save the cheetahs
God’s artistic juices overflowed mightily the day he created the southwest corner of Africa, today’s Namibia. He splashed the earth from a palette filled with unabashed oranges, reds, and pinks under the sheath of a true blue sky. And he defined, for all time, each gradation of gray as eloquent color. He whipped the wind to sculpt sand, which stands evermore in quiet splendor. And he left behind, in every direction, scenes endowed with breadth and depth and majesty, bequeathing the world’s oldest desert with its highest sand dunes. No wonder the Nama people called it the Namib, which means “vast” in their language. Paradoxically, less here is often more. See the drama of a lone grazing oryx, slender spiky horns suddenly aloft. Or the exquisite design of a desert beetle, with shorter front legs allowing life-sustaining morning dew to run one precious drop at a time down its back.
Perhaps to balance things, even to protect the natural treasure here, the churning Atlantic Ocean, kept inhospitably frigid by the Benguela current, has for centuries made man’s seagoing treacherous. Hence, as the Namib extends north, eerie flotsam and jetsam lie strewn along the uninhabited, aptly named Skeleton Coast. Namibia is one of the world’s mostly sparsely populated countries. Meet its resourceful tribal people as they show you an environment both harsh and beautiful. Their way of life—the women raising children in tiny hut villages; the men moving their herds in search of grazing lands—could vanish. Let yourself be provoked to rethink what is real and what is but shadow. Let Namibia change your perspective.
It is toward day’s end, that magical time in the African bush when light shifts between brilliance and softness and cool breezes overtake blazing heat, when critters slip from diurnal routines to nocturnal pursuits. And tourists pause to sip sundowners, chatting about how life-changing it is to experience Africa’s natural world. I hop down from a safari vehicle, along with two dozen others, in a clearing near the severe rise of the Waterberg Plateau. But instead of gin and tonics, we clasp notebooks, and, as the setting sun spins nursery pinks and lavenders into riots of gaudy orange, check the time.
We drop into hushed tones, hearing gutteral hisses and growls of a cheetah close by, devouring fresh-killed oryx. This is no ordinary safari outing. We are keeping watch on the moment this sleek spotted cat with the melancholy black tear lines will go free. And the large male cheetah, making one loooong, low rumble, not pausing even to chew the raw meat, has himself had an extraordinary day.
I have come to the heart of cheetah country, between Otjiwarongo and Etosha National Park in the northeast quadrant of Namibia, where numbers of this highly endangered species are highest in the world, to spend a week at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). When Dr. Laurie Marker, a founder and still executive director, decided in 1991 to relocate here from the U.S. (where she had studied agriculture and worked at Wildlife Safari in Oregon), little was known about cheetahs. She had begun field work in 1977, making sporadic trips to Namibia to observe and learn about cheetahs in the wild. Then she set up an international cheetah studbook and bred captive cheetahs in the U.S. “Back then I saw thousands of wild cats being killed or exported, and I kept thinking someone would do something. But there aren’t many doers in the world.” Propelled by her self-described volunteer spirit, she became a doer and forged ahead with a vague plan about saving cheetahs, saving the world, and not much budget. In many ways, that is still the agenda that lights the pathways of work done here. Most of those with eyes on the cheetah this evening—doctors, teachers, bankers from Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, the UK, the U.S.—are volunteers, giving two weeks or more of their time and talents to do whatever needs to be done.
Earlier in the day, we all participated in the lab work-up of this cheetah, assigned number 1485, led by Dr. Marker (she has a Ph.D. in zoology). Reaching through the slats of a wooden crate, she jabs him with a syringeful of fast-acting anesthetic, good for about 30 minutes of lights out. Volunteers haul his heft, in a sling, to a scale. Forty-nine kilos. We hoist him onto an exam table and blindfold him with a blue cloth. Dr. Marker starts an IV line to keep him hydrated and tells what she knows of his history: “…retrieved from a farm about 200 kilometers south of here. The farmer had lost three calves in a year, which is not a lot…” And she evaluates his physical condition: “Probably 4 years old. He measures 129 centimeters from the tip of his nose to the base of his tail. Tail is 73 centimeters, with a crink in it.” She draws blood from a rear leg vein. Takes his temperature. Shaves skin samples. Collects semen. Pulls cheetah flies out of his tail—“they are blood suckers”—and puts them into a vial. We label each specimen and keep them sorted. His right ear gets an external tag; his flank, an internal transponder. By the time he lifts a groggy head, volunteers and staff have bloody fingers and a satisfied sense of being “doers.” A few official mug shots, souvenir poses with each of us, and he’s back in the crate, alert and snarling displeasure at the whole thing.
