Big Cat Conservation Management on Shamwari Game Reserve

Big Cat Conservation Management on Shamwari Game Reserve

Posted by James Whiteman on 22nd Aug 2013

Big cat conservation plays an important role on privately owned game reserves such as Shamwari in South Africa. They control antelope numbers and attract cat lovers from all over the world who want to view them in their natural habitat. While most safari goers only see the beautiful carefree side of these cats, a lot more hands-on management goes on behind the scenes. Keeping big cats in a fenced natural area is a massive responsibility and there can be big consequences if they are not monitored closely and managed well.

Leopards for instance are nocturnal and solitary, occupying and defending massive territories. Electric fences have never stopped a leopard from crossing borders and therefore it is important to become familiar with individual's movements. If one ends up on a neighbour's sheep farm we want to know about it before it gets shot.

Lions are easier to manage as they are large, sociable and easy to find. They are quick breeders with very short gestation periods of just over 3 months and they give birth to 3-6 cubs at a time. Lions feed roughly every 3 to 4 days and usually gorge themselves, consuming up to 1/8th of their own body weight. They are also very opportunistic hunters and will readily catch prey if it wanders too close, even after they've eaten. The fact that they breed so quickly and eat so much can have a negative effect on antelope numbers on a reserve.

The cheetah may be the fastest land mammal but it is the weakest of the large cats on Shamwari. They are currently threatened by genetic inbreeding, their offspring are often killed by lions and their food is often stolen by other predators. Having cheetahs on your reserve can also have a huge ecological impact on prey numbers on the reserve. These cats hunt at least every second day, but their biggest effect on prey numbers happens during lambing season. Antelope species such as springbok and blesbok have fixed breeding and lambing seasons and when the first lamb drops, a lot more follow. As these little lamb snacks are slow and provide little meat, cheetahs take advantage of the situation and kill a couple of lambs a day. If your reserve's predators are not monitored and managed well, antelope population growth could be stunted dramatically.

This month on the Shamwari Conservation Experience, volunteers got the first-hand experience on the methods used on Shamwari to better manage our large cats. The beginning of August 2013 was set aside for doing just that. We darted and gave two of our lionesses a contraception implant. This slow-release pill lasts about a year, is about as small as a rice grain and is injected just under the skin. It allows them to continue their natural reproduction cycles without any permanent sterilization.

We also darted and radio-collared a young female leopard which enables us to track her movements, making sure that she is alive and inside the reserve. The two cheetah brothers in the south of the reserve will stay in a coalition for life and therefore only on one of them needs a tracking device. After darting one of the brothers, it was taken to Shamwari's animal hospital where volunteers watched Dr. Johan Joubert implant an internal tracking transmitter. We released it the next afternoon with its brother.

Without management practices such as contraception and tracking devices safeguarding these rare animals on the reserve would be almost impossible. Practising active management when it's needed can prevent unethical damage control such as the elephant culling controversy.

By volunteering on the Shamwari Conservation Experience you will get a better understanding on the management of a reserve and a once in a lifetime behind the scenes experience.

This blog is thanks to Cindy Stadler


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