Mission: Cheetah Tracking at the Kgalagadi
Date: 10 January 2008
Requesting organisation: Gus Mills and the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project

Location: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape
Pilot: Willie Snyman

Bateleur pilot, Willie Snyman (left) and Gus Mills of the Kgalagadi Cheetah Project, with Willie’s helicopter in the background.

Tracking the elusive cheetahs in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, by Gus Mills

“The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park Cheetah Project is aimed at identifying the ecological role, behavioural adaptations, demographic parameters, conservation status and threats to the cheetah in the southern Kgalagadi ecosystem.

An important aspect of this study is to understand the movement patterns of the cheetahs. To this end a number of cheetah have been fitted with radio collars. Although we expected the cheetah to range widely in this arid system, we did not expect them to move quite as extensively as they do. The females appear to be especially wide-ranging,  covering areas well in excess of 1 500 km². So even with radio collars we can usually only detect a signal from 5 – 10 km from the ground.
The solution, therefore, is to get into the air from where the line-of-site transmitters can be picked up from 30km or more, and from where it is possible to cover large areas much more quickly than plodding through the dunes in a vehicle. For this reason we have turned to The Bateleurs for help and are most grateful for the positive way in which this difficult request has been approached. It is difficult, not only because the Kalahari is far away from flight centres, but also because this is a request for frequent help, not a one-off situation.”

cheetahs2_jan08Two of the elusive cheetah on a sand dune in the Kgalagadi

“On Thursday 10th January 2008 we did our first Bateleur flight, with local farmer Willie Snyman as the volunteer pilot, in his wonderful Robinson 44 helicopter. We were particularly interested in locating two females which we have not seen for some time – Thelma who was last seen on 01 October 2007 and who then had two small cubs in a den, and D’Urbyl, a female who was collared on 1 November. Despite flying for two hours over the areas where we last saw these two females we unfortunately were not able to pick up a signal. However, we did locate a single male, Harken, and John and Allen, a two-male coalition, so the flight was well worthwhile.

We look forward to many more flights with Willie and other pilots, and I am sure that sooner or later our luck will change and we will find the missing females. One thing is certain, we have a far better chance of doing so from the air than from the ground.”