AfriCat (& Okonjima Lodge) is a family affair. The Hanssens, a Namibian farming family, settled on the property of Okonjima in the 1970s. They experienced first-hand the hardships and the rewards of cattle farming in Namibia. Unique insiders to the region, in contrast to most NGOs who arrive new on the scene, the Hanssens are part of the community and history of Southern African cattle farming. Who better to transition the land to a conservation and eco-tourism project?
During their farming years, the family experienced extreme loss to predation as leopards took a large number of their cattle. Like most farmers at the time, they hunted, trapped and shot predators however this method did nothing to alleviate the problem. To quote from their website:
“Other measures were called for and calf-holding pens were built at watering holes where cows could give birth safely. The calves remained in protective custody until they were approximately 4 months old, their mothers coming in at regular intervals to feed them. Employing these livestock protection methods reduced losses to about 3 or 4 per year.”
AfriCat had humble beginnings as a rescue organization. Today it is a major figure in Namibia’s conservation community as well as a luxury eco-tourism lodge.
Following three days of solid rest in Windhoek after my NamibRand adventure with Naankuse, I arrived at Okonjima mid-day to catch Donna Hanssen give a lecture to a group of international volunteers. Varying in age and background, they all look blissfully happy to be there. When I learn that they’ve been clearing invasive thornbush most days, I’m astounded they look so energized. Donna goes into detail about the hardships of farming life, the struggles of working the land and the consequences of hundreds of years of uncontrolled grazing changing the landscape of Namibia. I get the impression she’s given this talk countless times, but her passion is infectious. This is the first time I’ve heard of transitioning to a conservation entity from a long-standing cattle farming tradition.
And she’s not alone, AfriCat employs a number of Namibians who also grew up on farms, or worked in the hunting industry. I spoke with some of the AfriCat guides who regaled me with stories of fierce leopards, perilous hunts and shooting predators as teenagers on their family farm. Now, they’re conservationists who can see both sides of the issue from a very personal point of view.
Sydney joined AfriCat after working on his family’s cattle farm and as a professional hunter. Of the ‘born-free’ generation (born after 1990 when Namibia became an independent nation), he is of the new Namibia and brings a fresh energy to the message of conservation. Sydney grew up on a cattle farm, which means growing up to hunt and to love nature. “Where we grew up, from the old farmers’ side, from my father’s side and today as well, as soon as you see a predator you basically kill it. As soon as we saw tracks, we would go out and track them down. We had to kill them unfortunately, any predator out there.”
His turning point to conservation came early: “Dad was on holiday and we set out the box trap for a leopard that killed one of our calves. The leopard was caught. My dad was called and it came back to me that I had to shoot it. Nobody was around and I took a chance and I called AfriCat. They came out the next day. My father never knew about it until last year when he came to visit AfriCat and saw a photo on the wall of me with the leopard being carried off the farm.
He’s changed now. He understands the whole purpose of what we’re doing out here and even sending the message out to the farmers.”
When asked about his life now in conservation, Sydney says “I’m doing a job that I love and will be doing for the rest of my life.”
Donna Hanssen sat down for a chat on the big changes afoot for AfriCat. She’s done a lot of soul-searching on what it means to be a conservationist, what defines success, ‘making a difference’ and how, after decades, AfriCat can improve their effectiveness. The organization is transitioning from a mission of rescue and rehabilitation to that of education. Talking about humanity’s dangerous love for technological distraction and our deep need for nature, her walkie-talkie squawks through our conversation frequently. I’m reminded of how, back in San Francisco, I’m tempted to smash my cell phone on the ground for a little bit of piece and quiet.
Speaking with Donna’s sister, Tammy Hoth at AfriCat North, she explains that conservation organizations were called upon to pick up problem causing animals so much that they were “becoming the easy way out for farmers, instead of trying to deal with the problem themselves.” Thus, there are too many animals in their welfare. AfriCat seeks to change the way they engage with farmers and focus on education and the youth of Namibia to keep animals in the wild as a long-term purpose of conservation.
I asked Tammy how receptive the communities are to their message. “Very receptive, we are convincing them that wildlife has value, not only consumptive but sustainable in the long-term. The animal must be worth more alive than dead and it’s an ongoing dialogue. The new conservancies have a far-sighted approach. AfriCat starts regionally to make sure the methods work and from there success stories can be duplicated. It is about the economy. In Namibia, if it pays it stays and we must remember this when working with communities. Most cases farmers don’t plan to shoot the animal. The farmer needs options. Farmers are prepared to lose a certain percent, but if it becomes too high it becomes critical.”
The takeaway message from Donna and Tammy for the future of AfriCat and Namibia’s wildlife; Education is the key, for the youth of Namibia, for the farmer on the ground.
It’s evening in Okonjima. I’m in an open vehicle with a guide searching for Tongs, a rewilded cheetah with a radio collar (her brother, Hammer, passed away shortly after my visit). The Okonjima farm seems to extend forever, a huge property of rolling hills and big sky. Amidst distant thunder and intermittent rain-showers, we find her signal. Walking through the bush, I glance up to the high ridge and spot the tourists’ vehicle, guests enjoying their sundowners, and I wonder if they can see us down here on the ground, standing in front of a wild cheetah. Tongs is relaxing in a small clearing. She won’t let us get too close but tolerates a twenty-foot distance. Her hunting skills are legendary among the AfriCat staff, another successful story of releasing a cheetah into the wild. I take a few closeup shots for their vet to get a better look at her physical condition and we leave her alone. Like any cat, like any creature, she just wants to relax without being pestered.