 7,100 adult and adolescent animals, with 4,297 living in Southern Africa, 2,290 in Eastern Africa and 457 in Western, Central, and Northern Africa. Cheetahs are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN Red List, and have been eradicated from 90 percent of their historical range in Africa, while in Malawi the entire population was extirpated in the 1980s after decades of habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict and poaching.

Now, in a bid to restore what once was, a collaboration between African Parks, the Malawian Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has allowed five carefully selected cheetahs to be successfully reintroduced into Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve  with the hopes that this crucial founder population will help to grow the population range of this vulnerable big cat.

The cheetahs were donated by Welgevonden, Samara, Dinokeng and Madikwe game reserves in South Africa. Each individual was carefully selected via the EWT’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project, which creates safe spaces for cheetahs while managing populations across reserves to ensure genetic diversity. This reintroduction of five wild cheetahs, in conjunction with a successful reintroduction into Liwonde National Park in 2017, now increases the nation’s total population to 20 individuals. These translocation initiatives are critical for the preservation of the species – and they help to promote tourism, which generates vital funding for the parks and for local communities.

📷 Clockwise from top left: 1) Majete Wildlife Reserve rangers Nelio Stewart, Tizola Moyo and Dickson Kalikokha use telemetry to monitor and safeguard Majete’s black rhino population © Jo Taylor; 2) The Ford Wildlife Foundation bakkie (pickup truck), loaded up with the latest female cheetah, waits for all the paperwork to be checked over at the Mozambique border post © Jo Taylor; 3) Jo with rangers Dickson, Tizola and Nelio after a morning of tracking © Johan “Vossie” Vorster; 4) Jo using a high vantage point to lookout while monitoring the cheetahs © Johan “Vossie” Vorster; 5) Vincent chats with a little girl and her family at the Malawi border post as we wait for more paperwork to be checked before crossing © Jo Taylor

The most recent move of a female cheetah  named ‘Samara’  to Majete was by vehicle in a bakkie (pickup truck). Vincent van der Merwe (EWT Cheetah Metapopulation Project manager and National Geographic Explorer), Johann “Vossie” Vorster (National Geographic filmmaker) and I crossed three international borders to relocate her from South Africa to Malawi. The cheetah was a trooper as her transport container bounced along poorly maintained roads, waiting at border posts for all the correct documents to be checked over by officials, and travelling day and night for over 55 hours. At the border posts, people would gather around to try and get a glimpse of what was in the wooden boxed labelled with African Parks and EWT stickers. Rumours of leopards and tigers were whispered amongst the crowds.

Travelling through Tete in Mozambique was the warmest part of the journey, but thanks to Vincent’s innovative thinking, we rigged up a system to deliver cool air conditioning from the bakkie directly into the cheetah’s container. This kept her from overheating during the hot portions of the trip.

Many cups of coffee, packets of pistachios and power bars later we made our way down the winding roads to Majete’s gate, where the cheetah was able to stretch her legs in the holding boma. Here she will remain for a few weeks as she acclimatizes to her new surroundings, as did the other cheetahs prior to their release into the wilds of Majete. We have high hopes for this female and for the four other cheetahs who have travelled such vast distances to make this reintroduction dream come true.

Read more about cheetahs here: The Cheetah, and continue reading below for information about Majete, African Parks and the Endangered Wildlife Trust

📷 Clockwise from top left: 1) Preparing for the release of the two Welgevonden cheetah siblings © Jo Taylor; 2) Just before the big moment when the very first cheetah, from Madikwe, is released from the holding boma and into Majete’s wilderness © Jo Taylor; 3) Andrew, Jo and Vincent carry meat to feed the remaining cheetahs in the holding boma. The cheetahs were kept here for several weeks in order to acclimate to their new environment © Johan “Vossie” Vorster; 4) Vincent, Andrew and Jo take a breather after climbing to the highest point to search for signals on the telemetry set while tracking the cheetahs © Johan “Vossie” Vorster; 5) The male sibling from Welgevonden proves that he is more than capable of living as a wild cheetah in Malawi days after being released © Jo Taylor

ABOUT MAJETE WILDLIFE RESERVE

When African Parks assumed responsibility of Malawi’s Majete Wildlife Reserve in 2003, the park was practically devoid of all wildlife, and the charcoal trade was driving the systematic removal of trees. Since then, Majete has become a case study for positive conservation development, with a pioneering rehabilitation and restocking programme that has set a precedent for similar projects across Africa. Today, Majete is flourishing, so much so that wildlife is being moved to populate other parks and private reserves within Malawi.

