Cat House

Nancy Vandermey, Author
Botswana CCB Trip Nov 2003

Africa 2003 Africa 2003 Africa 2003 Africa 2003

My fourth trip to Africa began with an email to the wildcats mail list. A new organization called Cheetah Conservation Botswana was looking for volunteers for a minimum one-month time period. The cost (which goes directly to the project and also covers lodging, meals, and transportation costs for the volunteer) was an extremely reasonable price. Other similar volunteer opportunities are much pricier, especially if they are coordinated through another organization. My boyfriend Eric and I quickly determined that only November 2003 worked for both of us, and I contacted CCB to see if they had room for us. We also mentioned to them that we could donate veterinary supplies from the zoo in the US we both volunteer at. We soon heard that we were accepted for November and began to make travel plans. My old favorite website for international airfare, cheaptickets.com, was replaced by Orbitz.com which found much better itineraries and prices this time around. In addition to the month in Botswana, we wanted to spend a day or two at the end relaxing, and I contacted a friend in South Africa that arranges safaris for advice. He informed me of prices for a few Botswana game reserves, which were quite pricy. I decided to just return to Mala Mala in South Africa, where I had spent a few days 2.5 years ago. I could arrange that reservation and flight directly through Mala Mala, and with those dates set, tried to make our international reservations. The flight to and from Jo'burg was booked through Orbitz, but the flight from Jo'burg to Gabarone had to be booked separately due to the 2 days at Mala Mala. There I ran into some difficulties - there are only 2 airlines that fly that route, and while booking South African Airways is not a problem from the US, their flight times did not match what we required. The other airline, Air Botswana, had the right flight times but can't be booked through any online reservations sites. I ended up calling Air Botswana directly to book that ticket. The months flew by and we collected the supplies needed for our adventure. We debated on what the living conditions would really be like - we knew we would be staying in 'chalets' and sharing a bathroom and kitchen with the other 2 volunteers. We thought there would be no electricity and that we would have to heat water over a fire. We were in for a pleasant surprise, as a gas stove and refrigerator had just been installed the day before we arrived.

Rebeccah Klein, the CCB project coordinator, met us at the airport in Gabarone. Her boyfriend was there too, with his 1960's VW bug, into which we fit all 4 of us and all our pile of luggage. We were to spend the first night at Mokolodi Nature Reserve and meet one of the other volunteers, Emmanuel Esther from France. The other volunteer, Lorraine Liwiski, had arrived a week earlier. The CCB office is located at Mokolodi, which is just outside of Gabarone ('Gabs'). The 3 of us went for a walk to the nearby dam and heard snorts in the dark - wildebeest, we determined later. There was also lightning in the distance, and some rain overnight, After a bush shower and another walk in the morning, the project veterinarian Kyle Good picked us up for a visit to Mokolodi's two tame cheetahs Duma and Letotse. They were orphaned as cubs and are very tame. They purred as we petted and posed with them. We then met the field biologist Ann Marie Houser whom we would be working with for the next month. Also, the project's very first volunteer Jenny was leaving that day. After a quick trip to the local grocery store, bottle store, and some lunch, we were off to Jwaneng, a town about 150 km from Gabs where the field project is currently located. A very large diamond mine run by Debswana Mining Company (part of DeBeers) is located there, and they have established the Jwana Game Reserve around the mine itself. Many animals have been introduced into the reserve - kudu, impala, springbok, eland, gemsbok(oryx), zebra, wildebeest, duiker, steenbok, giraffe, and red hartebeest - and are doing well. The only predators are small ones - brown hyena, cheetah, and jackals mainly, with a few leopards. Warthogs dig holes under the fence around the reserve, and the farmers around the reserve claim that the mine's cheetahs are killing their goats and cattle. The project is radio-collaring cheetahs in the reserve and collecting other data to determine if this is true. They also talk to local farmers about ways to protect their animals, such as timing the births of their animals to coincide with the births of the wild game animals, redesigning their corrals ("kraals") to keep cheetah out, or keeping an aggressive mother donkey with their herds.

