Cheetahs at Okonjima Nature Reserve are reared in captivity, habituated to man and collared making them easy to track. Walking a few feet from these wild animals sounded wrong. But we had a lot to learn.


A cheetah stands 5 metres away.

There is nothing between us except some dusty land and a few rocks. Being able to accelerate to 112km/h in 3 seconds, it is the fastest animal on earth. Evolved for speed, its long legs and stretched spine are held up by special claws that grip the ground and a long tail for balance. It could kill me in seconds.

And yet in spite of the fact it is searching for food, it doesn’t. This cheetah has been brought up in captivity by humans. He doesn’t see us a threat and he’s making no attempt to threaten us. Thanks to the tracking collar around his neck, he’s well accustomed to visitors.

Throughout the world animals are regularly used as a commodity for human experiences and existence. We eat them, we use them as farm equipment, we allow ourselves to be entertained by them. As travellers we can watch trained bears perform tricks in circuses, or dolphins perform acrobatics in swimming pools. We can stroke drugged tigers or ride elephants.

Experiences we avoid.

Yet here we are, walking alongside a collared cheetah raised in captivity.

Should we be here?

WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS IN NAMIBIA

In Namibia, there are many opportunities for wildlife encounters. National Parks cover 17% of the land area offering huge protected areas. Travellers can sit at waterholes in Etosha National Park watching rhinos and elephants; search the dry riverbeds of Skeleton Coast Park for flamingos and jackals or hike the dunes of the Namib desert.

And yet today is not like that. Instead of a massive national park, we are in what was once a private farm. Covering 20,000 hectares it is less than 1% of the size of Etosha. And instead of peering into the distance searching for animals that roam free we are tracking a collared cheetah.

We have been sitting in a jeep for the last hour bouncing over the rocky shrubland. Our driver, Juusu, who used to work in the bar but got promoted a few years ago, stops every few minutes. Standing on the bonnet of the jeep he raises his arm and thrusts a 1970’s radio antennae into the air. After the fourth stop a faint beep can be heard through his earphones. He has found something.

We drive a little closer and Juusu hops out of the jeep. Walking briskly yet quietly through the rough and prickly undergrowth, we follow as he swings the radio antennae left and right. The faint beep gets louder and louder. Cresting over a small hill we see a sudden flash of black spotted golden fur, then it’s gone.

But it’s not moving fast, and Juusu has picked up its trail again. Following the intermittent beeping, we find it taking rest under a tree.

We slowly approach. It doesn’t move a muscle. We can be no more than 5 meters away.

ITINERARY / 2-WEEKS IN NAMIBIA

WILD CHEETAHS IN NAMIBIA

Over the last hundred years as man has built roads, settlements and infrastructure, the cheetahs’ habitat is being eroded. It is estimated that in 1900 there were about 100,000 cheetahs roaming the African plains. That number is now around 10,000 and recent surveys have it even lower.

Namibia has tried to provide solutions. It has created some of the largest and finest national parks in the world and has built conservancies, where local rural communities are given incentives to live sustainably with the wildlife that surrounds them. Together they cover about 40% of Namibia’s land area.

These solutions have brought some positive economic impacts to farmers and some benefits to the wildlife. Namibia has about 3,500 cheetahs today – up from around 2,000 in the 1990’s – the largest cheetah population in the world. But challenges still remain.

Cheetahs need a significant sized territory to survive and most of the suitable habitat does not reside in national parks. As a result 90% of Namibia’s cheetahs live on commercial farmland. Traditionally these private farmers see cheetahs as a threat that hunt and kill their livestock. Many shoot these cats, in spite of it being against the law.

So if Namibia is to continue in making advances in turning around the collapse of the worldwide cheetah population, then those advances must stretch beyond its national parks and conservancies and into its commercial farms. Commercial farms like the one we stand in today.

HANSSEN FAMILY FARM

In 1970, Val and Rose Hanssen settled in the central plains of Namibia and began farming on a piece of land known as Okonjima. They farmed in the traditional Brahman style allowing their cattle to graze freely across the open plains. But each year lions, leopards and cheetahs would hunt and kill a large number of their livestock.

Like many other farmers, in an attempt to protect their cattle, they introduced trophy hunting. Charging hunters to trap, shoot and hunt lions, leopards and cheetahs to reduce the threat and earn money at the same time. But it didn’t work. As the carnivores were killed, new ones arrived. Still losing 20 – 30 cows a year Val, Rose and their kids decided to make a change.

They moved away from traditional Brahman farming and built a kraal which kept their livestock penned in at night, when the carnivores hunted the most. Placed by a lake, it allowed the cattle to drink in a protected environment and their large compact numbers made them more difficult prey.

By day the cattle (except calves) were released to graze or brought back to the farm. The result was a loss of only about 3 cows a year. They had made the first step in allowing farming and wildlife to live sustainably side by side.

But their story was not complete.

CHEETAH CONSERVATION AND THE AFRICAT FOUNDATION

Perfectly located as an overnight stop between Etosha and Windhoek, in 1986 the Hanssens began offering bird watching and bushman trail excursions on their farm. In 1991 they saw a cheetah being kept in a cage at auction. Shocked by the inhumane conditions of its captivity they purchased it and housed it on their farm where they cared for it. That first cheetah would trigger a desire to do more and begin a transformation, away from farming towards tourism and away from killing carnivores to supporting them.

Two years later they founded the AfriCat Foundation. A non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of Africa’s large carnivores. The foundation would rescue carnivores that were injured, orphaned or kept in inhumane conditions and rehabilitate them in a care centre on their farm.