Within five years of African Parks taking responsibility for the reserve, over 2,000 animals had been reintroduced, including black rhinos in 2003; elephants in 2006; lions in 2012, and a host of other wildlife – making this budding reserve Malawi’s only Big 5 destination with now more than 12,200 animals thriving within its perimeter.

Park management has maintained a 15-year track record of zero poaching of rhinos and elephants since their introduction; and tourism has increased 14 percent from last year, with over 9,000 visitors (half of whom were Malawian nationals) – bringing in over US$550,000 to the reserve and communities.

Although Majete is open all year-round, the weather conditions vary according to the season. The wet season occurs from November to March, while the dry season runs from April to October. Temperatures range from 11 to 40 degrees Celsius, depending on the season.

Map of Malawi and location of Majete Wildlife Reserve

ABOUT AFRICAN PARKS

African Parks is a non-profit conservation organisation that takes on the complete responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of national parks – in partnership with governments and local communities. Africa’s largest NGO (based on counter-poaching presence and area under protection), African Parks manages 15 national parks and protected areas in nine countries – covering over 10.5 million hectares in Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda and Zambia.

African Parks and Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) have been working closely together to rehabilitate habitat and restore biodiversity to the country’s parks since 2003, when a public-private partnership was formed for the management of Majete. African Parks subsequently assumed management of Liwonde (and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve) in partnership with DNPW in 2015, following the successful track record achieved in Majete.

ABOUT ENDANGERED WILDLIFE TRUST

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has worked tirelessly for over 45 years to save wildlife and habitats, with its vision being a world in which both humans and wildlife prosper in harmony with nature. From the smallest frog, to the majestic rhino; from sweeping grasslands to arid drylands; from our shorelines to winding rivers: the EWT is working with you, to protect our world. The EWT’s team of field-based specialists is spread across southern and East Africa, where committed conservation action is needed the most.

Working with its partners, including businesses and governments, the EWT is at the forefront of conducting applied research, supporting community conservation and livelihoods, training and building capacity, addressing human wildlife conflict, monitoring threatened species and establishing safe spaces for wildlife range expansion.

The female cheetah that we drove for over 55 hours cautiously explores her new home © Jo Taylor

A Story of Cats and Dogs

As published on Sapmok.com

“Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaants ingonyama bagithi baba”

It is 3:45 in the morning, the sun has not even thought about rising, yet my alarm is blaring, and I cannot help but smile (after first, in a half-awake frenzy, find my phone and shut off the alarm). 

For those of you who are not fluent in Zulu the above is from the intro of a song all of us are very familiar with. You know, those iconic words that no one really knows how-to-say-but-sings-them-anyway as the sun rises in the opening scene from The Lion King? That is them. Now you know. Sing away. (But seriously, is there a more epic alarm tone to have in Africa?) 

So, why exactly am I waking up at 3:45 in the morning? To go find the dogs. And I am not talking about my faithful mutt, Ryno, who accompanies me on most of my adventures. I am talking about African wild dogs. The second most endangered carnivore in all of Africa (second to the Ethiopian wolf). I “live,” and I use the term live loosely because I have a really nomadic gypsy lifestyle, but we’ll get into that later… anyways I live in Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa along the border of Botswana. Some days, often my favourite days, start out with finding one of the resident wild dog packs by using telemetry to listen for a “beep” in a sea of static that indicates the dogs are close. 

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I spend a few hours monitoring them, watching them and recording their behaviour – who is lying next to who? who initiates a hunt? when did they last eat? how far have they moved since they were last seen? These data are important for research which can help us in conservation efforts to save this incredible species. 

