Chewbaaka. © Elwyn Metcalfe/CCF
Story by Dorothy S. Conlon
Images courtesy of Cheetah Conservation Fund unless otherwise noted.
Through several Earthwatch assignments over the years, I’ve had close contact with Indian wolves, Mediterranean dolphins and Australian echidnas. Most recently, I traveled to the southwestern African country of Namibia for an Earthwatch volunteer project with that elegant endangered cat, the cheetah. Little did I know how close my contact would be.
Welcome to Eland’s Joy, a vast working farm and educational research headquarters of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). When I arrive, five resident cheetahs a day are being captured and brought to the farm’s clinic for their annual physical exams. I’m glad it isn’t me darting each animal with anesthetic, although I am very brave at handling a sleeping cat and even taking its pulse and rectal temperature.
Cheetahs are the world’s fastest land animals, clocked at top speeds of 75 mph or 120 kph for short distances. © Patricia Tricorache/CCF
Dr. Arthur Bagot-Smith, the vet, has flown his private plane from the nearby town of Otjiwarongo, to conduct workups. Several minor surgeries are required to repair surface wounds on the animals’ legs. Earthwatch volunteers work with Audrey, the vet’s assistant, keeping close records. Then we take turns monitoring each cat for hours in the recovery room, hoping it wakes up with no ill effects from the anesthetic.
The Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), www.cheetah.org, founded by American Dr. Laurie Marker in 1990, has been instrumental in rescuing many wounded cheetahs and in educating the local cattle ranchers in better management tactics. Traditionally, the cheetah was perceived to be the enemy, just as the wolf has long been viewed by farmers in other countries. Laurie travels the world telling the story of this ancient animal, which has existed for 200,000 years. I was amazed to learn that two species of cheetahs once roamed North America. Now there are 12 to 15 thousand of them in various African countries, the largest number being in Namibia.
Average litter size is 3 to 5 cubs. © Romain Grisius
CCF works with Namibia’s German and Afrikaans farmers, encouraging them to call whenever a cheetah is found on their property. These are huge spreads which have been owned more often than not by the same family for generations. Some ranchers are stubborn; some more enlightened.
Although we Earthwatch volunteers aren’t directly involved, the CCF farm also breeds Anatolian guard dogs. These robust tawny beauties are trained to protect farmers’ livestock from cheetahs. Any area rancher who promises to follow prescribed safe management policies is given one of these valuable, highly intelligent watch dogs, an ingenious indirect way to minimize the number of cheetahs being shot or trapped.
The ideal, of course, is to rescue a trapped cheetah, check its health and then release it into the wild. But each of the 25 resident cats has a history that precludes its being able to live independently. So they live safely in huge expanses on CCF’s five farms, covering a total of 30,000 acres. One may have a disabling injury, or another’s mother might have been killed before the cub learned to hunt for itself.
Independent since 1990, Namibia was long a German protectorate. It still shows German influence with picturesque Lutheran church spires that would look proper in Bavaria, and in the sausages and cheeses available in the supermarkets. With a population of 1.8 million and a territory twice the size of California, Namibia is the least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia. The capital, Windhoek, is a charming city of only 245,000. Although English is the official language, Afrikaans is widely spoken, as well as the native tongues of eleven indigenous tribes.
One of the oldest deserts in the world, the Namib Desert runs the length of Namibia’s thousand mile coast. Driving southwest from Windhoek across the Great Sand Sea on a good highway, spectacular red dunes, high in iron content are the norm. Namibia also shares the famed Kalahari Desert with two of its four neighboring countries, South Africa and Botswana.
Nearby Etosha National Park is the largest park in Namibia, full of game and few tourists. Once in the park, you can only get out of your vehicle at a few specified places, so the animals feel safe. That makes for great visibility of plenty of zebra, herds of springbok, wildebeest, oryx, and even lions and elephants.
Photo: Dune 45 is a “star” dune in the Namib Desert, a fine viewpoint to watch a dramatic sunrise. Dorothy Conlon
One morning we load up a cheetah that has passed his health inspection and drIve the pickup truck a couple of hours away to a friendly rancher’s spread. Ralf, who has 1,200 cattle, is amiable to our releasing this cat on his land, not the first time CCF has done so. Sitting around their dining table drinking coffee and eating pastries, we talk with the farm couple about their lives. Ralf grew up in Namibia but Marion is from Germany. Their four children attend a German school in Otjiwarongo. We drive to the release site, slide open the door to the wooden cage and watch as the cheetah hesitantly peeks out before suddenly leaping forward and racing out of sight.
