When a captive bred animal returns to the wild it is no mean feat. There is a considerable amount of preparation which is required for both the animal being released and the community surrounding the area in which the release is to take place. With any release the management team on the ground is vital for the release to be successful.
At Stone Hills the management team which consists of Bookey & Richard Peek, Mabhena (Scout), Khanye (Community liaison officer & Scout) have all been incredibly instrumental in making the release of these animals a success. The communities which surround Stone Hills have been visited by the management team and the value of these animals and their importance has been explained to them. Some of the children of these farmers in the surrounding communities are students of the local primary school, Marula, which is where the Tikki Hywood Trust has developed and implemented the “Kusanganisa” educational program. The importance of this community liaison is evident in the results achieved by Khanye when visiting the surrounding communities – on one such visit he persuaded the people to remove snares set around their maize fields.
On the 29th of Jan 2007 Muffet was sighted near the enclosure. When Bookey went out to investigate the reasons for her return she realised that Muffet wanted to re-enter the enclosure and she was very hungry. In 2006/2007 the southern part of Zimbabwe experienced a drought. The effects of any drought impact heavily on carnivores and is essentially due to the lack of prey; e.g. rodents, birds etc. On discussion with THT & Stone Hills, it was agreed that due to the severity of the drought, it would be better to leave Muffet inside the enclosure and await the next rains. Perhaps many of you who are reading this excerpt, are wondering why we allowed Muffet to go back in the enclosure. The reason quite simply is that the THT belief on releasing any animal is to keep that animal’s welfare intact and themselves in peak condition for as long as possible, so that animal may go on and procreate to give rise to a wild generation of offspring. They ultimately form the breeding nuclei who restock the area in which they are released and in addition, provide us with a closer insight as to their habits and behaviours in the wild. These animals which are bred in captivity are a lifetime commitment, and I feel that this is something that is often overlooked or not given the importance it deserves.
To continue the story – Muffet remained in the enclosure with Rafiki during the dry months. At the first release, both Muffet and Rafiki were given the opportunity to exit the enclosure, but Rafiki simply did not go! We put this down to immaturity or insecurity or both, and thus we made the decision to keep him in the enclosure until he gained confidence in himself. With the release of any animal, it is up to the individual animal to decide as to whether they wish to exit the release enclosure or not. Technically this is referred to as a “soft” release as the animal is given the option to stay or to go. Why do we do this? – it is vital that the animal being released feels comfortable and confident in the new surroundings, so the first thing they do when exiting the enclosure is not to bolt. They form a new breeding nucleus so therefore it is important that they remain in the area where they are released so that they can also be monitored.
During the period that Muffet was back in the enclosure with Rafiki, we had the opportunity to address some problems that we had with her tracking collar. Being a petite serval, the current collar was slightly loose fitting and would swivel around her neck. The result was irritating to her, to the extent that she actually chewed on the antenna and eventually bit the end off!
With good rains, the avifauna and the rodent populations had re-established themselves to acceptable levels for the re-release of Muffet & Rafiki. The date decided on was 17th Dec 2007. Prior to this date, Muffet was chomping at the bit and ready to go. Her condition had been restored to its former glory and she was fit and ready for release. Rafiki on the other hand, never having experienced the wild, did know what to expect. The night before the release, both cats received larger portions of food than normal in preparation for the potential of not eating for a couple of days post release. The gate was opened early evening, just after feed time. Muffet strolled out with all the assurety and confidence she had shown the first time. Tail twitching, ears forward, she strode into the environment which was now familiar to her. Rafiki on the other hand sat and watched as his mother walked further and further away from him.
As Muffet left him behind to contemplate his situation we were concerned that Rafiki would again show a lack of confidence and stay in the enclosure.