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One of the packs in particular that I monitor is a pack that was artificially formed. Often when wild dogs reach about one to two years of age, same-sex groups will leave their natal packs and range to find mates and start a new pack. This is to ensure better genetic diversity as opposed to mating within their pack where they are probably all related. Wild dogs can disperse extremely long distances, dispersal groups have been recorded travelling over 450 km before! And while that is an amazing feat, it is a huge problem in South Africa where many of our protected areas are fenced. To combat that, wild dogs are managed through a metapopulation system. The Wild Dog Advisory Group – South Africa keeps a studbook of the wild dogs throughout South Africa and humans then play a role in helping dispersal groups to travel the vast distances (usually by vehicle or by air) to meet other unrelated dogs and form a new pack. Think of it as a wild dog match maker service. Wild dogs are joined together in a boma to establish a bond and then once the pack looks cohesive, they are released into the reserve. This is exactly what happened with one of the Madikwe packs. Four of the females were born in Madikwe and left their pack to find mates, but there were no males in the area. So, four males were brought in from KwaZulu-Natal to meet the ladies. And now I follow them at the crack of dawn to make sure they are all still getting along and acting like a pack should while recording valuable data that might help in future artificial pack formations. 

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And this is not even my day job. Well, I guess you can call it my dawn and dusk job? I am a research technician for Panthera. Panthera is the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems. This is where my gypsy lifestyle comes in to play. No, I absolutely cannot dance to save my life, but I do travel. A lot. The longest I have stayed in one location consecutively in the past two years was for five weeks. Have Cruiser and dog, will travel is basically my life motto.

My position at Panthera has me setting up and running camera trap surveys nearly all-over South Africa collecting data on leopard population trends and densities. How often do you just go out and see a leopard in the bush? Unless you are in the Sabi Sands, the answer is probably not as often as you’d like. We use motion-activated camera traps placed strategically in key sites to capture images of leopards as they walk past. Did you know that a leopard’s spot pattern is unique to the individual? Just like our fingerprints. Using these unique spot patterns, we can identify and count individuals, and then over time find out what leopard populations are doing. With that information, conservation strategies can be created to combat the decline in leopard populations. Cool, hey?

Oh wait… there’s more. These cameras catch a whole lot more than just leopards. They take a photo of anything that walks by. Using the data from the camera traps, I am also looking into population densities of another spotted African cat – the serval. Very little scientific research has been done on servals, and we want to know what is going on with their populations. And if you do not know what a serval is, I suggest you go and Google it right now. Don’t worry, I will wait. Are you doing it?

Cute, hey? Servals are super elegant, long-legged, big-eared hunting machines. But they are extremely elusive and predominately nocturnal which means they are not seen often at all on safari and many people do not even know they exist. All that leads to them not being of much interest to donors wanting to spend money on conservation. Lucky for us, leopards are “sexy” and people like spending their money on sexy. Servals can benefit from the money spent on the conservation of leopards. We just need someone willing to do the analysis – which is what I end up doing during my “office days” after spending the morning monitoring wilds dogs. (See look, we just circled back to the beginning). 

Basically, if you are still reading all of this, you might have figured it out by now, I pretty much live and breathe conservation. Which is why I was so ecstatic to not only find a company like Sapmok, but to have the honour to become an ambassador for their brand. The leather comes from ethical tanneries (there is even a vegan line) and they focus on environmental responsibility. I practically live in my vellies, so finding a company with such strong values and such a quality product has been a game changer for me. 

“The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.” – Fabienne Fredrickson

Back into the wild… and with boyfriends.

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African wild dogs, also called painted wolves or painted dogs, are the second most endangered carnivore in all of Africa (behind the Ethiopian wolf). Today, there are somewhere around 6,000 wild dogs left in fewer than 25 countries. One of the causes of the rapid decline in population numbers is disease, but another reason is the increasing number of conflicts between humans and wild dogs.

Wild dogs live in packs that range across huge territories, traversing up to 50km in a single day. As subadults mature and leave the pack to find mates, they disperse across even greater distances. With less and less wild spaces available for them to go, wild dogs are increasingly coming into conflict with humans. Wild dogs are very efficient hunters and have one of the highest hunt success rates, around 80% of all wild dog hunts are successful. Because packs share meals with each other, they must hunt often. When they move into areas shared with humans, natural prey sources are less abundant, and livestock may turn up on the wild dogs’ menu if they are desperate. Farmers often will shoot any dogs they see, sometimes even tracking down dens and leave poison out for the pack. As wild dogs travel great distances, they run into poachers’ snares that were set for other game.

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With so many odds against them, it is now up to us to help ensure there are wild dogs in the future.