On arriving at the game reserve Ann Marie stopped at a 'crime scene' on the way in. A hartebeest lay under a tree - was it a cheetah kill? She told us how to read the signs and tracks. A cheetah kill will usually have its neck twisted back from the cheetah lying across the animal's body to strangle it, and you may be able to find the mark made by the cheetah's dewclaw when it pulled the animal down. This kill had been made by several cheetahs, either a mother with cubs or a coalition. We then met Lorraine and settled into the chalet, which turned out to be a small "A" frame building with two comfortable beds and a table. Emmanuel had brought a tent and we helped him set it up on the soft sand. We would be tempted to pitch a tent of our own a few nights, when the bugs invaded the chalet through the many gaps! Ann Marie lived in a trailer a short walk down the road, past the transfer pens for holding cheetahs temporarily. She had worked in Namibia before with the Cheetah Conservation project there, learning pen design and all about cheetah research. The pens have shade cloth on the walls so the cats can't see humans, as even wild adult cheetahs will become habituated to humans quickly in captivity. We all got settled in and were ready to start work at 7 am the next day. We stopped by the mine offices to meet Chris, the mine's game reserve officer, and Simon, his helper. Ann Marie drove us around the park. We learned how to tell cheetah tracks from brown hyena and jackal and baboon tracks, and heard how a leopard track would look different. Part of our job for the next month would be to note cheetah, hyena, and leopard tracks on a map of the park. If fresh cheetah tracks were found, we would set up a trap to try to catch and radio-collar it. They had caught and collared a female with 5 cubs the previous month, but it appeared her collar had failed - they couldn't find her signal in the past week. But her movement pattern had been established, and they continued to find her tracks in the park. We also looked for playtrees, which are trees or tall termite mounds of a certain shape that cheetahs use as communication stations, marking them with scat to tell other cheetahs who is in the area. We would also be mapping roads in the park, as the maps supplied by the mine were very outdated. We found many kills by following the 'smell of death". We found many hartebeest kills, as well as a young eland and female kudu, all larger than normal cheetah prey - is it because they are the top predator here? We also saw many birds - the camp birds were sparrow weavers and masked weavers, as well as a vulture family across the road. Black winged korhaans were ubiquitous while driving around the park [movie-noisy bird], and we also saw several pairs of secretary birds, a martial eagle, various smaller raptors, a woodpecker, yellow-billed hornbills, turico sunbird, and several kori bustard, Africa's largest flying bird. We enjoyed hearing and seeing two large thunderstorms our first two nights in camp, the days were dry but hot and humid. The rain brought many different wildflowers - Ann Marie had never seen the park so green. One day as we were driving the outer fenceline, we found several goats had entered the reserve. We pushed a few back through the warthog hole they had climbed through, but couldn't catch them all. We wanted to keep the youngest one to use as cheetah bait, but it bleated too loudly. Later on the drive, we heard a loud metallic noise..what could we possibly have run over? Oops, the driveshaft had fallen off. Simon had to come rescue us - luckily Ann Marie's cell phone had coverage where we were so Simon could come fetch us.

Ann Marie's friend Wayne visited, he helped fix things around camp and scoop disgusting smelly mud out of an old waterhole by the cheetah pens that we were turning into a swimming pool. We went on a night drive with a spotlight and saw jackals, an armadillo, springhare, and ..glowing green eyes.. Cheetahs! Probably the collared female and a few of her cubs. We looked at her tracks that night and the next morning to see how they aged. Other nights we played card games like spoons and pig. When Ann Marie had to go to Gabs on business, she took Emmanuel along to drive back a donated Land Rover. In the meantime Eric and Lorraine and I worked on the cheetah pens, picking up endless bits of wire the workmen had left in the pens and filling in dirt in the walkways. We used extra shade cloth in the area for various projects, such as a hammock and a screen door for the chalet. Eric made a shade tarp for the back of Ann Marie's truck. We would be driving to Maun, a 9 hour drive, and with the tarp one person could sit in the back with 4 in the cab. The back of the truck turned out to be the most comfortable position! It was a VERY hot drive. 3 hours in between gas stations, cold drinks and chocolate at every stop. We saw many wild burros, cattle, and goats, and a few ostriches. The TransKalahari Highway had just been completed a few years earlier; it used to take 2-3 days to drive to Maun. In Maun we met with Chris Kruger of Okavango Wilderness safaris. He owns a farm outside of Gumare that he is developing into a tourist property, and has indicated we can release problem cheetah there so Ann Marie needs to check it out. After spending a night at his Maun worker's compound and enjoying dinner at a local restaurant, we make the long drive to his place, arriving just before a beautiful sunset. We see tracks of several leopards along the way, and deep sticky mud. It's a magical moment when 9 wild dogs (pair plus 7 large pups) arrive at the waterhole and stay until dark. After dark we are visited by zebra, wildebeest, and an elephant at 3 am. There are no fences allowed in this area as it's an elephant migration route. We were close to the border of Namibia.

