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, which are thought to be the wild ancestors of our domestic cats.
This valuable research project has been made possible due to the generous sponsorship of the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). Working in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the cats (which are most active at night) have been monitored using specially designed VHF collars supplied by Martin Haupt. Marna was able to track the study animals to learn more about their nocturnal habits. 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 specialised 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 risk of injury or stress during darting. Although these elusive cats have a fierce reputation, care and skill is needed when trying to dart them. Their slight body stature makes darting difficult and potentially risky as a heavy dart could result in a serious injury.
African wildcats had not been darted in the wild before, so the vets had to test various systems and drug combinations to see what would be the most effective method. 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 10 metres. "We needed to have the right pressure so we could dart the cat without causing it any harm," explained Dr Peter Buss. Most of the capture work was done in the area north of Twee Rivieren in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Since all of the work is done at night, a spotlight was used to locate the selected cat.
"With practice, you can recognise an African wildcat by the reflection of their eyes and the way they move in the spotlight" Skukuzaexplained Dr Buss. Once the team was within 10 metres of the cat, Dr Buss was able to dart it with a tranquiliser 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.
By Michele Hofmeyr