“One thing farmers don’t always understand is that just because there is a large male around, that doesn’t mean he is breeding and adding to the population. They have to establish territories first,” Dr. Marker said. Farmers misguidedly killing cheetahs, she tells me later, was the first troubling matter of focus for CCF. “Why were farmers killing cheetahs and how could we stop this? Well, I had to go around and meet them. I went door-to-door, doing surveys. I’ve probably met 800 to 900 farmers over the years.” Seventy percent of Namibians are supported by agriculture. Ninety percent of roughly 3,000 Namibian cheetahs live on farmlands, outside protected areas. “I say that everything is about the soil, the earth. It always comes back to that. Wildlife is part of agriculture. The same soil supports wildlife and livestock.” Besides setting up a nonprofit fund-raising structure, Dr. Marker did her homework. “I started to think outside the box,” she says. “I investigated dogs — Anatolian guard dogs. Namibian farmers, then, mostly had herding dogs that would instill running instinct in herds.” And cheetahs, capable of 70 mph, can outrun any creature on earth.
Indeed, the greeting at the front gate of CCF is a chorus of “Baaaaa. Woof. Woof. Baaaa. Woof.” Goats. And dogs, bonding with the goats and learning to guard them. Early on, CCF started buying farmlands and established farming operations (there are also beef cattle) to practice what they were trying to preach. They breed dogs, crossbreed dogs, train dogs, give dogs to farmers, and train farmers to work with dogs. And they took down most of the fences, allowing wildlife to roam, graze, and hunt. Dr. Marker, who still grapples to overcome a stubborn prevailing attitude of “the only good predator is a dead predator,” listened to farmers when doing her surveys but also asked them to listen to her. “They didn’t realize that if you remove a dominant male, lots of young males will come and try to take his territory. Or that cheetahs select medium bush areas which game [mostly antelope] like as well. From scat studies, we have learned that cheetahs prefer eating game to livestock.” However, bush encroachment—unnaturally thick growth taking over grassy savannah, caused largely by agricultural use—has forced cheetahs to hunt in larger home territories. A bush restoration program, beneficial to farmers and cheetahs, involved some visits by U.S. Congressmen and a plea from Namibian president Dr. Sam Nujoma to “please help this nice young lady who wants to save cheetahs.”
“We got a grant from U.S.-AID [Agency for International Development] to remove areas of bush encroachment—and for a factory [to process excess bush into fireplace logs].”
So, while the larger CCF mission hasn’t changed, fresh projects, ideas, and solutions to particular challenges come along. As do individual cheetahs. CCF never meant to create a shelter for homeless cats, but turning them away, injured or orphaned, was inconceivable. Baby cheetahs do not survive long in the wild without mom. And even adolescents are still learning not only how to hunt, but basic avoid-the-lion and other predator skills that only the mother can teach. About 25 unreleasable cheetahs, including three 4-month-old motherless cubs rescued by a farmer, live here in large fenced areas. Export or sale is illegal, so these three charmers will likely grow up to be conservation ambassadors, visiting Namibian schoolchildren and others. Human contact, then, is desirable. My second day here I check the volunteer schedule and, oh boy, I’m assigned cub feeding. I enter the pen with Kate Echement, a long-term student volunteer. The two male cubs, Ron and Harry, larger and shyer, retreat. But little Hermione, not quite a foot high, decides I am worth the risk. After all, I have a fistful of raw red oryx chunks. I get down on the ground, at her level, and slowly stretch my arm toward her. She looks me square in the eye, pins her nubby round ears back, hisses and spits, seizes the meat in a gulp and licks my bare palm. Slowly I pull more oryx from a baggie. Hiss, spit, eat, lick. Repeat. I can feel the gentle pressure of her little teeth as she bites into the meat but leaves all five of my fingers intact. Nice kitty. In fact, it is a similar sensation to hand-feeding a plain ol’ house cat. “Stroke her a little, all the way down her legs and paws,” Kate says, “so she gets used to it. Right now you are a strange new scent for her.” Hermione’s beige mantle feels soft, her feet sturdy and strong. As long as I have food to offer, she snatches it and tolerates my touch.