On the drive back we have to pick up a cheetah trap at a farm, and all are grateful to spend the night at Grace and Chris Kitching's farm outside of Ghanzi. They take care of 8 captive cheetah, orphaned when their mothers were killed. We enjoy a chicken "poikee" meal, and play spoons for vodka shots with their friends. The next day we visit another farmer and talk about nonlethal predator control, such as the swing gates he installed to keep warthogs from digging under the fences. The farmers in this area think cheetahs are very common, and more of a problem than leopards because they kill more often. We have a long drive home, and it's after dark for the last 2 hours - in a thunderstorm. It's very dangerous driving at night with the donkeys, cattle, and goats on the road, and we almost hit several. The next day (Friday) there is a predator control talk in Jwaneng that Ann Marie, Rebeccah, and Kyle are going to, while the volunteers relax. As we're about to leave for a picnic, we hear that a cheetah had been killed by a car the previous Sunday. We split up and look for cheetah tracks. Simon shows the body to Emmanuel and Lorraine, while Eric and I find a wonderful fresh set of tracks (adult plus at least 2 cubs) near a waterhole less than 2 km from camp! We go look at the body and I find it to be a young cat, maybe 1.5 years old. We are relieved it's not the collared mother. Kyle and Ann Marie collect bones for further studies. The next day while looking for tracks again, Eric and I see two young (about 6 months) cheetah cubs running away from us! We set up a trap near the waterhole. We catch a baboon that night, and another the next day. We need better bait than the guinea fowl we're using! We also finish cleaning the pool, and have a lot of trouble removing the plug we used to shut off the water flow. We watch shooting stars and satellites that night.

Monday morning we start our work. Eric and I drive roads mapping the west half of the park, using GPS because the land rover has no odometer. At 4:15 pm we decide to call it a day and head in by a scenic route. What's that crossing the road in front of us? A cheetah! I climb on the roof and see 3 more to our right, which rejoin the 4th one behind us. All are similar sized - is it a coalition of adults, or a mom with 3 large cubs? We head in to tell the others, going a little too fast approaching the gate, when - another cheetah runs across the road in front of us! We slow down, look to out right, and there's ANOTHER cheetah, very young and terrified of us! We keep driving, as we don't want it to cross the main mine road again which they had both just crossed. In the meantime, Ann Marie had borrowed a young goat from a local farmer and put it behind the cheetah trap. Our trap setup had the bait in a small cage, the large cage right next to it, with acacia branches blocking access except through the open doors on each end. A pressure plate in the middle then releases doors on each end when the animal steps on it. The bait is unharmed. The next morning, we all drive out to check the trap. We stop some distance away and observe with binoculars. The trap gates are down, but is anything in it? I look to our left, and there behind a bush is a cheetah! In the trap is another one [movie]. In fact there are two to our left, both then walk over to the trap and visit the captive one. All are adults, so we assume it's a coalition of 3 males. Cheetahs in the wild are known to form coalitions of adult males, while adult females live alone. We transfer the captive cat to a squeeze box, then to a holding cage that we replace the goat cage with. Now instead of using goats for bait we use the cheetah itself - its friends will come to visit, and the only way to get next to their friend is to enter the trap cage. I reset the trap cage, getting hissed at by the captive as I do so. We return the goat to the farmer, it's done its job. We go off to track the first female (named Jenny) - her collar was working again. At lunch we lounge in the pool, ah. Eric and I do more road mapping that afternoon, finding some beautiful open plains in the northeast of the park. The springbok are starting to lamb. A thunderstorm rolls in as we see 11 giraffe. Upon returning, we learn that a second cheetah had been caught! The others have transferred it to the holding cage, while the first has been released into the large cheetah pen we spent a lot of time working on. The next morning we are all confused at what we find at the trap - the 3rd cheetah has been caught, but an adult female with 2 cubs is also visiting outside the traps! We move the 2nd cat to the pen, the 3rd to the holding cage, to see if we will trap yet another cheetah. Kyle the vet will be here the next morning (Thursday) to perform physicals and place a radio collar on one cat. We would like to have satellite collars, but they are very expensive. A big goal for the project is to get an ultralight aircraft, so we can track multiple cats without spending all day driving around the reserve. Also, when other research areas are established in Ghanzi, Maun, and the Tuli block, the project will have to have a plane to monitor all 4 areas regularly. Ann Marie is eager to get her pilot's license! In the afternoon we track Jenny again, map more roads, and build an examination area near the cheetah pens.