An international meeting was held in Pretoria in 1997 where the decision to adopt the a metapopulation strategy for wild dogs in South Africa. A metapopulation is a group of geographically isolated populations of the same species, in which an exchange of individuals occurs via dispersal, migration or human controlled management. In South Africa, there are only pockets of safe wild zones left that can support wild dogs. There are a few free roaming packs in the country, but the majority of the wild dog population reside in fenced reserves. While this is imperative for the safety of the wild dogs, it does impede on the ability for dogs to naturally disperse and migrate between packs. So, humans have to get involved artificially create the migration process to ensure new genetics are mixed throughout the country.

Madikwe’s resident wild dog population consisted of 14 of dogs. Late 2018, five young females started to venture away from the pack more and more – they were in full dispersal mode. Young wild dogs, usually of the same sex, will leave their natal pack in search of new mates to avoid inbreeding with related pack members. This behavior is called dispersal. Madikwe realised if they did not do something soon the girls were going to push their luck and attempt to break out of the reserve since there were no non-related male wild dogs with in the reserve. Out of the safety of the reserve boundaries, the dogs would face peril at every turn in the human adapted landscape outside of Madikwe.

What is the solution for stopping the girls from escaping and keeping them inside Madikwe?

Males. (Hey, it is Valentine’s Day after all, let’s think of this as a love story.)

A group of four males from KwaZulu-Natal were also searching for a new home. The Endangered Wildlife Trust coordinated the arrangements to bring the males to Madikwe. Unfortunately, you cannot just bring two wild dogs to the local wild dog park and have them play some fetch and become friends just like that. It is slightly more complicated. Ecologist have found that the best way to smoothly integrate new wild dogs together is to anesthetise all of the dogs and then to rub them together. Yes, that is correct. You literally pick up each dog and physically rub that dog over all of the other dogs. This transfers each of the dog’s individual scents on to the other dogs, making them all smell the same or as if they were in one pack rubbing against each other during meals and socialisation. Once all of the dogs have been properly rubbed up, you lay the dogs touching each other and wake everyone up at the same time. It is best to leave them a nice fresh meal to distract them from the new dogs. By the time everyone wakes up and has eaten, they have reinforced the scent rubbing and the hopes is that they will accept each other.

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Well that is the hope anyway. And things looked really great for the first week. All nine dogs were eating meals together regularly and appeared to be getting on. After about a week however, the new males singled out one of the females that had taken slightly longer than everyone else to wake up and fully recover from the anesthesia. They started violently picking on her, biting her and pushing her away from meals. Even her previous packmates turned against her. After sustaining wounds, Dr Scheepers was brought out to treat the female. Upon closer inspection, while the female was tranquilised, we realised how bad the extent of the damage was, and the decision was made to send her to the animal hospital at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa in Pretoria. She is still on the long road to recovery but is getting stronger every day.

Meanwhile, back at the boma, the now eight wild dogs began bonding and a hierarchy started to form. After weeks of observation it became clear that the dogs have chosen an alpha pair. The pack was ready to go back into the wild once more.

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13 February 2019 turned out to be the perfect day. The overcast weather brought cooler temperatures, ideal for some wild dog exploring. A carcass was brought into the boma as usual for the dogs to feed upon, but this time we tied rope to the carcass. As the dogs began to feed on it, the carcass was slowly dragged out of the gate. Just like fishing. But on land. And without a hook. And with dogs instead of fish. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t just like ­­fishing, but you get the idea. The dogs followed suit of their meal and left the boma behind.

The Madikwe girls were back home in the wild, and now they have boyfriends. We are very excited for this new pack and look forward to what the future will bring for them.

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!)

-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! I cannot wait to unwind a bit, shut off from work for a week and just take in the island life.

– 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.

Male lions have manes, male leopards have… dewlaps?

Mature male leopards are not only at least 60% larger than females, but they also are broader, have larger chest girths and larger, longer heads. There is something else that you may notice about mature male leopards – their large necks are adorned with a loose fold of skin that hangs from the underside of the neck. These skin folds are called dewlaps. Dewlaps are often seen in different species throughout the animal kingdom, most notably in certain birds, lizards and hoofed mammals. In mature male leopards, a well-developed dewlap is prominent and is one of the best ways to distinguish age. However, the function of the dewlap remains unknown and largely unexplored.

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Image from one of my camera trap surveys – I dubbed this guy “BigBoy” ©Panthera check out http://www.cameracatalogue.org for more!