Later, with other volunteers and guests, I meet Chewbakka—a showman and, at age 11, the elder statesman among resident cheetahs—on a regular outing to his play tree (a tree with a sloping trunk and horizontal limbs that cheetahs use for a lookout). Unleashed and encouraged by raw meat in Dr. Marker’s hand, he jumps from the caged back of a 4X4, climbs his tree, marks it, sniffs the air, and takes a short turn through the bush. He patiently indulges in photo ops before obediently hopping back into his vehicle.
The pace of a volunteer’s day at CCF feels similar to safari camps I have visited. Up early, lots of time outdoors, wildlife to view, family style lunch and dinner, bush and wildlife experts all around to answer questions. Some mornings we gather inside a pen for a cheetah run, part of the fitness program for captives. Cheetahs, wild or tame, rarely threaten humans. But, still, feeling the earth vibrate when 110 pounds of muscle-power springs to highway velocity chasing after a lure, my heart quickens. Then it melts when I overhear an intimate exchange of chirps, as two of them cool down from the run. Otherwise, my itinerary (administrative officer Lorraine Bowden posts a daily the volunteer schedule) usually involves field work.
One morning I go into into the bush with Andrew Stein, an American Fulbright scholar who is studying brown hyenas and leopards. He aims to calculate populations in the adjacent Waterberg National Park, and determine home-range sizes of these species, their diet, habitat use, and impact on farming. He’s got some of his critters radio-collared. But today, driving to nine dispersed locations, climbing onto the top of the vehicle and holding an antennae, extended on a swimming-pool pole, we pick up no signals. It’s enlightening to see inside the necessary tedium of someone else’s workday. Then we enjoy his “office commute” through the healthy-again savannah, stirring with warthog, oryx, kudu, springbok, delicate steenbok, and hartebeeste, including a baby on wobbly legs.
I learn quickly that there can be hours, days, boring weeks of procedure on the thorny path to saving cheetahs—and the world. Another morning, I am assigned to help senior research assistant Matti Nghikembua set up motion-sensitive cameras for a cheetah census. In the heat of the day, we drive on dirt tracks. Matti looks across the flat bush and we drive some more—turn right, switch back, turn left, circle around. My usually reliable sense of direction becomes dysfunctional, following the compass of Matti’s “cheetah sense.” He spies poop on the sloped limb of a camel thorn tree (I don’t) and we finally stop. Armed with a machete and wire cutters, Matti determines camera angles that he expects will capture opposite profiles of a cheetah climbing the tree. He whacks out interfering brush. We wire the cameras to limbs and branches, drive slowly on, and repeat twice. Three identifiable play trees in a three-hour mission. “That’s a lot,” I hear from a chorus of experienced voices at lunch.
Every day, there seem to be lessons about respecting the wild, how it is unpredictable and full of surprise. One midday I return to camp to find everyone gathered in the clinic where we had examined the cheetah. A baby eland, obviously in shock, was found tangled in farm fencing. Dr. Marker hands off a bottle of water to one volunteer, and, as usual, talks through procedures. Another volunteer strokes the eland with a piece of gauze gently under her tail to simulate the mother licking her. “This helps trigger normal body function,” Dr. Marker says. “She’s probably about two weeks old and has gone missing for three days. We’ll feed her goat’s milk, and she’ll probably go in with the goats and then grow up with cattle.” She folds the trembling legs to the floor and tucks a blanket around her. Later that afternoon, with volunteers taking turns babysitting to make sure she’s stabilizing, she is moved to an outside pen strewn with hay, and soon, two braying kids join her for company.
