Finn is a border collie raised and trained by Chris Bartos of the Philadelphia Zoo, who stayed with us for three weeks. She was sad to leave Finn behind, but she knows he will working hard as he joins our cheetah census team (photo, L-R, with John Hunter, Isha, Chris Bartos, Finn and Anne Schmidt-Küntzel). He was rescued from Mid-Atlantic Border Collie by Chris, and has been trained to sniff out cheetah scat (poop) in Namibia so that cheetah movements can be tracked. Both Chris and Finn learned the tracking ropes at a detection-dog training program in Seattle. The location of the scat is recorded with a GPS device and is then collected. Geneticists analyze the samples to determine what the cheetahs have eaten and can extract DNA to identify individual cats, helping determine each cheetah’s range.
Given the secretive nature of cheetahs, indirect census techniques are likely to be the only viable method of collecting useful population information. Indirect censusing relies upon the detection of signs such as hair, spoor or scat (faeces) of the target species, and has been used effectively to gain population data for a wide range of species (Kohn et al., 1999; Smith et al., 2001; Warrick and Harris, 2001). The efficacy of these census techniques is, however, potentially limited by the ability of human searchers to find signs (a particular problem in Namibia’s thick thornbush habitat) and incorrect species identification after signs are located (Gese, 2001).
Search dogs have proved to be a highly effective tool in the development of such wildlife studies: They were reported as being four times as effective at finding fox scats as human searchers, and demonstrated a 100% correct species identification record (Smith et al., 2001; Shivik, 2002). The use of these dogs in field studies could be of immense benefit to cheetah researchers, but it is critical to first quantify and calibrate their efficacy through methodical trials so that this technique can be utilized to maximum effect in the field.
Finn will help us test the efficiency of search dogs in detecting cheetah scat, with the ultimate goal of using the abundance and occurrence of cheetah scat in the wild as an index of population density and distribution. Significant recent developments in the field of DNA analysis mean that scat samples can be effectively utilized to extract DNA and provide some estimate of population size in an area (Kohn et al., 1999; Taberlet et al., 2001). These data will prove invaluable in developing the most appropriate conservation strategies and management policies for cheetahs on Namibian farmlands.
This program is important because it will help us work to implement suitable conservation strategies which hinge upon developing reliable estimates of population status and trends. While we are trying to obtain grants from various foundations, we need to raise funds to achieve our goal of US$100,000. This total includes all aspects of this research, from staffing to equipment and supplies. Please consider making a donation to help Finn make this project a success.
Chris was recently interviewed by Public Radio International.