During 2014, field assistant Martina Küsters monitored and observed radio-collared black-footed cats in Benfontein Nature Reserve near Kimberley and two farms south-west of De Aar, in South Africa.
In September Martina sent photos and wrote:
In the beginning of August, Benfontein Nature Reserve and the farms close to De Aar received some rain. The weather was mostly cold and windy. It turned very cold at the end of August when a cold front moved in from the Cape, and minus temperatures and snow where recorded in the central Karoo. But it is the start of spring, some bushes are flowering, and the rain and sunnier days have sparked mating behaviour. I regularly saw pairs of porcupine, aardwolf and even aardvark. Now is the typical winter mating time for black-footed cats.
Kubu was only in the southern part of his home range during the monitoring period. He seems to regularly drink water, as he was again observed drinking at 'Nine Tanks', one of the artificial water troughs in his area. He sat on the trough and rested, occasionally drinking. When leaving he scent-marked the trough. He was observed feeding on a Cape clapper lark and gerbil. Two nature enthusiasts came out to the project and were able to observe Kubu foraging and resting close-up.
The image to the right shows Kubu listening for prey.
Unfortunately Bama, the roaming male on the neighbouring farms, Suzanna and Rooifontein, has not been located since February this year. He has probably wandered off and found a suitable territory. Or maybe he has been killed and his collar stopped transmitting.
Black-footed cats have been caught near Nuwejaarsfontein and Taaiboschpoort Farms since 2009. These two sites may highlight the importance of studying wild populations in a different habitat and with a different land use pattern than the protected area of Benfontein. The work in these areas is important to understand home range size, habitat use and population density. Also, these sites will be used to estimate seasonal prey density and availability in the near future.
Zuma actively marks the area during his nightly forays, and often sprays the larger bushes. On 16 August, he was seen with an un-collared female cat in the area formerly used by Ilse, the old female that died in May 2014. Although I could not see actual mating, there were signs of courtship. The female was shy and did not allow closer observations. Zuma has since been using the area more intensively.
He often enters den systems made by springhare or other fossorial animals, presumably to hunt. On three consecutive nights I found him at the same dens, and then set-up the project's camera traps to monitor movement at the entrance. He returned twice during a 24-hour period, sniffed at the entrance, inspected the camera traps and probably scent-marked one of the cameras, as there was a strong smelling substance on the outside of the camera. On the camera with the video and sound function, there is a short clip of a cat moving away and vocalising ('meaowing'). This could have been Zuma or another cat, as only the hindquarters can be seen.
Stan still spends more time on the neighbouring Bosjesmansfontein Farm to the north than on NJF. Fortunately I have access to this farm with the tracking vehicle and am able to monitor him. I have finally seen him scent-marking, suggesting that he is resident. His regular and often predictable movements make it easier to find him in his large home range. He recently spent one night quite a long distance out of his normal range, about 4 km to the north-west, but returned the next night. On several occasions, I have seen a cat without a collar, and suspect that there was a female in his range. When Stan was located on 30 August, a female was with him. He closely followed her every move, and when she came close to inspect the tracking vehicle, he followed her. That's when I was able to photograph the female and Stan. She refused his advances and soon they parted ways as I did not see her again.
In the beginning of August, I found Hasi's collar and some hair in the area on NJF 20 km farther north, which she had used since June. Jackals were recently seen there, which is why I suspect that they may have killed and consumed her.
Unfortunately, I was not able to locate Ego despite searching the extent of his known home range for many nights, climbing high mountains on TbP and the neighbouring Mynfontein Farm to the west. He may have permanently dispersed out of the area.
There may be options for an aerial search with a helicopter or para-glider, depending on availability and weather conditions. I hope that he will soon be found!
In June, Martina sent photos and wrote:
Temperatures in June ranged between a maximum of 18°C during the day and -2°C in the early morning hours. Although temperatures were mostly mild, on a few nights the Karoo winter could already be felt. One night I had rain and sleet covered the shrub lands, and termite mounds glistened in the moonlight. I have exciting and special news this month. I hope you enjoy it, as this highlights the importance of doing long-term research on a lesser studied, nocturnal carnivore, like the black-footed cat.
The reserve is owned by De Beers Consolidated Mines and situated 10 km southeast of Kimberley. It has been the focus of black-footed cat research since the 1990s, and much of what is known about wild black-footed cat has been done by Dr. Sliwa on Benfontein. This reserve serves as an important long-term monitoring site for research and conservation of black-footed cats. I tracked the black-footed cats on Benfontein from 5 to 8 June.
