Survival instinct kicks in for Sir Bani Yas cheetahs
Last Updated: February 22. 2010 12:57AM UAE / February 21. 2010 8:57PM GMT
The dim-witted gazelles of Sir Bani Yas Island usually don't realise they're being stalked until it's too late, when a short chase ends with a cheetah's jaws latched mercilessly around one of their throats.
This elemental battle between predator and prey was once commonplace on the Arabian peninsula, but it's been decades since the last wild cheetah was seen in the UAE. The gazelles grazed peacefully until last year, when, as part of the fulfilment of Sheikh Zayed's goal for Sir Bani Yas Island to become home to a plethora of species, African cheetahs were reintroduced and set free to prey on the island's population of more than 5,000 sand gazelles.
It turns out the gazelles are not the only ones being stalked.
Almost every day – and usually a couple of times a day – for most of the time since the cheetahs were released in May, the research and conservation officer Aimee Cokayne has headed to the salt dome at the centre of the island, picked up a battered, H-shaped antenna and scanned the horizon as if she was the owner of an old-style television searching for reception.
The receiver into which the antenna is plugged picks up signals from radio collars worn by each of the three cheetahs – two brothers and an unrelated female – that roam the island. A fourth cheetah, another female, is penned within the park and being readied for release.
The reason for such close monitoring is that the cheetahs were raised in captivity at the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, and without the natural education process that they would have undergone in the wild, their ability to survive without intervention is unsure.
This "rewilding", as its dubbed, is an unknown and uncertain process. For Cockayne's boss, Marius Prinsloo, a veteran of big game conservation in his native South Africa who was tempted out of retirement to look after the island's animals for TDIC, the process is so unprecedented that nobody is entirely sure what would happen.
"We didn't know how they'd behave because they came from a zoo environment," he says. "We need to see how they're progressing, what they're hunting and what their preferred habitat on the island is. There is a lot of research that's needed."
At 87 square kilometres, the securely enclosed Arabian wildlife park that makes up 60 per cent of Sir Bani Yas feels a little like a hobby farm to Prinsloo, who was used to dealing with game reserves 10 times the size.
But the size belies both the intensity and the importance of what goes on there. With several species such as the Arabian oryx now extinct in the wild, this population will be key to their intended reintroduction.
Other species, such as the striped hyena, are also extinct in the UAE but cling on in other parts of the peninsula.
"The cheetah was endemic to the UAE," Prinsloo says. "They went extinct in the Middle East in 1972. We're hoping that through a collective breeding programme, we can rewild these in the UAE. The hyena is also a species indigenous to the UAE but it's widely believed to be extinct in the country. For six years, we've seen none."
When the four cheetahs arrived at Sir Bani Yas in late 2008, they were kept in a 24-hectare enclosure at the reserve's western edge, where the rewilding process began.
"Initially, we were very worried they would not adapt," Prinsloo says. "Rewilding is quite an involved process that goes on over a very long period. You have to be very involved with the animals but make sure the animal doesn't become dependent on you. It consists of keeping your distance and getting the cheetah to do what it naturally does.
"We've managed to be very successful. You have to teach the animals to hunt and to identify prey. You need to teach them all these processes. Much of this is still part of the research programme.
"It's a very involved process that can take as long as a year. In less than a year, we've had them successfully hunting."
Safira, a three-year-old female, was the first cheetah to be judged capable of fending for herself in the park. The gate that links her pen to the rest of the reserve was left open and she was able to come and go as she pleased, relying on the secure water source and familiarity of the enclosure.
A few months later, the three-year-old brothers Gabriel and Gibbs were also allowed to roam freely and hunt as a pair, only occasionally meeting up with Safira.
The three have proved capable of fending for themselves. Ella, a 10-year-old female, remains in the enclosure.
"One of the things we're finding is that the cheetahs are able to take much bigger prey than we thought," Prinsloo says. "We thought they'd stick to sand gazelles but they've been hunting and taking axis deer and blackbuck. They've been hunting these regularly.
