Carnivores, conferences, cheetahs and second-hand cardigans

Winter has finally arrived in Namibia, which for a desert country, means warm days but VERY cold nights!  It got to -3C in the capital city of Windhoek last week and the release team that were out monitoring rewilded cheetahs had to come back in because their drinking water stayed frozen until 10am!  For some reason this cold, dry weather causes electricity to build up and every time I touch something metal, I get electrocuted!  Laurie and I were in Windhoek last week with another CCF member of staff for the annual tourism expo, and whilst there, I bought a sleeping bag in preparation for my trip around southern Africa in August.  I was so glad to have it with me as we slept in a hostel overnight and the thin blankets were certainly not enough to keep us warm! 

The expo itself was pretty fun and we advertised CCF as a tourist destination, as well as tried to get business for our goat cheese products and donations for our fundraising gala next month.  Wednesday night was the tour operator’s night, which involved a lot of free food and alcohol.  Myself and the other CCF staff member, Anja, went around the stands trying to drum up some business and taking a few free samples along the way.  I think I must have eaten something funny (no it wasn’t the alcohol as I don’t  drink!), because I had to go running to the toilet to thrown up three times – eek!  My hard work paid off though and we got one hotel to donate N$7,000 (roughly £650) of accommodation and food for an auction prize at the gala, which was great.

Also in Windhoek we had an LCMAN (Large Carnivore Management Association of Namibia) meeting, where all the carnivore organisations of Namibia meet to discuss their progress, with the aim of working collaboratively towards the common goal of holistic conservation for these threatened species.  However, instead of being a combined effort, it instead seemed to be a pissing contest of who had the biggest ego and who should be the rightful person to be in charge of their own species’ conservation.   It is such a shame that charismatic animal conservation seems to be full of arrogance, narcissism and self-righteousness.  I am sure we could all get a lot more done if we left our egos at the door and worked together rather than independently.  A real pity.

