Namibia is home to around one third of the global cheetah population and 600-1,000 lion in the north of the country, making them some of the most important populations for viable long term survival of these species. In addition, Namibia has a large leopard population as well as isolated populations of both brown and spotted hyena and wild dog.
AfriCat has been working to save the large carnivores of Namibia since 1993. An increasing human population and greater demand on food production have caused environmental degradation and habitat loss throughout the country, placing large carnivores in direct competition with farmers. It is not known how many carnivores are killed each year across Namibia, but it is clear that long-term conservation will only succeed with the support of rural and farming communities.
Rescue, Release and Research
The AfriCat team takes calls from free-hold farmers who request their assistance and guidance with ‘problem’ predators, in most cases cheetah and leopard. Prior to 2010, AfriCat rescued over 1,000 animals off farmland, with 85% being re-released; however, after years of ‘taking away’ the farmers’ problem, AfriCat was faced with a growing number of healthy carnivores in their Carnivore Care Centre, with little noticeable change in farmers’ attitudes towards these animals so a different strategy is being tried to help conserve the big cats.
AfriCat does, however, offer farmers advice on alternative protective measures such as electric fencing and strong, nocturnal kraals as well as extending invitations to visit Okonjima’s Nature Reserve to gather well-researched information on game-management as well as predator tolerance.
With renewed energy, AfriCat has since released many captive cheetah and leopard into the 20,000ha Okonjima Nature Reserve, providing these carnivores with another chance at survival in the wild. Simultaneously, the de-bushing programme opens larger areas creating grasslands, encouraging cheetah to spend more time in their natural habitat, rather than in the dense vegetation, preferred by leopard.
A focus on research has helped with understanding the needs of captive and rehabilitated animals and crucially what works to help reduce human wildlife conflict so that farmers’ losses to predators are reduced, fewer predators are killed and the rural subsistence farmers’ prosperity can be supported and enhanced.
Some years ago, the team initiated an Environmental Education Programme, teaching small groups of children about the benefits of conservation and sustainability. Since inception, the programme has reached over 30,000 children. AfriCat continues to focus on ‘Conservation Through Education’ in its efforts to encourage greater tolerance of wildlife amongst the youth. During the many years of Rescue and Release (pre-2010), it was often the children of farmers that pressured their parents to call AfriCat. This willingness of the young to consider different approaches to an old problem is crucial.
Working with Communities
AfriCat now has two centres: one in the Okonjima Nature Reserve, where it was founded, and the second, AfriCat North, based along the southwestern boundary of the Etosha National Park. The AfriCat North team supports local communities who suffer loss of livestock through carnivore attacks, mostly lion and spotted hyaena. They have initiated a lion research project in the Hobatere Concession Area, whereby lions are collared and monitored to establish their movement patterns, providing an early-warning system when lions move onto farmland; local farming communities are encouraged to improve protection for livestock and have already constructed a number of carnivore-proof kraals.
The focus for long-term conservation has moved to the rehabilitation of captive carnivores. The private, fenced Okonjima Nature Reserve is being used to trial the viability of re-introducing animals that have spent much of their life in captivity to a protected, but wild environment. So far, results are encouraging, with cheetahs, spotted hyaenas and wild dogs quickly hunting for themselves, particularly when they are part of a coalition (two or more animals). The next step is to find suitable locations in Namibia or beyond for their long-term relocation.
AfriCat continues to have measurable impact and builds on many years of experience. It remains a small, but intensely focused team that benefits enormously from the support of the tourist operations at Okonjima.
Tusk has supported AfriCat for many years, providing key funding for the environmental education programme. Tusk supported the purchase of a plane for transport and tracking of animals and the materials, and funded the construction of the fence for the original 4,500ha cheetah rehabilitation enclosure (which has now merged with a 16,000ha nature reserve to form one large park of 200km²).
I have the great fortune to visit many conservation projects around the world and AfriCat is in the premiership. Its whole ethos is founded upon securing practical solutions to problems in the field. It’s about really making a difference, not talking about it. It’s about intelligent and effective solutions being implemented now, not tomorrow. And its new initiatives are more exciting than ever, releasing rehabilitated animals into huge protected reserves where they are carefully studied and monitored, supporting communities who share their land with wildlife, fighting for the lion. The standard of care is exemplary and our understanding of these creatures’ ecologies and behaviours is constantly being advanced here. A few more AfriCats and this continent’s unique fauna would be a lot better off.
Please do whatever you can to support its work.