"Cheetahs' hunting technique is built on speed, going out running behind their prey. It's very different to lions and leopards, which will lie in wait to ambush. It can be quite hard to teach the cheetahs to go out and run.
"It's very much instinctive. Cheetahs are natural hunters and have an instinct to hunt and kill. They're born with it.
"We're harnessing their instincts and teaching them how to use them. That's where success lies in rewilding; they're using their natural instincts."
That instinctive hunting style is invaluable because it would have been almost impossible to teach them how to hunt the traditional cheetah way, which is to chase the prey, trip it from behind and then grab it by the neck until it suffocates.
"We hoped that the carnivores – the cheetahs and the hyenas – would work in tandem," Prinsloo says. "They control numbers in a natural way."
That predation was required in part because of the efficiency with which the gazelles within the reserve have been breeding. Even with the cheetahs hunting almost every day, the gazelles' numbers have been booming. The managers have taken to separating males and females in a bid to inhibit the population growth.
"Bringing in carnivores was a way of doing that," Prinsloo says. "The reason we decided on cheetahs is that they will hunt every day and won't interact with humans because they are shy by nature.
"They will stay away from people and won't be aggressive towards humans if we have them free ranging," he says.
That shyness will be important when one of the boutique hotels planned for the island – a savannah-style lodge located within the wildlife reserve – opens. The idea is that guests will be able to sit on their balconies and look over one of the dozens of irrigated grazing patches as wildlife such as Arabian oryx feed.
"We're working with other breeding centres in zoos and other wildlife centres in the UAE and possibly in the GCC," Prinsloo says. "We can start exchanging animals for the breeding programme for the greater good. It will become a very important area globally and very important regionally.
"Sheikh Zayed wanted a world-class facility that will bring people from all over the world."
That wider view is part of the plan for the animals of Sir Bani Yas. Another TDIC hotel, Qasr al Sarab in the Empty Quarter, is planning a similar adjoining wildlife park where the Arabian oryx and other species living on Sir Bani Yas will be released.
But all that is in the future. For now, the monitoring continues. Sean McCann, another of the Sir Bani Yas rangers, uses the radio tracking to locate Gibbs and Gabriel.
In midafternoon, it is an easy process because the two cheetahs are sleeping in the shade of trees in their enclosure until the heat abates.
Just before dusk, we try to find them once more, and receive a lesson in how tracking is as much an art as it is a science. McCann's antenna picks up transmissions from the cheetahs' collars as well signals bouncing off the surrounding hills. Given all the false signals, other factors have to be brought into play to find the cheetahs.
One is a good knowledge of the island, so that the dips in terrain in which they could be hiding are accounted for during the scans. With line of sight, the signal can be detected up to 5km away.
As we drive around towards one of the cheetahs' potential locations, McCann notices that the gazelles usually in the area have disappeared.
Although gazelles are not the brightest creatures in the firmament – when we were in the cheetahs' enclosure, we found several had wandered inside – their sudden absence suggests the cheetahs have been around.
But as we get among a series of rolling hills, the signal fades and disappears, and we're back to square one.
After more driving around and finding high points at which McCann scans the horizon for signals, dusk turns to night and we abandon the chase for the evening.
Cokayne joins us as we resume the effort the following morning, driving to the highest road on the island and scanning the horizon once more. Her detailed knowledge of the cheetahs' habits proves the crucial extra piece of information.
"I've got a signal," she says. "They're on top of the mountain."
The pair had killed an unlucky gazelle that morning and now, with their bellies full, are sleeping off the meal. Just like household cats, this pair chose a high point so they could look down on their domain.
Gabriel and Gibbs tend only to eat the hind quarters of the gazelle, after which the hyenas move in to finish off the rest. With two hyena pups having been born on the island – a first for hyenas that grew up in captivity – the plans to rewild the island are all falling into place.
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