An Update on Toki from Simon King

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Date: 
5 February 2011
February 5, 2011
Toki the cheetah

Toki the cheetah orphan and his brother changed our lives.  Back in December 2002, we had the good fortune to meet the brothers shortly after they were brought into the care of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.  What followed was a two year rollercoaster journey of emotion and adventure as we helped raise the boys and reintroduce them to the wild.  All went well until one fateful night when Sambu, the braver and more robust of the two, was killed by a lion.

Toki, and we, were devastated.  We tried for months to help Toki get back on his feet in Lewa, but after a near fatal attack from a resident coalition of three powerful adult male cheetahs, we decided to move Toki to the relative security of a vast enclosure on the nearby Ol Pejeta Conservancy.  And it is where he has enjoyed living for the past five years.

The boma, as it is known, is a 4,000 acre fenced area that is, in principle, predator-proof. However it is home to a wide variety of herbivores including zebra, impala, duiker and dikdik, all perfect prey for a lone male cheetah. From December 2005 up to the end of 2009, Toki enjoyed a peaceful, if solitary existence, in this safe zone, fending entirely for himself and sleeping off his meals.

In January 2010, I visited the boma, hoping not so much to see Toki (by now he had become wary of human visitors and I did not want to undo many months of work that had successfully broken his bond with people), but rather to check that all was well with him.

There, fresh in the dust along the inside of the fence-line, were the pug-marks of a big cat, but this was no cheetah footprint.  This was the mark of a leopard.  A large male leopard at that.  My mind raced.  How had this cat entered the predator-proof fence?  Was there a gap and if so was Toki still inside the boma that had become not so safe all of a sudden?  I had to leave Kenya soon after my visit, but not before talking with the Wildlife and Security Department of Ol Pejeta and hatching a plan to find some answers.  Soon after my January trip, a search of the boma was conducted by a large number of security staff, and the sweep offered up good news.  Toki was seen in thick bush country, running away from the approaching men on foot.  No other cat had been spotted.  Perhaps this meant that the leopard had gone and that Toki had his secure kingdom back to himself.

I kept in touch with Ol Pejeta and Stephen Yaisoi, the ranger who had helped with Toki’s welfare for the past eight years, and it was decided that a camera trap should be placed near the perimeter fence to try and get documentary evidence of Toki’s condition.

Leopard in Toki's boma
This leopard was caught on camera inside Toki's boma, clearly showing that Toki was sharing his world with a larger more powerful hunter

Along with images of zebra and other herbivores were those of a spotted cat. Not Toki, but a leopard, a large male leopard. It was clear that Toki was sharing his world with this larger more powerful hunter and that its presence was preventing him from patrolling the enclosure edge.

It was not until December 2010 that I was able to return to Kenya and visit Ol Pejeta.  With the invaluable help of the security services on the Conservancy, we mounted a major search of the boma with the hope of finding some sign that Toki was alive and well.

Simon meets with the security team the search team on Ol Pejeta
Simon meets with the security team on Ol Pejeta
In December 2010, 25 men were dedicated to search for Toki inside his boma

After ten hours, with twenty-five men conducting a search through very thick bush country, we turned up no sign whatsoever of any large predator within the enclosure.

On the one hand this was terribly disappointing.  I had of course hoped that we would be able to confirm Toki’s well-being.  On the other, it left a ray of hope. With no evidence of his death, no bones, no remains of any kind, it was just possible he had left the boma by whatever method the leopard had been coming and going, and was alive, but ranging free. And that is where we stand today. If free ranging, we would have expected a sighting of Toki through the guides and security staff on Ol Pejeta, though with at least 33 cheetah now living wild on Ol Pejeta ,there is room for confusion.  There is also a strong likelihood that if Toki did leave the enclosure, he would have avoided already occupied cheetah territories and kept moving.  Frankly, the chances of him surviving beyond the fence are low, with community lands, man and his dogs, all trying to scratch a living from the dry northlands. But it is possible.

Realistically, I have little hope that Toki is still living.  He may have been killed by the leopard and in the tangle of thorn and scrub our search failed to pick up any sign of his body.  He may have escaped the boma and been killed by wild male cheetah (two male cheetah have been killed in this way on Ol Pejeta over the past year, neither of them Toki).  He may have walked beyond the Conservancy, through one of the elephant corridors (as he did when we were working with him there five years ago) and beyond.  He may still be there.  For some time he has not worn an active radio collar.  The decision was made to minimise his interaction with human beings and let him lead a natural life, peaceful and undisturbed.  He has done this for the past four years.

Simon King with Toki and Sambu

In the wild, the vast majority of cheetahs do not make it past their first birthday, and very few make it beyond their third.  That Toki has lived for at least eight years is testament to the care and support of Lewa and Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancies.  His legacy is to have increased awareness and brought much needed financial support to the Conservancies and in so doing helped all the wildlife there.  On Ol Pejeta the cheetah population alone has grown from twelve animals when Toki first arrived five years ago, to 33 today.

His legacy to us has been invaluable, learning about the specifics surrounding the rehabilitation of large predators in East Africa, but a great deal more from an emotional and moral standpoint.

I will end this report by quoting Stephen, who shared his thoughts with us after we searched in vain for Toki in December. “He has taught me so much. He taught me to stand up for myself and not to depend on others or expect others to help me survive.  Toki was a survivor.”

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