Cheetah Tracking for the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project (2 of 2010)

Aug 15, 2010

MISSION  28  of  2010

Name of Mission: Cheetah Tracking for the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project (1 of 2010)
Date of Mission: 15 August 2010     
Beneficiary: Gus Mills of the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project
Aircraft used: Sky Jeep
Pilot: Andrew Conroy

Objective of Flight

Kgalagadi cheetahs have large ranges. Without the aid of radio collars it would be impossible to study the movements and life histories of individuals which are crucial to understanding the factors that limit their population.  However, even with the collars we sometimes lose contact with our cheetahs as the range over which we can receive a signal from the ground is limited to about 15 km at best, while the cheetahs can move over as much as 1000 square kilometres.  In such instances the solution is to get up in the air where the detection distance is doubled and it is possible to cover ground much more quickly than from a land-based vehicle.

Beneficiary’s story of the mission: By GUS MILLS

We had recently lost contact with a female called Sharlize and her four large cubs. After searching from the ground for the best part of three weeks we decided to call on The Bateleurs for help. As usual prospective pilots were speedily contacted and soon Andrew Conroy and co-pilot Derrick van Zyl were on their way from Kimberly in Andrew’s Sky Jeep. Last time Andrew visited us we had had some trouble receiving radio signals through the antenna which we mounted on his plane. I had hoped that this time we had solved the problem, but unfortunately for some unknown reason we were once again unable to get reliable readings on direction. However, we decided that if we could just get an indication of where Sharlize was, from the air, it would greatly simplify our ground tracking efforts, so we took off just after sunrise.  We first flew over the area that she usually frequents and although we picked up signals from two other cheetahs we heard nothing from Sharlize’s collar.

Every five minutes or so I asked Andrew to do a 360° circle in order to scan as large an area as possible for a radio signal.  As we flew ever further out of her usual range I was beginning to wonder if her collar had stopped transmitting.  Once I thought I had heard a faint signal, but it was only background radio noise.  We were nearing Mata Mata and the Namibian border and would soon have to turn back when, on one of our 360° circles I heard a definite but faint signal. At least now I knew the collar was still transmitting. The next 15 minutes were very frustrating as we tried to home in on the variable signal, loud and clear at times only to fade as I indicated to Andrew the direction I thought she was in. Eventually we decided to cut our losses and fly back to Twee Rivieren with a GPS point that I thought was the most accurate location to use as a start for a ground search. I was particularly interested to see if her four 16 month old cubs were still with her, because it is at about this age that the cubs separate from the mother.

A few hours later we returned to the GPS point for the ground search. I climbed the highest dune in the area hoping for a signal, however, not for the first time that day, I was disappointed. We were unsure of what direction to travel so decided to make a wide circle around the GPS point. As luck would have it on about the fifth dune I picked up a faint signal. We now had a direction and within two hours we finally located Sharlize and were interested to find that her cubs were still with her.

Many thanks to Andrew and The Bateleurs for this much valued assistance. We now need to investigate the problem with the antenna so that in future our Bateleurs flights can be even more effective.

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