Black Footed Cats

The Black Footed Cat (BFC) research team consists of five researchers: two Germans, two Americans, and one South African. The goal of the project is to gather as much data as possible about these endangered species in an effort to better understand its habitat needs and population dynamics. The Black Footed Cat is highly elusive and very little is known about its habits in the wild. The BFC is the smallest species of cat in the world, slightly smaller than the typical house cat. It lives in Southern Africa, but its range has largely been devastated by the increase in human settlement in the region. The effort of this project is thus to preserve the species through a better understanding of its lifestyle and habitat requirements.
It is Thursday afternoon and Beryl, the South African researcher on the team, picked me up and drove me to the reserve where we would be staying for the weekend. About 200k away from the farm I’ve been staying on, the scenery is not drastically different, however this habitat is ideal for Black Footed Cats and is where most of the research on this animal has taken place. The Benfontien Reserve, spanning nearly 30,000 acres, is estimated to provide refuge to somewhere between 10 and 15 of these cats. I would only be staying until Sunday because the German crew was flying out Monday and this stint of the research project would be over until September when the American team flies in. Bummed that I would only be able to spend three days on the project but excited, nevertheless, to be a part of it, I gladly accepted Beryl’s offer just two weeks ago when she asked me if I’d like to join them. Once we arrived at the research station (basically a bunk house with a kitchen and a room with internet access) I threw my backpack on the bed and looked out the window, only to see a small pond with ostrich drinking from it. I excitedly headed out back to have a closer look, and I was happy to see that there was much more bird life around this pond than had been on the other farm altogether. It was the first time I had seen water birds since I’ve been in Africa (there were none on the farm) so it a pleasant surprise to have them right outside the house.

“There are two parts to tonight’s work,” Beryl told me. “The first portion of the night will be ‘chasing’ and the second will be ‘following.’ Just make sure to dress warm.” As I’ve said in my previous posts, once the sun goes down around here, the temperature drops dramatically – it may be Africa, but this is Southern Africa and it is winter time down here. All of work we would be doing takes place at night, so we made dinner as we waited for the sun to go down and I had a better chance to mingle with the Germans. Funny guys those two – just because they are PhD scientists doesn’t mean they are all business - we sat around and joked and had a good time as dinner cooked, and they ended up being a lot of fun. After dinner the sun inched behind the hills and darkness slowly crept in. Everybody quickly went off to their rooms to grab their warm clothes – which for me just meant throwing on layers and layers of shirts, socks, pants etc. under the single jacket that I brought with me on the trip. The Germans came out of their room in full-body polar suits, and that’s when I thought to myself ‘wow…these guys don’t mess around..” But when they explained to me what they would be doing, I understood the need for such outfits. While Beryl drove around the farm, the two of them and myself would be standing on the back of the land cruiser with spotlights searching for cats. ‘Ok’ I thought, ‘Standing on the back of a moving truck in freezing cold temperatures at night… I guess that warrants having full body polar suits…’ And boy did I envy them once we started moving. Even through all my layers – two shirts, a long sleeve, a down jacket, a borrowed coat over the down jacket, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, two hats and a scarf – I could still feel the bitter sting of the cold air as it wisped by us on the back of the vehicle.

The first portion of the night – chasing – usually runs about four hours long, from 8 to midnight. It consists of two (in this case three) people standing in the back of the truck with spotlights actively searching for a new cat. It’s amazing how talented the Germans were at differentiating species based on eye color and height of eyes off the ground. All they needed was a half second sweep past a group of gleaming eyes and they could tell you, for example, that they saw two springhare, one springbuck, and a black wildebeest. I could have told you that there were four pairs of shiny green balls about two hundred meters away… so you get my drift. It takes years of practice to discern between the different shades of green reflecting back at you, the head that stands six inches off the ground versus one at ten inches, the way the eyes move as the animal moves, etc. It was, however, a treat to ride in the back with these two and see/identify the diversity of animals at night. It’s remarkable how drastic the change is in animal life during the night. All the sudden the field is alive with animals you’d never seen before – jackals, hares, cats, porcupines – all sleeping in their dens during the day as if they didn’t even exist. It goes without saying then that the terrain, like a minefield, is littered with holes and dens every few meters that must be carefully avoided when driving off the dirt road. But for the chasing portion of the night, we simply drive up and down different roads on the reserve with our spotlights in hope of seeing those two small reddish-green eyes. The cats, a little smarter than the other animals, only look at the spotlight for a second before turning their heads away and blending back into the night. It’s important, therefore, to keep the spotlight pinned on the cat while yelling at the driver through the window (warmer with them closed) to chase it down. Now comes the exciting part.

