Kruger Help for Kalahari African Wild Cats
by Michele Hofmeyr
Since 2003 Marna Herbst, a PhD student from the Mammal Research Institute (MRI) of the Department of Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria, has been learning more about the private lives of Kalahari African Wildcats. Part of the research is also to investigate the genetic history of these cats, who are thought to be the wild ancestors of our domestic cats.
Fitting the collars was not an easy business. Initial attempts to lure the cats into baited traps were unsuccessful. These cats are extremely nervous and were suspicious of the traps. If they were eventually trapped, they become extremely aggressive and difficult to handle. A specialized operation was needed to capture these wily cats. As the welfare of the animal is paramount in any capture operation, a capture system had to be developed to reduce any risks of injury or stress during darting.
This is where the vets, Dr Peter Buss and Dr Danny Govender, from Kruger National Park Veterinary Wildlife Services were on hand to help out. Having been involved with the previous darting operations to fit the collars, they were able to refine their darting technique. Care was taken to reduce the weight of the dart, by using a small 1.5ml dart. A short needle was fitted to the dart with a rubber stopper to absorb some of the dart impact and to prevent injury to the animal. The dart gun was sighted prior to the capture operation so that it could hit a medium sized apple at 10metres. “We needed to have the right pressure so we could dart the cat without causing it any harm” explained Dr Peter Buss.
Once the team was within 10 metres of the cat, Dr Buss was able to dart it with a tranquilizer drug. Once the anaesthetic took effect, the collar was removed and the body condition carefully checked. All the vital signs were closely monitored and small hair and tissue samples were taken for genetic testing and biobanking. After testing a series of drug combinations, the vets were able to wake up the cat within a few minutes, using a reversal drug. This was shown to be the most effective method, as previous drugs tried, meant the animal would sleep for a few hours and would need to be constantly monitored. The vets and Marna were pleased with the results of the capture operation. “With the help of a small skilled team, we were able to work smoothly and quickly” said Dr Buss.
The end count was 22 wildcats darted and checked. Each darting operation lasted little over an hour, so with the cat up and about in a few minutes, the capture team could see the cat bound off into the dark Kalahari night.