By Bonnie Schumann and Dr Laurie Marker, Cheetah Conservation Fund
During 2007, the town of Otjiwarongo held its centenary celebration and re-visited its past, from being the cattle capital of Namibia to becoming the Cheetah Capital of the World!
Originally a staging post on the railway from Tsumeb to Swakopmund, Otjiwarongo lies in an area now dominated by commercial cattle farming. A hundred years ago not much attention was paid to the fact that there were a few cheetahs around. Conservation, and certainly carnivore conservation, was not much of an issue, until, that is, some of the cattle (calves) were eaten by the carnivores, which were then systematically removed from this region by farmers. Although lion, wild dog and spotted hyaena did not survive this change in land management, cheetah and leopard outlived the arrival of cattle farming and still thrive in this area, so much so that Otjiwarongo has now claimed the title of Cheetah Capital of the World for itself. This reflects quite a paradigm shift – as opposed to ‘vermin’, the cheetah now has ‘value’.
Ripples in the mould of conventional thinking were first felt in 1992, when the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) established its fledgling education programme under the guidance of its Founder and Executive Director, Dr Laurie Marker. She invited a group of high-school students from Otjiwarongo to become involved in a project on cheetah conservation for the Conservo competition. Students learned about radio-telemetry, genetics, and livestock and wildlife management and how important Namibian farmers were to the long-term survival of the cheetah. Parents who were farmers and the parents of classmates who were farmers were challenged for the first time regarding the management practices they employed in respect of carnivore conflict. The CCF education programme with its humble beginnings in Otjiwarongo, has expanded to all the corners of Namibia, with about 10 000 students reached annually through centre-based and outreach programmes, spearheaded today by the CCF’s education officer, Gebhardt Nikanor.
In 1994 the CCF set up a permanent home base on the farm Elandsvreugde, which borders the Waterberg Plateau and is a 30-minute drive from Otjiwarongo. Thus cheetah conservation had come to stay, in the heart of the district. Over the years the CCF Research and Education Centre evolved into an international centre of excellence in cheetah conservation. Officially opened in 2000 by Namibia’s Founding Father and CCF’s International Patron, His Excellency Dr Sam Nujoma, the Education Centre is unique in that it welcomes day visitors into the hub of an operational research centre.
Otjiwarongo seems to nurture conservation, and is surrounded by various initiatives. The Waterberg Plateau Park, established in 1972, is home to black and white rhino, sable, roan and disease-free buffalo. This majestic mountain with its dramatic red sandstone cliffs is also home to Namibia’s last remaining Cape Vultures, birds that attracted the attention of Jörg and Maria Diekmann. Farming in the shadow of the mountain, they established REST (the Rare and Endangered Species Trust), which has rapidly made a name for itself, pioneering new boundaries in vulture conservation.
The Waterberg Conservancy, chaired by Harry Schneider-Waterberg, cattle farmer and conservationist, was established in 1995. It was the second freehold commercial conservancy to be established in the country. The Cheetah Conservation Fund is an active member of this Conservancy.
Last year the eastern communal areas cele-brated the registering of four new communal conservancies around the endangered African wild dog found in the area known as Hereroland. This initiative, supported extensively by the CCF, the Namibian Nature Foundation (NNF) and the Namibian Development Trust (NDT), heralded a new era for wildlife conservation and community co-operation in this corner of Namibia.
Completing the conservation circle, situated south west of Otjiwarongo, is Okonjima, one of Namibia’s premier lodges and home to the AfriCat Foundation, and the Ovipuka Conservancy, which also have the conservation of Namibia’s carnivores as its primary objective.
These various conservation initiatives have linked Otjiwarongo with the world through multiple media channels. The focus on cheetah conservation by CCF has certainly made Namibia the epicentre of cheetah conservation in Africa. Otjiwarongo is seen regularly on Animal Planet and National Geographic, CNN, BBC, Sky News TV channels and in international magazines and newspapers throughout the world, bringing more and more visitors to this region of Namibia.
The Cheetah Capital of the World has become the crossroads of Namibia – a place where cultures meet and conservation thrives.
This article appeared in the 2007/8 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.