My name is Jonathan Harrington, and I’ve been on six Earthwatch expeditions. I just returned a few weeks ago from Cheetah Conservation in Namibia.
During my trip, I spent two weeks as a volunteer with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia. I had a crash course in animal husbandry, helping to care for cheetahs, dogs, and goats; helped census antelopes, giraffes, zebras, and other animals in the surrounding bushland; learned a lot about cheetah biology and CCF’s approach to conservation; and went on a short safari to the awesome Namib Desert. I thought I’d share the interesting parts with you. Perhaps you’ll join me next time!
Saving the Cheetah
Formerly ranging from the southern tip of Africa to India, cheetahs are now confined to Africa except for a small population in Iran. They are the most endangered African cat. Namibia in the southern part of Africa has more cheetahs than any other country. Most Namibian cheetahs live outside of protected areas on farmlands where they share the habitat with domestic sheep, goats, and cattle as well as a variety of antelopes and other African animals that are their normal prey. CCF is developing ways in which cheetahs can continue to coexist with humans and their livestock over the long term.
Most cats, of whatever size, are versatile predators. They are good at climbing, leaping, stalking, pouncing, rushing, even swimming, and killing a variety of prey by various methods. Cheetahs are specialists. They are good at only one thing—running—but they are better at it than any other animal. Their powerful leg muscles, flexible spine, enlarged heart, and large lung capacity enable them to reach speeds of up to 112 kilometers (almost 70 miles) per hour. However, like human sprinters, they can keep up such speeds for only a short time (usually around 20 seconds). They feed mostly on small antelopes. Overtaking their prey from behind, they trip it with their front legs and then kill it by holding its throat in their jaws until it is asphyxiated. For a large carnivore, cheetahs are rather delicate and unaggressive animals. They do not attack humans and can be driven from their kill by lions, hyenas, or even vultures.
Conservation, Education, Research
CCF has more than 50 resident cheetahs. Cheetahs that are brought to CCF as cubs orphaned before they have learned to hunt from their mother cannot be returned to the wild. Therefore, they will live out their lives at CCF where they will be used for display and research. Many of the others (more than 600 so far) will be released back into the wild. Visitors to CCF can observe the animals being fed and exercised and visit the gift shop and museum. CCF researchers are studying genetics, reproduction, prey preferences, ecology, diseases, and other aspects of cheetah biology, as well as monitoring the status of many other species of wild animals in the surrounding area. CCF also conducts training programs for farmers to minimize conflict with cheetahs and educational programs in schools throughout Namibia to raise awareness of environmental issues. Finally, interns, visiting scientists, and Earthwatch and other volunteers from all over the world come to CCF to learn and participate in its activities.
Observing African Animals in the Wild
CCF is located on a 7,000-hectare (17,000-acre) former farm, surrounded by the Waterberg Conservancy, that is home to giraffes, zebras, big antelopes (kudu, hartebeest, oryx, and eland), small antelopes (steenbok, springbok, and duiker), vast numbers of warthogs, several predators (cheetah, leopard, jackal, and brown hyena), big birds (ostrich, kori bustard), and many other birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. We took regular drives around the property in open-topped vehicles to count animals and also observed animals for one day from dawn to dusk from a hide at a waterhole. We entered the data into CCF’s database, where they are used for research on game density, movements, demographics, and habitat utilization.
Over several millennia, a number of breeds of large, tough guardian dogs have been developed to protect livestock in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. They do not herd livestock but rather live with them in the field and threaten or drive away predators such as wolves and bears. The CCF raises Anatolian shepherd dogs and distributes them to Namibian farmers, who report that they are effective in reducing the numbers of livestock killed by cheetahs. Discouraged from attacking livestock by the guardian dogs, the cheetahs are more likely to go after their normal wild prey. The dogs are reared with sheep or goats and defend them from predators as if they were members of the herd. These beautiful and well-behaved dogs were a pleasure to be with and to take for walks.
As a volunteer, I placed food and water in cheetah pens, cleaned the plates when they were finished, collected bones and feces from the pens, raked the pens, walked the dogs, fed the baby goats, and cleaned the goat pens. This was an educational experience that made me appreciate how much hard work and attention goes into caring for these animals!
CCF’s cheetahs receive top-notch medical and dental care from a resident veterinarian and a dentist who visits from the nearby town.
Harvesting the Bush
The habitat around CCF is thornbush savanna, consisting of thorny acacia trees interspersed with grassland. As a result of overgrazing, the trees are encroaching on the grassland. This is bad for cheetahs because they require open areas to chase their prey. CCF is conducting a project to harvest the trees, chop them up, and mold them into logs (Bushbloks) for fireplaces and barbecues that are sold in southern Africa and Europe. This project benefits consumers by giving them a chance to purchase an eco-friendly product, the local people by providing jobs, CCF by bringing in some income, and the cheetahs by improving their habitat.
One of the benefits of Earthwatch expeditions is that they give you an intensive experience of a relatively small area. After two weeks I felt I knew this little piece of Africa fairly well, although one could spend a lifetime trying to learn everything about it. I think this is a much better use of time than dashing around trying to cover as much ground as possible (I’ve done this on other, non-Earthwatch trips). But I also like to visit some of the rest of the country to see the wildlife, the landscape, and how people live. In six Earthwatch expeditions, I’ve always taken a side trip either before or after the expedition. In Namibia I spent several days relaxing in the capital, Windhoek, a pleasant modern city with a number of attractions. I also went on a three-day safari to the Namib Desert, one of the world’s driest and oldest (it has been desert for at least 50 million years, throughout global climate fluctuations that turned the Sahara into grassland). The high point of the trip (literally) was the 170-meter (550-foot) dune 45.