Once we saw the cat, one of the Germans quickly says to me ‘hold on tight,’ and boy was he right. I grabbed on to the railing just as Beryl floored the car, shooting me backwards with a sharp yank on my shoulders. She began turning this way and that to avoid termite mounds and aardvark holes all while accelerating as fast as the land cruiser could manage. The two Germans, somehow held on with one arm (I was struggling despite having two free arms to hold onto the railing) while the other held the spotlight fixed on the cat – now in full sprint running away from the speeding car. When we finally trailed the cat by just a few meters it jolted to the left, as did we only half a second later, nearly sending me over the side railing and into a termite mound below. I held fast, bouncing up and down nearly a couple feet as the car sped over the rocky, rough terrain. The cat now started to run in big circles trying to out-maneuver the land cruiser, but after a few minutes it finally started to tire and slow down. Once the cat was exhausted and stopped running, one of the Germans jumped off the back of the truck with a large net and threw it over the cat. The other German, a veterinarian, quickly came over to sedate the cat. A blanket was put over the cat to reduce its stress level until it fell asleep, at which point we took it back to the research station. From here she was sexed, radio-collared, blood and fat samples were taken, hair collected, measurements recorded, and various other tests were done that would help them in their studies. The sedative lasted about 90 minutes so we had to work quickly to ensure the cat remained asleep during the entire process. Once finished gathering samples we named the cat (Erica), took a few pictures of her, then drove back to the exact spot where she was caught to release her. The time was now 11pm, and this concluded the ‘chasing’ portion of the night.
After dropping Erica off where she was caught we drove back to the house where we would drink some hot tea, grab a quick snack – basically recharge our batteries before going back out for the remainder of the night. Spirits were high at this point because catching a cat was a rare occurrence (the last week was spent searching for cats but none were found) so despite it being close to midnight, and despite the fact that we still had another four hours or so to go out in the field, everybody seemed cheerful. We went back to the car and attached a large antenna receiver to the back which we would use to detect the frequencies of the radio collars when we were in the field – a technique called radio telemetry. The receiver only picked up the signal within about 500 meters however, and thus we had to be quite close to the cat to detect it considering the farm is so large. Erica had been the fourth cat that was collared on this farm, so our objective for the rest of the night was to go out and locate/follow the other three cats. Luckily their ranges only span a couple of kilometers, so once you know the general area where each cat lives, it is not terribly hard to locate it with the receiver. Once the faint signal of a cat gets picked up (a soft, slow beep in a sea of static) we could use the directionality of the receiver on the car to point us in the right direction. Then as we would get closer and closer, the signal strength would increase, giving us a much better idea of where the cat was. One person stood on the back of the truck with a spotlight sweeping the field in front of the car until those two beady eyes glimpsed at us for that split second, thus revealing the cat’s position. From that point it could be either very difficult or only moderately difficult to keep the spotlight on the cat, depending on how thick and tall the grass was in that area. The cat itself is very dark (and of course small) and therefore hard to see in the night, especially as it weaves through the grassy fields it lives in. This makes it very difficult to maintain visual contact with the cat for more than a minute at a time. We try to follow the cat for about thirty minutes or so, plotting a few waypoints on the GPS as we go to keep track of its location and range, then move on to find the next cat and repeat the process.

The next two nights were very similar; however no new cats were found so the chasing portion of the night simply meant driving around the reserve chattering your teeth like an icebox as we scanned up and down the field with our spotlights. We’d come back to the farm around eleven, drink our hot tea, tell a few jokes to lighten the mood before heading back out in the cold, then spend the rest of the night tracking and following the cats. We’d get back around 4 am, head straight to bed, then wake up as the sun came up and lit up the house. Needless to say, there’s not much sleep going on around here.

On Saturday night, the day before I was scheduled to leave, I was telling the Germans about life back on the farm and how much I enjoyed this trip and working with them, and they mentioned the possibility of me staying on the reserve for a few more weeks to gather data after they had left. They are in need of as much data as possible and told me it would be extremely helpful for their project if I continued to go out and track the cats every day, and to this I couldn’t possibly say no! So now I’m here on the Benfontien reserve for a few weeks going out two or three times a day (morning, afternoon, night) to track the cats and record their locations for this research project, and what a great time it is. I must say though, this job is not for the faint of heart. The work is hard and tiresome, especially with the long hours and little room for sleep, and one must be a master of multitasking to get it all done. Let me explain what I mean by this… At night, I must be able to navigate myself to the location of the cats, then pick up its signal with the receiver (a switch near the passenger seat switches between the left and right receiver on top of the car to determine what direction the signal is coming from). I must constantly flick the switch to keep myself moving in the correct direction even when the cat is moving, drive the vehicle while avoiding the numerous termite mounds and holes in the ground, hold the spotlight out the window to see in front of me, operate the telemetry receiver unit to adjust the volume and gain dials, all while trying to look out in front of me and to the sides for that tiny black cat running around through the field. No simple task… but one thing is for sure, I'm one of the very few people who can say they've ever seen one of these cats in the wild. And one of only a handful who've been lucky enough to touch it!

Moments after sedating Erica, taking her out of the net

Examining Erica

A good example of why these are called "Black Footed Cats"

Taking measurements

Taking measurements

Drawing blood

Still a little groggy from being sedated...

Radio telemetry tracking