Friday, 15 July 2011

The Namib Conservation Centre

Wow, where do I begin with this blog?! A LOT has happened since the last time I updated the African Adventure so brace yourselves, this is going to be the longest blog entry yet! As I write this Kate and I are in Solitaire at Solitaire Guest Farm Dessert Ranch, two weeks into our new project. The project will officially be known as the Namib Conservation Centre and is formed by a partnership between the Solitaire Guest Farm and N/a’an ku se.

However, I’ll rewind as we had a very eventful last two weeks at the N/a’an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary.  Kate and I were lucky enough to have been able to move into one of the empty staff houses and as you do in Africa, turned our back garden into a temporary caracal pen.  The caracals in question were two orphaned kittens who were found at a shopping mall believe it or not. I’ll skip over the fact that in preparing the pen I got myself into a fight with a bush, which did not go to well for me and I ended up requiring a trip to the dentist, instead I’ll jump straight to the part when the sneaky little devils found their way into our house. They had pushed over a board that was covering a hole in the wall that was used as a make shift dog flap for the previous inhabitant’s pet.  Due to the brutal cold weather we were experiencing at the time we decided to leave the kittens where they were. So the mischievous duo had free reign of most of the house and liked to tuck themselves amongst our belongings that were being stored ready for our move to Solitaire. 
Eventually the duo made their way back outside and our efforts to secure the back garden were not in vein and the kittens could not find a way out.  Their time will come however; as once they have reached maturity the plan is to release them back into the wild. 
I somehow managed to not be involved in any fire fighting at all during my two and half years at CCF but here I found myself in the thick of the action twice in the space of a week. The second was the most intense and a fire that had spread over numerous farms. It was a hard afternoon but it was great to have been of some use in preventing it spreading further.
The 27th of June arrived and after first discussing the Solitaire project at our interview at N/a’an ku se way back in October 2010 it was finally time to make the move. The cats (7 cheetahs and 1 leopard) had been darted, fitted with radio collars and placed in transport cages during a very busy afternoon the day before. Four of the cheetahs would be released at Solitaire, the other three plus the Leopard would be released at another project site in Sandfontein.
This release was significant as it would be the biggest in N/a’an ku se’s history. The huge convoy (including a film crew for Animal Planet) set off early and as we traveled south and deeper into the stunning mountainous scenery we kept having to pinch ourselves that it was actually happening! Our passenger was a four-year-old cheetah named ‘Boris’ and he actually seemed to enjoy looking out the front of the car and surveying his new surroundings.
After a long 5 hours we arrived at the Solitaire Guest Farm and Kate and I of course had to stop by the entrance sign and capture the moment :)
Our excitement only grew as we took in the glorious landscape that we would wake up to every morning.  We parked up the cars and gave the cats some food and water, as they would spend the night in the cages. Four of them however would be released into their new home the next day. As the sun set Kate and I had the chance to become reacquainted with the guest farm’s owners, Walter and Simone Swarts (we had met them very briefly a few months earlier). I can not adequately describe in words just how fantastic they are, Kate and I have been welcomed with open arms and have already been made to feel like part of the family. And of course without their passion for wildlife and conservation this project would not have been possible.

The first night was also spent meeting the vast array of animal inhabitants that live freely around the farm including 5 incredibly loveable and spoiled dogs, Max the Oryx, Bokkie the Springbok, Sammy the parrot, a family of meerkats as well as peacocks, guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks and chickens! After such a long day it was soon time for bed especially after we had gorged ourselves on the gourmet buffet (the food here is unbelievably good)!
The next day started early and we got straight to work on finishing the fence of the 500ha holding camp that our four cheetahs would be released into. I have to mention that the fact the fence needed just minor touches at this point was a miracle as the camp was far from finished only weeks earlier. However, thanks to incredible work by our colleague Hardas (he really is Hardas by name, Hardas by nature) and some of our farm workers, who worked 7 days a week with no lunch breaks the camp was done in what must have been record time. Work on the fence lasted for most of the day but around 3.00pm it was finally time to release the cats.
The first cat to be released was Boris. Three weeks earlier Boris had been hunting game on a small game farm in the Windhoek area and was trapped by the farm owner who then called N/a’an ku se to collect him. Walter had the honour of opening the cage and Boris wasted no time and sprinted away into the distance to begin exploring his new home.
Next up was Spartacus, a huge 9-year-old male who had gained a feisty reputation during his two-year stay at N/a’n ku se’s Wildlife Sanctuary, and he too wasted no time running away to disappear into the bush.
The two boys would share their new home with two young sisters estimated at two years of age, named Annie and Betty. The sisters had been orphaned at the young age of six months and have been looked after by N/a’an ku se ever since. The sisters took quite a bit of persuading to leave their trailer, however, for the excited onlookers it was worth the wait as the two girls ran only 100 yards into the bush and posed beautifully together as they stood taking in their new surroundings. By now the sun had started to set and casted a beautiful light over the landscape.  This magical moment caused many to shed a tear and many hugs of congratulations were shared. The Namib Conservation Centre was up and running!!!!
The next morning Kate and I were up at the crack of dawn and said goodbye to the team who were about to start a mammoth trip further south to Sandfontein where the Leopard and other three cheetahs were to be released. Kate and I then enjoyed our first morning tracking and to our relief all four cats were still inside the camp!
It’s been two weeks since then and we couldn’t be happier with how things have gone. All four cats are doing well; we even found the two females and Spartacus on a springbok carcass one day (several Springbok were trapped when the fence went up).  We have also started to take guests out with us and the response we have had has been overwhelmingly positive, people are not just liking the experience, they are loving it. All have given us their contact details to receive more information about N/a’an ku se and some have even given donations. The fact that they get to walk alongside wild cheetahs that will be released back into the wild is proving a very unique experience for them. Word is spreading and we have already started to get visitors who are not staying at the guest farm coming just to see the cheetahs.
A student group from the Maricopa Community Colleges in the States were with us for three nights and helped us start exploring the area.  We found several possible leopard caves and marking trees and set up camera traps in our effort to gain an estimate of the population of carnivores already in the area. We haven't had to wait long as one of cameras has already captured this local resident:
We taught the students how to track and they also helped us strengthen the cheetah camp fence and map the camp with a GPS. The group was lead by Prof. Dennis Wilson who is an old friend we met at CCF. It was great having his group here and they helped us out enormously, we are hoping to continue the relationship and welcome another group next year.
Because our campsite is still to be completed, throughout all of this Kate and I have been staying in one of the rooms at the lodge and dining at the gourmet buffet every night! But that’s not to say we will be sad to move to the camp because just look where it is situated:
Not a bad location I think you’ll agree and the large platform on the left will be where our luxury safari tent is going…….Yep, it’s a hard life :) 

Please check out the official N/a’an ku se blog to read more about this and the Sandfontein release. The other three cheetahs are doing well in their holding camp and Derek the Leopard who was released straight to the wild has already made two kills!

Well, if you are still reading, thank you. I think after that epic blog entry you are now fully up to speed with everything that has happened over the past few weeks :)  And rest assured, there will be lots more to talk about over the upcoming months!