Here Kitty Kitty...Luring Cheetahs for Conservation Research
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Photo by Federico Veronesi
Robo-Goat! A wire lawn reindeer wrapped in goat skin.
Cheetah Jane collared by ACK. Photo by Mary Wykstra
Setting up my first camera trap in July 2011
Caracal caught on camera investigating cheetah bedding.
The most unique of the world's cats. Photo by Peter Barber
Amazing cheetah. Photo by Peter Barber
Among the zebras searching for the perfect bait station site
With ACK staff member, Jimmy
About the project

Description of the project and research questions being asked

Cheetahs are racing towards extinction due to habitat loss, human conflict, and loss of genetic diversity. In order to create and implement sufficient conservation measures focused on this species, characteristics such as home range, demographics, and population vitality must be understood. Biomedical sampling and radio-collaring is the most reliable method for obtaining the information needed to create successful conservation management plans. This of course, requires that cheetahs be captured.

But, how do you catch the world’s fastest land animal? The answer might be found in a high fashion perfume or a life-like robotic goat. These are just two of the five bait types I’ll be using to lure cheetahs to camera-traps in southern Kenya. Photographs from the camera-traps will be analyzed to determine if there is a specific bait type (scent, sound, or moving object) that is specifically attractive to cheetahs.

Discoveries from this research will present solutions to the problems inherent within current cheetah conservation plans. I am working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the conservation group Action for Cheetahs in Kenya to carry out the research. It is my hope that this ground-breaking research will allow the Kenyan government and conservationists to get the cheetah sprinting in the direction of a healthy and sustained population.

Why this matters and should be exciting to backers

Cheetahs in other countries are live-caught at ‘playtrees’ by traps situated at the base of the tree, to which the big cats simply walk in. Unfortunately, there are no recorded instances of cheetahs in Kenya utilizing playtrees. The current method for luring cheetahs in Kenya to traps is with a goat; however, disturbance by humans and other predators limit success.

Captive cheetahs demonstrate interest in perfumes. In one study, multiple cheetahs showed preference towards one specific perfume. This perfume might be successful at luring cheetahs to traps.

Despite a strong sense of smell, cheetahs are visual; being most specialized at stalking and chasing prey. Lure courses are often used to capitalize on this instinct in captive environments. Therefore, moving items that mimic cheetah prey might successfully lure the animals to traps for capture.

Farmers report that when setting up multiple traps, all it takes is to capture one cheetah and others will be lured in by the distress call. Captive cheetahs have been shown to investigate the source of the sound of vocalizing cheetahs played back on a Dictaphone.

These facts, coupled with pilot studies of captive cheetahs, led me to determine what bait types to test in the field.

What your money can do

Your dollars will directly impact the intensity and quality of my study but adding an additional five bait stations. This means that I will have the opportunity to test a wider variety of bait types. This will increase the likelihood of discovering specific cheetah bait. Extra cameras will allow me to obtain a larger sample size, which means greater statistical significance of study results.

This research stems from an important partnership with the conservation group Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK). ACK has worked in Kenya for over a decade in an effort to conserve cheetahs through community-based education and research. Extra funds raised through this research will go directly to ACK's conservation efforts. Please visit www.actionforcheetahs.org to learn more about ACK and the work that they do for cheetahs and for local communities in Salama. 

Potential discoveries

A study like this has never been done before, so all results will be a discovery! Even the pilot studies offered exciting discoveries. For example, most captive cheetahs found the same three perfumes interesting. After conducting an analysis of the compounds found in the perfumes, the San Diego Zoo was able to isolate six common chemicals. I am now testing this "home-made perfume" on wild cheetahs to see if it might be the perfect cheetah bait (the liquid has been proven safe for cheetahs).

Whether cheetahs are more attracted to a fancy perfume or to a mechanical goat (among others), it is my hope to find a bait that works. Discovering bait would be a huge step forward in cheetah conservation.

In the extremely unlikely case that cheetahs are not attracted to at least one of the bait types tested, we will discover other aspects of animal reaction to certain scents, sounds, and moving objects. In July 2011, I began to test my thesis question while interning with ACK. I set out a pile of soiled cheetah bedding and analyzed photographs from camera-traps at the site. I found that jackals would repeatedly visit the bedding and roll in it for up to 10 minutes at a time. This is a strong reaction! Findings such as these, even when the subject is not a cheetah, will be furnished to the appropriate wildlife conservation groups for use in their own analysis. We might be able to save more than just the cheetah!

Biography

Large carnivore conservation and community-based education are two of my leading passions. This interest was initiated in 2006 when I spent three weeks in Peru working with communities to implement conservation management strategies focused on predators. The experience inspired me to work to develop the skill-set needed to put my passion into practice. After graduating from Western Washington University in 2007 with a BA in Environmental Education, I landed my first job with Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. It was here where I fell in love with big cats. 

I have since refined my skills as an educator, researcher, and environmental compliance specialist though work with non-profits, zoos, and a consulting firm. These skills are now helping me achieve my goal of conserving imperiled carnivores, such as the cheetah.

Additional Links

http://www.centerfortropicalecology.org/students/hermsen.cfm

http://www.actionforcheetahs.org/

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