It is speculated that these enigmatic ornaments are linked to sexual selection or male fitness as they are sexually dimorphic, meaning they are only exhibited in one sex and not in both sexes. When discussing another markedly sexual dimorphic feature amongst cats, the mane of a male lion, Charles Darwin wrote, “the mane of the lion forms a good defence against the one danger to which he is liable, namely the attacks of rival lions.”  The idea behind this hypothesis is that adaptations, such as body armour or weaponry like antlers on male deer, increases the ability of males competing against other males. The winner often is the male that gets to mate with the female and passes on his genetics. Results of more contemporary research, however, indicate that injuries sustained during fights between lions do not appear to differ between maned and non-maned subadult males nor female lions, suggesting that the mane/neck area is not a high target region during fights. Instead, observation shows that the back and hindquarters seem to be the targeted areas during these confrontations. Biologists believe that the role of the mane of a male lion is an indicator of sexual fitness. Studies using life-sized toy lions sporting contrasting mane colours and lengths found that male lions are more likely to approach the lions with lighter, shorter manes and female lions are more drawn to males with darker manes. This suggests that the shorter, blonder maned males are less intimidating to rival males and thus have a perceived lower fitness.

The theory can be applied to hypothesise about the functions of a dewlap on a male leopard. However, fights between elusive male leopards are rarely observed and documented by scientists. This makes it difficult to confirm if the leopard’s dewlap has any defensive functions or if it may serve a similar purpose to that of a large, dark mane in sexual selection due to it being an indicator of fitness (and longevity).

Fighting with other males has potential to lead to injury or death. Even the smallest injuries can fester and inhibit hunting abilities leading to decline in body condition and may result in death. Another speculation about the dewlap is that it simply makes the mature males appear larger and more intimating to rival males. Typically, as a male leopard ages, his dewlap enlarges in size. Mature males hold larger territories and have more opportunity to mate with females. This also means that there are more opportunities to come into conflict with other males seeking the same territories and females. It would be ideal to avoid physical confrontation and potential injury by being able to display fighting capability and fitness to deter potential rivals without physically engaging them. Younger and smaller males may be dissuaded from engaging in a fight with a larger male sporting a more pronounced dewlap. Alternatively, oestrous females may select males with larger dewlaps suggesting that the male has higher fitness. Studies have not yet been conducted to determine if dewlap size correlates with testosterone levels or linked to reproductive success but may be indicative of longevity.

While more research into the function of a male leopard’s dewlap needs to be conducted to either confirm or deny these hypotheses, we do know that dewlaps can be used when assessing the male’s age. As a male matures, his dewlap become more developed and is most prominent in males seven years of age and older.

 

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Imaged sourced from Panthera.

While the function of this loose skin fold on a male leopard may currently remain a scientific mystery, we can still appreciate the bravado that this physical feature gives to the impressive silhouette of a mature male leopard stalking through the dark.

Survey One of 2018: Complete

Well, the field work portion of it anyways… now on to the computer side of getting it all organised and prepped so we can load it up on CamCAT! I cannot wait for you all to see this survey. Again, I apologise now for all of the vehicles, but I promise the animal photos are worth it! I hope we have some brown hyaena lovers out there – this site is teeming with them!

I still owe you a more detailed post and I will get that up soon, but until then here is a little video montage of the first survey of the year that I am running.

Enjoy! 🙂

Twitting, mountain views and lions

Why hello there, you. Thank you for stopping by my blog, and if you came here via an email notification because you are one of my millions (okay, maybe not millions – more like 27) of email followers, then a double thank you and a huge hug! And if you are not an email follower, but want to be one of the first to know when I do post a new blog, photos, videos, etc all you have to do is enter your email there on the right of this post under “Follow along on my adventures.”

And speaking of followers… I did something this week. With a bit of encouragement from Philip, I have joined the Twitter world! I now tweet (it is tweet right? Twit? Twat? Haha… ahem) from the field! I also post SUPER fun games such as “guess who destroyed my camera trap” and lots of cool animal selfies just prior to said camera trap being destroyed. So, if you are ahead of me on this whole Twitter game and are already on Twitter, you can follow me at @tigerbushcat – wait, do I type “at @” (hehe this just made me think of an AT-AT) or is just “@” sufficient? Ah man, I have so much to learn. I swear that I am a high-tech millennial. *cough*.