Wednesday night is not as bad as Tuesday at least. We made the mistake of turning on the large outside fluorescent light Tuesday, which attracted every bug for miles around. Also, many many VERY FAST scorpions! We vowed to never use the outside light again, and had to kill many bugs in our chalet. Thursday morning I woke up feeling something squishy in bed with me - it was several small green inchworms! We had started seeing these the day before, but now there were a lot more. I did laundry at 6 am as the worms made cocoons in our clothes and sheets. We hear a loud chorus of frogs as we approach the pool area, and find 54 frogs all busy mating [video]! Luckily their eggs come out in long strings and we can scoop most of them out before they turn into tadpoles. The other 3 cheetahs do not return, so we put the 3rd captured cat in the squeeze box and wait for Kyle and Rebeccah to arrive. The cheetah sits in one corner of the squeeze box, and guess who gets all the weight - me! Ann Marie goes over the different jobs we will be assisting with (health chart, medicine chart, measurements). Blood, fur, and skin samples will be collected. Kyle uses telezol, and the cat goes down fast. We had overestimated its weight, thinking it was male. Surprise, it's a female. She weighs 37 kg. We name her Diana. Females get ear tags and transponders on the left side. We take pictures of her spot patterns for future field identification. This one doesn't get the collar, as we are hoping to put that on a male. The other two are together in the pen, and we have to get one in the small pen. The transfer system works smoothly, and this one is soon in the squeeze box. Another surprise - not only is this one female too, she's very far along in a pregnancy. They are both 4-5 years old - what are adult females doing hanging out together? This has never been seen before in cheetah studies in other countries, such as Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. They decide to collar the pregnant one, whom we name Maria. The third one turns out to be another female ('Sophia") of about the same age, possibly pregnant as well but not very far along. DNA testing will determine if they are related, and hopefully the collar will tell us if they stay together as a female coalition. Could the other female with the 2 cubs have been part of the group, and left when she had kids? CCB has picked a great place to start their research in!

We return to the chalet at 4 pm to find it invaded by several hundred green worms! Over the next few days we have to sweep it out 2 or 3 times a day, and Eric tries to plug all the gaps with toilet paper. We track Jenny again that evening with Kyle; they spend the night to see us release the cats. The cats run out of the cages very fast, but we get a few good pictures.

That afternoon we find the signal from Maria's collar. We cook another chicken poikee meal to celebrate Lorraine's last night in Africa. She and Ann Marie go off to Gabs early the next day. We go to find Jenny, follow the beeps, and...there she is! Mother and 5 cubs all cross the road in front of us. It's a cool wet morning - we also see a jackal. That afternoon we spend hours listening for Maria's signal, with no luck. Dinner is filet mignon, which is very cheap here and super yummy! I finish the map finally that evening. Suddenly the air is full of white butterflies - could that be what the green worms turned into? On Sunday we do Jenny first, it takes us a long time to find her as she has not followed her standard movement pattern. We have a lazy Sunday afternoon and watch a movie at Ann Marie's. On Monday morning Eric and I go off to find Jenny, triangulate in on the beeps and flush her and the cubs out of the grass, 30 feet away from us. We celebrate with a picnic far out in the park with masked weavers, and see 12 vultures in a tree on the way back. In the meantime Emmanuel and Ann Marie spend 6 hours listening for Maria with no success. It's possible she/they have left the park, Ann Marie will try to arrange an airplane this weekend if we haven't found her. We laze in the pool again, then clean the cheetah pen and paint the doors to rustproof them. On another night drive that evening, we see giraffe, a genet and then spot 6 pairs of eyes in the grass - it's Jenny and the kids! It starts to rain on the way back, and pours and thunders all night. On Tuesday it's Eric's and my turn to spend hours not finding Maria. Eric spots a young springbok lamb in the grass, and I remember that their defense mechanism is to not move, so we walk right up to it and take pictures. Another wonderful game drive is followed by a waterfight that afternoon, as no one feels like working in the humidity. In the morning, Eric and I get to track Jenny, but she isn't following the pattern still and it takes us 4 hours of driving to get a signal. But we did see 5 ostriches. We start to clean camp, as we'll be leaving early Friday morning. We also go shopping for a fest Thursday night - it's our last day in camp, and also happens to be Thanksgiving in America. Eric and I walk to a nearby tower for the sunset, and find fresh cheetah tracks of an adult and 2 cubs. If we were staying, we would try to trap them. Thursday morning the 3 volunteers go to find Jenny and again it takes 4 hours! It's satisfying but sad to hear our final "beeps". We clean camp, and get ready for dinner. We are treated to an absolutely gorgeous sunset [pic 1, pic 2, pic 3], and eat roast chicken, fillet mignon, mashed potatoes, Greek salad, and chocolate mousse. YUM!