Unfortunately Bama, the roaming male that was last located in February 2014 on the neighbouring farms, Suzanna and Rooifontein, has not been located again. He has probably wandered off and found a suitable territory, as the dominant male Kubu would not tolerate his presence on Benfontein. However, since signals of his radio-collar have not been received since four months, he could also have died.
Like Stan, Kubu has a wound on the left side of his nose. How or when he got the wound is not known but it seems the wound is healing. The veterinarians of the BFCWG have suggested that the lesions represent sub-acute to chronic inflammation. This could have been caused by territorial or inter-specific fighting or injury during hunting. During the three monitoring nights he was only in the south-western part of his home range between two waterholes. I followed him to the one windmill where he searched for prey in the bushes. He then went to the waterhole, jumped on the concrete trough and drank. Kubu was seen drinking water on two separate nights and twice in one night. Frequent drinking in black-footed cats is an indication that their kidneys might be affected by a disease called amyloidosis, most prevalent in captive black-footed cats, but also recorded in wild ones. However, he was observed catching and eating a Cape clapper lark Mirafra apiata and an ant-eating chat Myrmecocichla formicivora. We hope that he is in good health and that he drinks water simply because it is available. The BFCWG has collected 167 GPS waypoints since November 2013. He actively marks and uses most of Benfontein and preliminary results indicate that his home range is as large as 48 km².
There are two study sites located south of De Aar, Nuwejaarsfontein Farm (NJF) and Taaiboschpoort (TbP) Farm. Black-footed cats have been caught here since 2009, and these sites may highlight the importance of studying wild black-footed cat populations in different habitats and with different management systems.
Zuma actively marks the area, indicating that he is a resident male, yet it does not reflect his dominance status. He also wanders far into the neighbouring farm, but always returns to his core area. He often intensively inspects springhare den systems for prey. Zuma also likes to use hollow termite mounds to rest, often I only see him peeping out when approaching.
Stan spends more time on the neighbouring farm (Bosjesmansfontein farm) than on NJF. As I have access to Bosjesmansfontein farm with the tracking vehicle I am able to monitor him. He is quite habituated and allows close observations. He likes to forage on hill slopes in very rocky terrain with dense vegetation cover. It may be that he hunts Smith's red rock hares Pronolagus rupestris, a species that lives on rocky slopes and outcrops. I was lucky enough to observe him successfully hunting a grey-winged francolin Scleroptila africanus, a new species of bird on the black-footed cat's prey list.
After loosing Hasi's signal end of May, I searched the extent of her home range. Since a photo indicated that the antenna of the collar may have broken off, I had little hope to find her. I saw jackal in the area and was certain that they killed her and chewed the collar, so we went searching the area on foot, without luck finding any sign of her or the collar.
But then, two nights later as I was listening for Stan's signal, I heard her signal instead!! All the way up north where Stan hangs out and more than 19 km (measured straight line) from where I had last seen her! I quickly walked after her and could approach and follow her very close, up to 3 m and could see the antenna and collar very well. The antenna is still attached, although the plastic sleeve attaching the antenna to the collar has broken off and is now hanging on the end of the antenna. She caught a lark just meters from me and proudly walked off to feed 30 m away. The range of the signal is good, as normal. This is amazing; what would make her walk 19 km north when there is suitable habitat in between? It may be that the available habitat is occupied, an indication that there is a healthy population of black-footed cats, especially females on NJF and TbP. I really hope the antenna does not break off and that she establishes a new home range in that area. It seems the habitat is good, with adequate numbers of larks and rodents. In the new area, I have seen her catching 3 larks.
Ego spent a lot of time on the neighbouring Mynfontein Farm to the west. The boundary fence was repaired and the bottom electric strand redone. This may have prevented him from returning back onto TbP or another male has claimed his home range. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate his signal during the last nights of tracking. I have visited Mynfontein farm twice, climbed high mountains to listen for his signal but without luck. The owner of Mynfontein farm will keep an eye out for him. We hope that he soon returns to TbP.
Küsters, M. 2014. Monitoring black-footed cats in Benfontein Nature Reserve, Nuwejaarsfontein Farm and Taaiboschpoort Farm, South Africa. Black-footed Cat Working Group.