The AfriCat Motorbikes, Harley, Aprilia, Ducati and their mate Starsky!
The beginnings . . . .
Harley, and his two sisters, Ducati and Aprilia – aka ‘The Motorbikes’ – arrived at AfriCat at the age of five months back in 2009. Their mother was shot, and after the farmer caught the orphaned cubs he kept them in a chicken cage for four weeks. Yet again another sad story of the condition of cats when they arrived at AfriCat . . . They all showed signs of calcium deficiency, skew legs and limps, however, after getting introduced to the right food enriched with vitamins and mineral supplements, their condition improved visibly.
Starsky came to AfriCat together with his brother, Hutch, as three-month old cubs; sharing the same history as The Motorbikes – their mother had also been shot. Due to their similar ages, Team AfriCat introduced these two groups of orphaned cheetah cubs to one another; however, six months after a successful introduction, Hutch sadly died due to natural – unknown – causes, whereas Starsky remained with his new companions.
The release . . . .
After almost six years of captivity, the anticThe AfriCat Motorbikes, Harley, Aprilia, Ducati and their mate Starsky!ipated day finally came, when space opened up in the 200km², Okonjima Nature reserve, and in September 2015 Harley, Starsky, Aprilia and Ducati were released into the wild. In preparation for their release, all cats were fitted with a VHF-radio collar and additionally received a hormonal temporal contraceptive implant to
1) prevent breeding (AfriCat believes that as long as there are cheetahs in captivity that are waiting in line for rehabilitation and their second chance in the wild, reproduction should be lowered to an extent that first allows the rehabilitation of our captive cheetahs), and
2) to increase chances that a coalition of cheetahs will also remain in that coalition after their release. We have found this to be one of the basic conditions for their survival – when a coalition of previously captive and inexperienced cheetahs are released into the wild.
There have been three occasions witnessed (Oct 2015, Dec 2015, April 2016) where the two males, Harley and Starsky were found in close proximity to our oldest coalition of cheetahs, ‘The Siblings’ – Coco, Spud and Bones, who were released in May 2010. There has also been one occasion, where the girls have had another encounter with the dominant trio. (Dec 2015)
In the past, The Siblings, who use to include Hammer, (killed by a spotted hyaena in Nov 2011), always seemed to be rather intolerant of the presence of other cheetahs and often reacted aggressively, even seen killing cheetah cubs.
Bones – as well as their brother Spud, who sadly passed in December 2015 – received a temporal contraceptive implant in July 2015. Coco, was re-contracepted because she has been on contraception since her release in 2010, due to a weak back leg that was broken when she was a cub and which never healed correctly. The contraception might be the reason why there has been more tolerance shown towards the Motorbikes – this observation and theory is still very young, but it might be a way forward when groups of rehabilitated cheetahs are released into an area from where they cannot migrate?
Contraception in females, suppresses the production of two gonadotropin hormones and thus prevents menstrual cycling. In males the implant effects the testicles and sperm production, and thus, a decreased production of testosterone, as less testosterone is directly linked to less aggressive behavior. Over the past years we have observed that group behavior doesn’t seem to be affected by temporal contraception, except the fact that coalitions tend to stay together longer and captive males were found to be less aggressive. These two side effects have proved to be beneficial for the purposes of rehabilitation since larger coalitions are more vigilant and tend to detect danger faster than a single individual, and male cheetahs have shown less aggressive behavior towards other rehabilitated non-coalition members.
Even though The Siblings didn’t exactly show amiable behavior towards the Motorbikes on the 4 witnessed occasions when both groups encountered each other, there was definitely less aggression involved while the two coalitions circled each other with some snarling and high-pitch yelping, but no vicious attacks were recorded.
At AfriCat, the cheetah and leopard contraception programme started in 1998. The ideal contraceptive for wildlife should have no side effects. It should be safe, as it is also used also in pregnant females, should have minimal effects on behavior, and it should not pass through the food chain. In many cases a reversible method is preferable to permanent methods so that animals can breed again at a later stage, especially among the rehabilitated carnivores. At AfriCat, we prefer our inexperienced carnivores to focus on honing in their skills, through trial and error, learning to hunt and to survive the dangers, instead of coming on heat and producing young while they themselves are still ‘inexperienced survivors’ of the wild.
Because Okonjima is an island-bound nature reserve, in the middle of thousands of commercial farms – the perimeter fence must protect these carnivores from being persecuted by man if they were ever to leave the safety of the 55,000acre wilderness, If these carnivores were to feel dominated by other cheetahs, or threatened by a high density of leopard, they may feel that they have no choice but to try to leave this area of safety; another reason to continue the contraceptive programme.
Read more: Contraception in wildlife.
Before their final release into the 20,000 ha nature reserve, The Motorbikes and their mate Starsky, were transported to a 5 ha soft release / recovery enclosure we call Alcatraz, due to its isolated location within the Okonjima Nature Reserve. It also has high, predator proof, electric fencing for protection against other predators. The cats spent three days at Alcatraz before the gates of freedom eventually opened for them. A soft release gives the released animal more time to orientate itself in the new environment. It also gives them a chance to acclimatize before their actual release, and to restore their energy reserves which may have been depleted from previous handling and transportation.