The care centre would look after the younger and weaker carnivores and help them recover the skills and strength to survive in the wild. Sometimes the very youngest animals – without parents to train them – would never adjust to hunting their own prey or know which animals to run from.

But for others, this was the beginning of their journey back to the wild.

RELEASED INTO THE OKONJIMA NATURE RESERVE

The Hanssens have now converted their original 6,000-hectare cattle farm into a fenced 20,000-hectare reserve. The fencing process trapped animals that used to roam freely across the land, including some 20 leopards.

Although restricted from where they can roam, these animals are now safe from other farmers. The original landscape, denuded by farming and cattle, is being restored. Water-holes and salt pans have been introduced to ensure the antelope have all the minerals and food they need

It is particularly good for rehabilitated cheetahs. The cheetahs brought up in the care centre will not have encountered other wild carnivores before. If they were released into a national park, a lion might easily kill an overly inquisitive cheetah. But here, in a reserve with no lions, they can be tracked and monitored more safely before continuing their journey back to the wild.

A WILDLIFE EXPERIENCE TO VALUE

The cheetah we are standing next to today is not free to roam the African plains as it could hundreds of years ago. Nor does it have the size of a national park to explore. But in the Okonjima Nature Reserve it is hunting and living in something approaching its natural habitat, protected from other humans and other larger carnivores. And being one of the cheetahs that would not make it in the wild, if it was not here, it would probably be dead.

In total AfriCat has rescued over 1,000 cheetahs and leopards from Namibian farmland returning over 85% to the wild. Currently they are rehabilitating 11 cheetahs in the care centre and 6 more are being monitored in the reserve. AfriCat would like to save many more, but their ambition is not matched by their resources. While the money from our stay and our excursions helps fund their operations, cheetahs need a lot of land to hunt and one reserve cannot save them all.

Furthermore the Hanssens’ journey from farming to tourism is not a solution open to everyone. Many rural Namibians will need to continue to live off the land and the livestock they own. So the Hanssens have moved to a more scalable solution.

They have begun to educate other farmers about the benefits of leaving Brahman style farming behind and introducing kraals. In doing so they hope these farmers can protect their livestock while living sustainably with the wildlife that surrounds them. They hope to change the face of private farms in Namibia and protect much more of the cheetah population in this remarkable country.

So is walking alongside this collared cheetah in a farm converted into a tourist venture a good thing to do?

Yes, I believe it is.

DETAILS / OKONJIMA LODGE, OTJIWARONOGO

Okonjima Nature Reserve is a 2 hour, 30-minute drive from Windhoek or 2-hour drive from Anderson’s Gate (the southern entrance to Etosha National Park). There is a variety of accommodation on site from camping to simple rooms to luxurious suites with views over the park. Accommodation includes free tea in the afternoon and a fantastic BBQ breakfast in the morning, all delivered with excellent service in the modern African-bush styled lobby area.

OKONJIMA BUSH CAMP

Okonjima Bush Camp provides excellent accommodation in private villas with views over the nature reserve. The rooms are very well appointed and the relaxing common area has good wifi.

BOOK OKONJIMA PLAINS CAMP

OKONJIMA LUXURY CAMP

The luxury camp has 8 beautiful chalets with indoor/outdoor fireplaces and excellent views over the waterhole. The chalets are all way beyond spitting distance for an extra bit of privacy.

BOOK OKONJIMA LUXURY CAMP

ACTIVITIES AT OKONJIMA LODGE

There are a number of activities in the reserve.

A cheetah walking excursion involves tracking a cheetah in a jeep using a radio signal. When you are close enough, you jump out and follow the cheetah on foot. The leopard tracking excursion tracks leopards in a jeep using a radio signal but because the leopards are wild, you stay in the vehicle and don’t follow it on foot!

Both excursions last around 3 hours and begin at about 6:30 in the morning and 15:30 in the afternoon. The price is N$700 per person per excursion. Bookings can be made at the lodge when you arrive. If possible, make sure you arrive by 15:00 in time for the afternoon drive.

We highly recommend taking one excursion in the afternoon, staying the night and taking another early the next morning.

Further options involve taking self-guided trails around the reserve, guided walks to learn how the local San people survive in this landscape and a visit to the AfriCat Care Centre to see the rehabilitation work being carried out first hand.

INSTAGRAM / ANYWHERE WE ROAM

We are Mark & Paul. Curious + Adventurous. Anywhere We Roam is the story of our travels – the world as seen through our eyes.⁣⁣⁣

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WHERE NEXT?

It’s safe to say we love Namibia. With incredible desolate scenery, exceptional wildlife opportunities and friendly people who are just starting to come to grips with tourism, it’s a fascinating place to visit. All our articles about one of our favourite countries on the planet are here.

For other great wildlife experienes, have a read through our South Africa content. The game viewing in Kruger National Park is second to none and you can even do it in style.

If you have any questions please leave them in the comments section below – we will always reply. But before you go any further why not follow us on FACEBOOK, INSTAGRAM and TWITTER and sign up to our monthly NEWSLETTER.

Cheetahs at Okonjima Nature Reserve are reared in captivity, habituated to man and collared making them easy to track. Our experience walking with cheetahs at Okonjima, Namibia.

Cheetahs at Okonjima Nature Reserve are reared in captivity, habituated to man and collared making them easy to track. Our experience walking with cheetahs at Okonjima, Namibia.

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