One of the human assets at CCF is Bonnie Schumann, senior research assistant and curator. If you can keep up with her rapid-fire Afrikaans-inflected English, she has a wealth of knowledge to share on the precarious intersection of wildlife and farming. The African sun has deeply lined her fair young strawberry-blond, blue-eyed features, which gives her authority to mix with a ready sense of humor. She runs weeklong training sessions for farmers. “There’s nothing radical we are trying to change. It’s subtle. We go through all the reasons for livestock loss—and predation is fourth, after birthing problems, hoof trimming, disease. But many of them don’t have a vet regularly looking at their herds. The good ones, though, will give you a second wind. Early on, I realized that conservation is about people. The cheetah is a small part of a large picture. But we can have a big influence using one species that is emotive.” She saves her greatest disdain for game fencing: “It’s a very difficult issue to solve. It creates in-breeding problems. It doesn’t work with the rain patterns here. [Secure enough to lock down the most escape-savvy felon, game fencing prevents natural migration—to find water and food—of predators and prey.] The good side is that Namibia, with its low population, does have a massive resource—wild spaces.”
Most travelers to Namibia seek wildness. CCF usually sends volunteers on a short trip to Etosha National Park, one of the finest places on the African continent for wildlife viewing. We set out with Michael Mumbalu, driver and guide, in the Cheetah Bus, a converted Nissan 4X4, painted hippie-style with black paw prints and “We Can Live Together” across its faded school-bus yellow body. After shopping for picnic supplies, the drive northwest takes us through Outjo, where we stop for breakfast and bargain with Himba women selling bracelets and necklaces fastidiously crafted from cow bones and household piping. Etosha is strictly a drive-through park, with lots of detours looping to spring-fed watering holes where animals congregate. Before lunch, we’ve ticked off elephant, zebra, ostrich, a gazillion antelope, Kori Bustard, plover, Egyptian geese… The vast Etosha Pan, with its salt deposits sometimes harvested by locals, looks like a lifeless dun-colored sea but rarely fills with water. Our overnight stop is at Halili, a comfortable full-service rest camp within the park, with night viewing at Moringa Waterfall. We sit and wait, as in a hushed theater before the curtain rises. However, on this evening, the “cast” must have stage fright. Only a lone oryx, black-backed jackal, and a few hyena come “on stage.”
Never mind. There is drama in the bush and among the green mopane trees the next day: Seven one-week-old ostriches follow their parents, all pecking at the dry ground for food. Elephants, zebras, and giraffes strike poses against a clear blue sky. When one giraffe spreads his legs akimbo and lowers his long neck to drink, it’s obvious how lions can grab them for fast food. In fact, shortly, we see a tattered giraffe carcass. And then—lions! A mother, keeping lookout, with cubs. And several lone males, lazing around in the afternoon swelter. Just before we reach the Von Lindequist Gate and turn south toward CCF, I spy a tiny dik-dik, all 12 inches of him, tucked under a bush.
As I approach the end of my stay at CCF—heaving donkey meat to Rosy, Elsie, and other adult captive cheetahs from the back of the speeding pickup and sweating under the blistering noon sun with research assistant Marianne de Jonge as we shovel to fill in holes warthogs have dug under farm fences—I often think about cheetah number 1485, whose head I patted while he was being poked and proded on the lab exam table. We released him that night, after 20 minutes of filling his belly full with oryx to give him a head start finding his way back home to wild safely. Volunteers carried his crate part way into a dry waterhole, lifted the door and he shot out, kicking up dust and in seconds disappearing into the silent shadows. It was a happy moment of a small, important deed done. He went free, but left behind a few more clues to stir into the pool of knowledge that will, someday, make possible a life of freedom for all cheetahs.