Why “TigerBushCat”? Good question – tiger bush cat is the direct translation of tierboskat which is the Afrikaans word for serval and if you have been keeping up, I kinda have a thing for servals. Not to mention (oh look I am doing it anyways), my MSc project is looking at serval densities and occupancy within South Africa. Cool.

Moving on.

This current survey seems to just have flown by! I feel like I have been saying that a lot lately… In less than two weeks I will be wrapping things up here and heading out to the next survey site – after a brief stop over in America. I think one of the reasons it has just flown by is that, unlike my survey site last year, I have been all over the place during this survey. I have had to make three trips to Joburg, a trip to another one of our sites early on to pick up a survey kit (remember the buffalo story?), and just last week my field assistant, Michelle, and I drove about 6 hours to another Panthera survey site to bring up a kit and help there with setup. This particular setup was a such a great experience and probably the most fun I have had on a setup so far! It was a site that I had never been to before and I really did not know what to expect. Unlike many of our survey sites which are on a single reserve or park, this one is a combination of multiple farms and properties spread across a mountain. You want to talk about views? Let’s talk about views…

Check out the view from my cottage at their research camp. I swear this is work and not holiday. But seriously, just look at that! I got to brush my teeth to that view for nearly a week.

Philip Faure, the community engagement officer and carnivore research coordinator works with the landowners in that area and has helped to organise permissions for us to deploy camera traps on these private properties. The landscape of some of these farms was also very different than anything else I have experienced in South Africa thus far. Thankfully, Philip drove as we navigated nearly sheer rock faces and roads that I am pretty sure have not been driven on since last year’s survey – if ever.

When doing a setup at a site ran by that place’s ecology team or volunteers, I more or less bring the gear, help choose camera locations within the predetermined sites (ie. which game trails to cover, rhino middens to avoid, etc), and assist with physically placing and programming the cameras before heading off on my merry way back to my current site that I am running at the time. After that survey is completed, I then head back and pick up the collected data and gear. Setup can take anywhere from two days up to a week depending on how accessible the station sites are. Because this particular site required lots of driving to different properties and lots of opening and closing of gates, this one took us four days to setup.

Wild game on these farms is exactly that – wild. Because of this, sightings are much more fleeting than the sightings I have gotten accustomed to on reserves with animals that have become habituated to vehicles. But in a way, that almost makes them more special. While scoping out a new farm for the perfect location of two new camera stations, Philip pointed straight ahead and exclaimed, “that’s a leopard, bru!!” Yes. Bru. *shrugs* Of course neither Michelle nor I saw the supposed leopard, bru, that dashed across the road and into the bush. But not long after that, as we were making our way around a bend I had my turn to exclaim excitement (minus the bru) at seeing a leopard! This one was probably around a year old and what we would call a dependent (still relying on its mother). It was not nearly as quick to disappear as its mum (guessing on the first being mom, but it would make sense) and everyone in the bakkie had a quick glance. Too quick for a photo, so you will just have to take my word for it, but it was still remarkable to see a truly wild, non-fenced leopard. As I said previously, each leopard sighting is something special.

The rest of setup went great and in no time, Michelle and I were back on the road heading “home” to our survey site. I can tell you that I am definitely looking forward to going back for pickup and taking in those beautiful mountain views again. One of the greatest perks of my job is how much I get to travel and how fortunate I am to be able to see so many different parts of this incredible country. Another perk is getting to meet amazing fellow ecologists and conservationist and exchange knowledge, field stories as well as friendship.

Back to our usual weekly checks and we were blessed with another remarkable lion sighting (actually we have had two great ones just within this week). First thing in the morning and somehow there were no other vehicles or anyone else around, so we had the sighting all to ourselves = animal sighting perfection!

Check out this sunrise that morning too!

Just down the road part of the Central Pride of lions were making their way in search of their next meals. Four stunning male lions accompanied by two lionesses walked down the road directly towards my bakkie. I pulled over to the side of the road and snapped away on my camera as they made their way closer and closer.

The leading female, who was must have had a litter of cubs somewhere (you can tell by the lactation stains on her teats from suckling cubs), simply strolled past the bakkie as if we weren’t even there with her huge belly gently swaying back and forth with each step. She was followed by a younger female who paused a moment to rub at an itch on her nose before seeming to even notice us for the first time. She glanced up and down the bakkie before deciding we were not very interesting and, too, continued on her way.

