“ Country: Namibia / World Region: Africa „
Okonjima means "place of baboons" in Herero which is one of the local languages and it lies almost half way between Windhoek, the capital city and Etosha National Park. We had known nothing about this place until reading about it while we were in Namibia. We discovered that it was the home of the AfriCat foundation which was responsible for rescuing about 1000 wild African cats 86% of which have been released back into the wild. The organisation was founded as an official non-profit organisation in 1993.
This was a family run business started by and still owned by the Hanssen family who originally farmed the area with Brahman cattle but have now changed Okonjima into a game reserve with particular concern for the protection and relocation of the large cats of Africa.
We stayed at Main Camp accommodation on this farm or game reserve and this is an entirely separate business from AfriCat. Money from the various trips goes to AfriCat and a certain amount each month is paid by Okonjima to AfriCat as it is the family who own Okonjima who started the charity in the first place. Their entire 160,000 hectare farm is now a game reserve designed to protect the cats and the balance of wild life in the bush in this area.
The story goes that the Hanssen family farmed cows and were losing a lot of calves to predatory cats and so they used to shoot them as all farmers did. Leopards and other cats are territorial so shooting one does not mean that you solve the problem as another large cat will move in to take over the territory left vacant so shooting didn't stop the stock losses. One of the sons started to study the leopards in particular and would set up feeding areas with a trip camera. He began to recognise specific cats; he then also fixed a simple clock to the trip so it would stop when the animal ate so he had an idea of the time of eating.
They began to use cat friendly methods of farming. Instead of letting their stock breed at any time, they planned the calving to coincide with the arrival of young animals in the wild so that there would be other easy food available. They kept the calves in stockades for a few months until they were a bit stronger and finally they bred Brahman cattle which are quite fierce and protective of their young.
AfriCat encourage education of local farmers and will come and collect any wild cat that has been captured in the humane traps. They then give the animal a major health check followed by micro chipping with their vital statistics before re-release in a cat friendly area, which may even be the farm where it was originally trapped if the farmer is in agreement. There are an average of 70 cheetahs and leopards trapped on farms throughout Namibia each year that AfriCat rescues and most are released back into the wild.
Some of these cats cannot be immediately released; if they are injured then they are released once they are well enough to cope in the wild. If they are cubs then unfortunately since cheetahs do not hunt instinctively and must learn this skill from their mothers then re-release to the wild is not an option. Occasionally they are released into other sanctuaries or reserves where they will not have to compete with other larger and stronger cats or hyenas. This is a long slow education process as they have no mother to learn from. These female cheetahs are implanted with a birth control as they do not want them to breed; they are unable to look after themselves so would not be able to teach their young cheetah skills.
The AfriCat foundation has four main objectives
* To create awareness and promote the tolerance of large carnivores among the farming community by assisting farmers in effective farm management techniques, including targeting problem predators as opposed to indiscriminate killing or removal
* To educate youth about large carnivores and environmental awareness
* To research large carnivores, particularly cheetahs and leopards on farm land and in captivity.
* To provide humane housing, treatment and care for orphaned and injured animals.
When you stay at Okonjima there are a number of activities that you can take part in for a price and this fee goes straight to the AfriCat foundation. It cost us about £40 each to experience a three hour activity which included seeing some of the rescued cheetahs in their 60 hectare enclosure. The first enclosure we went into held 6 cheetahs and despite spending about half an hour driving throughout the area we could not find them so we were taken to the enclosure where there were another four cheetahs all were rescued as cubs and were brothers and sisters. These were not pets, they were wild animals and we watched them from quite close up but did not get out to pat them as the foundation are hoping that some day in the future with education that they can be released somewhere safe so they want to keep them wary of human contact.
I didn't realise that cheetahs were so vulnerable; they are very fast but after a sprint their body temperature rises so much that they have to go into the bush to cool off until it returns to normal, meanwhile stronger and tougher hyenas nearby come and steal their prey. They cannot climb trees; they will go up sloping branches but are not stronger enough to climb. They rely on speed and often hunt together; if they do not bring the prey down the first time then they have to rest for some time before attempting another chase.
At Okonjima these vulnerable cheetahs are kept separately from the naturally wild game on the reserve. They have about 4 large leopards on the reserve each with its own territory and three hyenas also with individual territory. They have a natural water hole but have also created solar powered bore holes that are never dry so that the animals do not have the problem of water shortage and tend to stay in their own areas.
On our trip we spent some time with the cheetahs and then went into the main game reserve and were able to enjoy bush squirrels, oryx, warthogs and several lovely birds before we arrived at a small patch of green grass at the top of a steep edge overlooking thousands of hectares of African bush. We all climbed out of the safari vehicle and were informed that Okonjima land spread as far as you could see in all directions. Then out came a cool bag and we were offered a 'Sundowner' drink which we had chosen earlier but I wasn't quite sure when we were going to get this, I had thought it was a pre-dinner drink. So here we all were at the top of a steep drop looking down on Okonjima's game enjoying a lovely cool wine or beer at sunset. We could clearly see large baboons, kudu and other animals amongst the trees below. I just can't imagine a nicer way to spend an evening. It must be incredible to own somewhere as huge and beautiful as this and I do admire the fact that they are putting something back into the country by the AfriCat foundation.
After this we were returned to our rooms, right to the door and were given huge torches for the night so we could walk around safely. We enjoyed our sumptuous dinner and then there was a free 'Hide' experience that we walked to with a guide. It was about 5 minutes walk into the bush and then we sat in a hide by a small water hole. The guide had brought some fruit and vegetable kitchen scraps which he put down near the water hole and within minutes a porcupine arrived to eat. We sat there for about 10 minutes and watched three porcupines enjoying their meal until they suddenly ran off. It had begun to rain so out we all came and ran back to our rooms which was a shame as often other nocturnal animals join the porcupines but not in the rain.
The next morning there was the opportunity to track leopards in the lower part of the game reserve as well as enjoy another game drive but we decided that as it was another £100 for the two of us and we had seen a mother leopard and cubs in Kruger National Park that we would set off for Windhoek and get sorted for our departure and gave this trip a miss.
AfiCat offer a schools education programme where school children can come and camp in the area near the education centre and learn about the work of AfriCat and experience these wonderful creatures at close quarters. The WSPA/Environmental Centre was opened in April 1998 with the objective of promoting predator and environmental awareness among Namibian youth. Young people from all over Namibia are invited to take part in a two day/three night environmental education programme and this is available for different age groups. Over 20 000 children have taken part in these programmes since it opened in 1998. I was really impressed with the centre and what an amazing opportunity for young people to have.
The AfriCat foundation and Okonjima also offer a volunteer working holiday project called P.A.W.S. where you need no experience just be willing to work hard and if you would like to know more about this opportunity then the website is www.pawsnamibia.org. I am not sure how much it costs but it would be a fascination gap year experience.
All in all this is a wonderful foundation which has been very successful at reintegrating wild cats in Namibia and also some of the nearby countries in the game reserves. It is great that the Okonjima lodging supports the AfriCat foundation in its work; they both benefit from their close association. You cannot visit Okonjima just for the day; you must stay in one of the many accommodation options that are available before you are able to take part in any of these activities. But if you are planning a trip to Namibia I would certainly recommend staying at Okonjima and visiting the AfriCat Education centre and of course the leopards and cheetahs too but sightings of these cats cannot be guaranteed as they are wild animals so you have to be prepared for disappointment although we were very lucky with the cheetahs.
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