A week ago, I arrived back in the States after 30 hours of travel (not including the day of driving from Neuras back to the N/a’an ku sệ headquarters near Windhoek). In my final week at Neuras, I wrapped up the fieldwork and finished sorting through the photos. The final count is over 150,000.
One aspect of the fieldwork I haven’t mentioned previously is the lure we used at the dry sites. From the outset, Flo and I were concerned about motion blur from the infrared flash for nighttime photos. We needed the carnivores to stand still to give us clear enough photographs to identify the individuals. Water sites weren’t an issue because the animals stand still as they drink. But at dry sites, we needed a solution. Many camera-trap studies use carnivore scent lures. Our goal was less to lure them to the site than to provide an attraction that would cause them to stop and sniff long enough to collect motionless photos. In Namibia, however, we did not have access to tailor-made carnivore lures and we had to improvise. Flo suggested that a Chanel fragrance would likely interest leopards and hyenas. Then a friend told him that leopards are partial to Calvin Klein For Men cologne. Before I travelled to Neuras, I went into Windhoek and found a store that sells Calvin Klein fragrances, and at each dry camera-trap site, we place a scented rag midway between the cameras.
For many weeks, animals showed minimal interest in the rag. On a few occasions, animals did come to investigate, but not the large carnivores in which we are most interested.
In fact, it’s impossible to say if it was the scent that attracted them, or the rag fluttering in the breeze as in the case of the goshawk. More importantly, out of the hundreds or observations of wildlife at the dry sites, these few cases of animals showing clear interest in the rag do not offer much evidence that the fragrance actually has an effect.
So you can appreciate why what happened next perplexes me.
These two cheetahs, the two males that I discussed in a previous post, spent more than an hour at this camera site playing with, and at one time chewing, the scented rag. We didn’t see the two of them act like this at other sites. So what’s different?
Curious to see how other cheetahs would react to the fragrance, I accompanied Matt to the Namib Carnivore Conservation Project, a joint project between the N/a’an Ku Sệ Foundation and Solitaire Guest Farm. The project includes the care of six ambassador cheetahs—individuals that are unfit to live in the wild but are integrated into ecotourism activities and conservation outreach.
Matt and I went out to feed the cheetahs but first, we tossed scented sticks nearby (we didn’t want a repeat of the cheetahs chewing on rags). The ambassador cheetahs barely glanced at the stick. They appeared completely disinterested, though it’s hard to say if their disinterest stemmed from being hungry and wanting their food. We made plans to repeat the experiment when it wasn’t feeding time, but we had to cancel when the Foundation had to mount a rescue mission for a leopard that a farmer trapped and threatened to shoot.
Clearly, this playful behavior is not common, but it did make for some fantastic photos.
After three months in the field, it is difficult to transition back to my life in the States; I miss Neuras already. But I am pleased with our accomplishments. We saw evidence that cheetahs and hyenas use the estate but that it does not constitute a core area for individuals from those species. We identified three leopards that regularly inhabit the estate, and we discovered the presence of the three cubs, who merit close monitoring. We also learned that oryx rarely venture south of the Tsauchab River and that the mountain zebras are less common in the low-lying areas in the center of the estate. I still have many questions, particularly about which leopards inhabit the canyon lands in the southeast, but fortunately Matt and Kate will be able to continue researching the carnivores and hopefully they will provide answers.