After our first week of playing vet’s assistant, our volunteer team follows a more typical routine, exercising the cats, feeding them carefully weighed portions of raw donkey meat and updating our records. We drive slowly along the dusty trails within an enclosure while Merlot or Shiraz or other cats dart out to claim their personal meal flung from the back of the pickup. How the staff can identify and understand these animals so intimately amazes me. I know that a mother cheetah can identify her cubs by the distinctive design of the spots—as individual as a fingerprint–but to my untrained eye, all of our cats look and act virtually alike.
The author and Chewbaaka up a favorite tree .
That is, all except nine-year old Chewbaaka, known as the CCF ambassador. Raised by Laurie from a cub, he is the tamest of all the cats, and often accompanies Laurie when she gives talks. We take him out to his favorite “play tree” one day, where he climbs up and contentedly poses for us at eye level. I think of him almost as a member of her family, and indeed, she is the only mother he has ever known.
Ready for some exercise while following the red flag.© Sled Reynolds
The nearest enclosure, maybe 200 meters or 656 feet square, is home to three females, named Dusty, Sandi and Blondie. A couple of times a week they are exercised by enticing them to chase after a red flag on a ground level lure course around the perimeter, as you might see at dog races. It’s intriguing to watch how they share the course and run in relays instead of racing against each other. The cheetah that snares the red cloth is rewarded with a hand-fed treat of raw meat. Nobody working there appears to be missing a finger or hand. In the wild, cheetahs hunt by vision rather than by scent, and achieve a kill 50% of the time on average.
Earthwatch volunteers are housed in two-person rondavels, round clay huts in traditional African style, with peaked thatch roofs, but with the luxury of a window and even a sink in each. Here on this five thousand foot high plateau, the weather is so nice that we usually eat outside under a flapping waterproof tarp. A staff cook prepares some of our meals, but the rest of us pitch in as well, even the resident scientists.
A single stuffed mushroom serves several people. Dorothy Conlon
One day I assist with sautéing and stuffing a Namibian delicacy, giant mushrooms that are bigger than a round serving platter. We’ve seen them growing at the base of the tall termite mounds, and this being the season, we vegetarians gorge on them. A single mushroom serves several people amply. More typical meals include pasta, salads and hamburgers.
Driving to one farm to feed our cheetahs, we almost always see a family of warthogs scurrying across the dusty lane ahead of us. I’m not so good at spotting game yet, but those with trained eyes often point out giraffes poised behind trees at the side of the track, their long necks mimicking the angle of the tree trunks. What a thrill, on our final feeding excursion, to see eland, three zebra and an incredible dozen or more giraffe at separate spots along the dirt road. Here is my visual feast of lasting memories!
Cheetah Conservation Fund, www.cheetah.org, to learn more about cheetahs, the conservation fund, and opportunities to support this valuable work either by donation or volunteering.
Earthwatch Institute, www.earthwatch.org, engages volunteers worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. Earthwatch is not currently funding the Cheetah Conservation Fund program, but there is still excellent information about the partnership program and its successes in previous years to be found at www.earthwatch.org/exped/marker.html, Current volunteer inquiries should be made directly to the very active Cheetah Conservation Fund above.
Dr Laurie Marker is one of the conservation giants of the natural world and the planet’s top expert on cheetahs. Recognized by Time magazine as a “Hero for the Planet” in 2000, she received the 2008 Society of Women Geographers Gold Medal as a conservation biologist — given only every three years to the likes of Amelia Earhardt, Margaret Mead, Mary Douglas Leakey and Jane Goodall. Watch an inspiring, informative TEDx speech by Dr Marker entitled “What if we lost the Cheetah?” Thanks largely to her innovative engagement with Namibian farmers, Namibia is home to the largest concentration of cheetahs in Africa though there is much to be done to protect the world’s fastest land animal in other parts of Africa.
Namibia Tourism, www.namibiatourism.com.na.
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Born in Japan, Dorothy S. Conlon lived a life of travel and adventure. Identifying herself as a “world citizen,” she shared a career for 30 years with her US Foreign Service husband, Ned, with assignments in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, India and Pakistan.
Widowed in 1989, Dorothy,continued to explore new destinations, often traveling solo and volunteering until her passing in August 2013 at the age of 86. Indeed a life well lived!
Her book, At Home in the World: Memoirs of a Traveling Woman is still available on internet book sites.