Two of the males also strolled directly past us within such close proximity I could SMELL them. Anyone who has worked with lions in a zoo knows that smell quite well. For the rest of you, a lion smells like a musky and very dirty house cat who has been playing up in the attic all day with a pinch of that familiar cat urine smell and mixed with a touch of old meat that lingers on their breath. Lovely, hey? Smells aside (well, actually included since they just added to the experience), it was an incredible morning of camera checks. Have I mentioned how much I love my job?

Now go follow me on Twitter! @tigerbushcat

xx,
Jo

Big Cats: Predators Under Treat

Can you imagine an Africa without lions? Within the past century wild lion populations have declined from as many as 200,000 down to only 20,000. Their numbers have dropped by 40 percent just in the past 20 years (and 90 percent within the past 75 years). I am 28 years old – within my lifetime, wild lions have almost halved their population numbers, what do you think is going to happen in the next 20 years? They are already extinct in 26 African countries.

The leopard is likely the most persecuted large cat in the world. Slaughtered for their stunning spotted coats and other body parts which are used for ceremonial regalia, killed in conflicts with people and through poorly managed trophy hunting and suffer from the loss of prey due to bushmeat poaching. They are extinct from six countries, and likely six more. Leopards have vanished from 49 percent of their historic range in Africa, and 84 percent of their historic range in Eurasia. They have the largest range of any wild cat and yet, are still in trouble and facing a grave future. There are fewer than 70 wild individuals of the subspecies, the Amur leopard left in the world. 70.

The cheetah may be known as the fastest land mammal, but they are quickly disappearing as well. They have vanished from approximately 91% of their historic range. There are estimated to be less than 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild today. The Asian cheetah is nearly extinct with fewer than 50 individuals left in central Iran.

The tiger. My personal favourite animal. I have been obsessed with them for as long as I can remember (seriously, just ask anyone in my family). They are the largest of the big cats. They are also the closest to extinction. There are only 3,900 tigers remaining in the wild. Of the subspecies of tigers, three (Caspian, Javan, and Bali) are extinct and one more (South-China) is likely to be extinct in the wild. They have disappeared from 96% of their historic range.

And I am sorry to say that I have never had the privilege to see a tiger in the wild, so until that day I can only share a photo of a captive Amur tiger that stole my heart while working as a zookeeper for the Pittsburgh Zoo. Photo taken by Amanda Westerlund.

The jaguar, the puma, the snow leopard… all big cats (and we are using the expanded definition of “big cat” here) are under threat.

I will be completely honest with you, I am nearly in tears just writing this. These numbers are devastating – heartbreaking.

But this is not the end. Not yet.
We can still make a difference. Today, the 3rd of March, is World Wildlife Day and the theme is big cats.

I have dedicated my life to wild cats and their conservation. I am not asking you to drop everything and move to the bush, but I am asking you to help. Educate yourself. Read about these remarkable creatures and the plights that they face. Learn about the illegal fur and parts trades as well as the illegal pet trades. Read stories of conflicts between farmers, locals and cats. Find out about real conservation efforts and distinguishing them from the fake conservation efforts of companies that profit from petting, feeding and “walking with” big cats. Do not support, ‘Like’ or share photos of people petting, bottle feeding or treating wild cats as pets. Do not spend holidays or money supporting organisations that promote tourist physically interacting with big cats. Most of those cats end up in the canned hunting trade or even worse. Watch the documentary Blood Lions. And if you have the means, donate. That is honestly one of the best things you can do to help. On the ground conservation is not cheap. We need support to keep fighting this battle. If you cannot donate money, then donate your time. One great way (no bias here, of course) is you can help in research by becoming a citizen scientist and taking action, even from the comforts of your home. Log on to Camera CATalogue and help us to classify animals from camera trap surveys throughout the world and including the surveys that I run here in South Africa.

Check out my company, Panthera’s website to learn more about big cats and ways you can help – http://www.panthera.org or join me and get involved on CameraCATalogue at www.cameracatalogue.org

So please do something for big cats today – and use Panthera’s Facebook Frame for the day, use the hashtag #istandforbigcats to show the world your support.

Help us reverse these numbers. Help us change fate. I stand with big cats, do you?