Anja and I returned to Windhoek earlier on this week to try to round up more donations for the gala at one of the shopping malls, as well as attend the Queen’s birthday celebrations organised by the British HighCommissioner.  If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may know that the British High Commissioner came to CCF earlier on in the year, which was where I first met her.  She’s a truly lovely lady and seemed to really enjoy herself at CCF.  We swapped contact details and last month I received a gold-embossed invitation from her Honourable to attend a garden party to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.  For those of you who know me personally, I am probably the furthest you could get from a royalist, but I thought it might be a rather interesting event to go to, and plus we could see if we could meet some influential people that might be able to either donate us some money or pull some strings for us at CCF!  Dressed in the finest gear I brought to Africa (which was a 12-year-old black skirt and a second-hand black cardigan!) I felt well and truly out of place surrounded by many foreign dignitaries, Lords and Ladies, and even the Namibian President himself (although embarrassingly enough I didn’t know who he was and instead thought he might have been a member of the mafia considering the outfit he was wearing).  We stayed for just over an hour; enough time to watch the Namibian Defence Force band play the British national anthem in a somewhat out-of-tune manner, watch a cringe-worthy self-commending video of how apparently great Great Britain is, and down a few glasses of mango juice before we made our exit.
Last weekend some friends at CCF and I went to OkonjimaLodge, home to the large carnivore conservation charity, AfriCat.  I’d heard about AfriCat a few years ago from my mum and had always wanted to visit ever since.  My housemate/vet nurse at CCF knows one of the guys who runs the place, so with his connection, we were able to visit and stay for the weekend for about a quarter of the cost that people usually pay – bargain!  We headed out on Saturday morning and arrived just before lunch to be greeted in the car park by one of the tour guides, who took us to reception, where cocktail glasses of iced tea were waiting for us.  What a nice welcoming!  We then decided on the activities we were going to do – a leopard and cheetah tracking afternoon, followed by a game drive in the morning to see a semi rewilded leopard and some of the captive cheetahs at the reserve.
 After lounging about on our verandas that overlooked a large savanna complete with foraging warthogs and jackals, we left for our first activity.  Our guide and tracker drove us around the 22,000 hectare reserve with his telemetry gear to try to get a signal from one of the resident wild collared animals.  After half an hour or so of searching, we got a faint signal close to the mountain range.  We started to hone in on the beeps and finally found the area that he was in.  As we drove off the road to get closer, Rosie saw a carcass under a tree and we then got a whiff of unmistakable dead animal!  Shortly thereafter, we noticed an extremely well-camouflaged male leopard hiding in the bushes by the carcass.  He was massive – around 75kg!  We sat and watched him for a while before deciding to go on in search of the rewilded cheetahs.  [Rewilding means animals that were originally wild but were brought into captivity as farmers did not want them on their land, and then have been placed back into the wild after an extended period of time in captivity.]  We got a signal of a coalition of three cheetahs and decided to walk the rest of it in the veld, being that cheetahs are not aggressive (usually!) to humans.  After a quick walk through the bush, we found the two males and one female relaxing by a termite mound as the sun started to set.  Warthogs ran by, wildebeest trotted down the track and a curious jackal wandered towards us, sniffing the air.  The cheetahs seemed so relaxed in our company and we were able to get within a few metres of them.  The tracker brought the car around and provided us with sundowners (usually alcoholic drinks at sunset – although mine was a bitter lemon!) whilst we chilled out in the bush watching the animals.  A very relaxing afternoon!
 We then headed back to camp as the night started to draw closer, when the driver got wind of a leopard juvenile that had been seen by another car heading home.  We raced off in the hope of spotting this creature, but unfortunately he’d skulked off into the bushes before we got there.  We couldn’t be too demanding of our wildlife sightings!  Back at base camp we were once again wowed at the fabulous service at AfriCat as one of the guides was waiting for us at the gate with our room keys and flash lights – it’s the small touches that really count!  We freshened up for dinner and then headed to the dining hall to be fed a lovely three-course meal, which we enjoyed thoroughly, before sitting next to the fire with hot drinks to warm ourselves.   After a great day, we headed back to our individual rooms with smiles on our faces.  Not thinking that the service could get any better, I got into bed only to find that the maid had placed a hot water bottle under the duvet to warm the bed up – AMAZING!
 The next morning at 6 am we all got wake-up calls to meet in the dining hall for coffee and muffins before heading out on our game drive.  Being that the desert is so frightfully cold in the morning, we wrapped ourselves up in all our clothes whilst on the back of the open-top safari vehicle as the wind bit into our ears and noses.  We went to visit the semi rewilded leopard (living in a large camp and able to catch his own prey, but also gets supplementary fed).  Before getting out of the car, the driver checked his telemetry for signals of collared animals close by; apparently not long ago he had walked along the path to get to the leopard’s enclosure only to find the huge 75kg wild male leopard on the track staring at him!!  There was no signal so we hopped off the car and went to the enclosure.  On the way, we did actually see the wild leopard’s tracks on the path, indicating that he must have been there just a few hours before.  When we got to the enclosure, there was a hide where we could sit in and observe the semi-wild leopard eat his breakfast on a bare tree a few metres from us.  He ran up the branches with ease and chowed down on his food as we snapped away with photos.  It was amazing to see him up close and personal, admiring his big teeth, beautiful coat and long tail.
 After that we went to visit the captive cheetahs and then went to meet some of the managers of AfriCat. We had a big long conversation about carnivore conservation and talked about the similarities and differences between CCF and AfriCat.  Apparently we were the first CCF staff members to ever visit AfriCat, which is rather embarrassing given that we’re basically down the road from each other and each organisation has known of the other for nearly 2 decades!  I hope that our visit was the first of a reciprocity between our two organisations.

As you may have established by now, we never have a dull moment here at CCF.  Whilst away in Windhoek, we heard of a big cat keeper volunteer here with 20-years of experience in the field having his finger broken by a goat – how humiliating for him!  I also learnt that one of the workers here stabbed himself (on purpose) through the chest and is currently in hospital – quite literally crazy!  We have many people come and go through CCF’s doors (with quite a number of staff leaving in the next few months) and now we have 5 visiting professors from Cornell University in the States coming here to start a research collaboration between us and them – quite exciting.  And lastly, I’ve just been told today Tom Lovejoy (the man who coined the term “biodiversity” many decades ago) and members of the biggest of the big cat conservation organisations, Panthera, will be here next month – how exciting indeed!


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