Friday we drive to Gabs early, hang out at Mokolodi for a while, and go to the local mall. Eric downloads all his memory sticks onto a CD so we can leave one with the project. Dinner at Mokolodi that night, the 4 of us plus Rebeccah and Dino, Kyle and Barney, John and his friend who built the squeeze cages, and Wayne's friends Phil and Karen. Wayne joins us later - Eric, Ann Marie, and I are spending the night at his place. Eric and I have a 7 am flight to Jo'burg on Saturday. We then connect to a flight to Mala Mala in South Africa, but weather forces the flight to land at Kruger International Airport in Nelspruit, so we enjoy an unplanned 90 minute drive through the countryside and see buffalo and rhino. We meet our guide for the next few days, Tim, and settle in at Harry's Camp. Our first game drive starts with a herd of 40-50 elephants, and they aren't happy! One aggressive female chases us [movie] several times, and kneels to dig dirt and throw it at us. There are many babies with this herd! We also see a hippo out of water, 3 ground hornbills, and part of the Eyrefield pride of lions, 2 adult females with 4 two year old cubs. After dark now, we see a large spotted genet and...Tjololo, the Rock Drift male leopard, star of a National Geographic article and TV show. We enjoy dinner and our comfortable hotel room. There's another couple in our group, and a father/son originally from South Africa but living in London now. On the morning game drive, we start with buffalo and rhino, much cat food like this waterbuck, great flying raptors (vultures, tawny eagle, bateleur eagles), and then see a fat sleeping Newington Male leopard. At breakfast we hear the Kapen female leopard and her daughter are at a kill nearby - do we want to go? Of course! The kill is a male impala, hidden under a bush on the bank of the dry Kapen river. The Kapen female herself is under a bush on top of the bank, and hisses at our vehicle. Her daughter is much more relaxed around vehicles, and proceeds to put on a show of stretching and repositioning herself a few times in the shade. As we all think "Go up a tree!' towards her, she obliges, crosses the road directly behind the vehicle, and tries out a few positions in a tall tree nearby. Finally comfortable, we snap away from multiple cameras, and even drive right underneath [movie] the young leopard.

Our last evening game drive begins at 4, and we head south to where another driver is tracking lions. We see tracks of a large male, and then go into the riverbed where 12 lions are snoozing. They are all very full, but whatever they ate is hidden in the reedbeds. There are 10 members of the Eyrefield pride including 4 adult females, 2 8 month olds and 4 3 year olds, plus one of the old West Street males, and the 5 year old male. They posed with perfect late afternoon sun [movie]. We went a little ways away to have a sundowner drink. Two blackbellied korhaans were flirting nearby - much quieter than the noisy korhaans in Botswana! Lilac breasted rollers are another beautiful bird. After dinner we checked on the lions again, but they weren't going to be moving anytime soon. We returned to the Kapen female and her daughter at the impala kill. Mom was snoozing, but the daughter was tearing away at the remnants - chewing off an ear, and ripping at the neck. We returned to the lodge for dinner, which turned out to be impala steaks. They were very yummy, much better than ears I'm sure. We watched our last African stars from our patio. The morning game drive returned again to the leopards, where the daughter was posing in a tree again, a smaller one this time. Ranger Nils Kure was there being interviewed, as his book "Living with Leopards" had just been released the previous day. Eric bought me the first copy sold at Harry's. We went off to look for the lions without success, although Tim was trumpeted at by an elephant as he was checking the riverbed for tracks. A beautiful woodland kingfisher visited at breakfast, and all too soon it was time to depart for the 43 hour journey home.

Photos: Copyright Eric Barkalow and Nancy Vandermey

Donate to CCB! As a new project CCB needs both money and materials, as well as volunteers.

Money: Tax-deductible contributions can be made through the Wildlife Conservation Network
  • $50 provides 50 educational booklets OR anesthesia, an ID chip and disease testing for two wild cheetahs
  • $100 provides a large mobile corral for protecting livestock in communal farming areas
  • $300 purchases a radio-collar to track one cheetah
  • $550 buys a camera trap used for cheetah studies and identification
  • $1000 pays for fuel and vehicle repair for 3 months
  • $2500 provides a satellite collar, needed to study cheetahs who roam across country
  • $3600 funds the salary for a full-time local Community Development Officer for one year
  • $18,000 buys a used 4-wheel-drive truck, needed because CCB currently relies on borrowed vehicles

Materials:Contact CCB or myself about getting these to Africa:
  • Laptop computer
  • 2-way handheld radios
  • microscope
  • power point projector
  • centrifuge
  • endoscope

Volunteers: See Cheetah Conservation Botswana website