The AfriCat Foundation – Conservation through education

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Text and Photographs Annabelle Venter

A non-profit organisation, committed to the long-term conservation of Namibia’s large carnivores.

I’m sure you’ve seen the heading “Okonjima, home of the AfriCat Foundation”? In our Autumn issue we learnt that at Okonjima tourism supports conservation – but where exactly does AfriCat fit in? Back in the 1970s the Hanssen family ran Okonjima near Otjiwarongo as a successful cattle farm, but increasing stock losses due to large predator attacks on their livestock forced them to explore alternative farming methods (you can read the full story in issue no. 17 of Travel News Namibia). 

A s a family passionate about wildlife and practising alternative farming methods they were keen to share their knowledge with neighbouring farmers. Instead, however, they were asked to remove cheetahs and sometimes the leopards that farmers assumed were killing their livestock. Some were released on far-away wild lands and some ended up at AfriCat, but the family knew that this was not a long-term solution. A need arose for education, research and conservation regarding large carnivores but the Hanssens lacked the funds to achieve their objective.

Finally, in 1993, the Hanssen siblings established the AfriCat Foundation as an independent entity separate from Okonjima Guest farm. AfriCat now covers a range of activities with the focus squarely on educating everyone from pre-school learners to adults.

ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION STARTS WITH OUR CHILDREN!
‘Conservation through Education’ is the message outside the school building. A friendly border collie rushes out to meet us, immediately followed by her mistress, co-founder Yolande Roos. Established seven years ago and co-sponsored by Okonjima and an investor from Britain, Perivoli Okonjima Country School is open to all children on Okonjima. The school has grown from 20 to currently 70 learners, from kindergarten through to Grade 5.  School starts at 7am and after the lunch break homework is done back at school while the parents are still working. A compulsory half an hour of reading is practised daily. At this charming country school a love of nature is instilled in the children from day one – hopefully fostering a lifelong commitment to conservation.

Here, the bush feels close by and the focus is on environmental education and physical fitness. The children are taught to take care of the environment. Hiccup, an orphaned warthog, went to school with the kids until he was two years old. Jima the collie has attended school since she was a puppy and has helped the children to overcome any fear of dogs! Week-long school camps for secondary school learners are offered at the AfriCat Environmental Education Camp PAWS (People and Wildlife Solutions). Intensive programmes include learning about hands-on conservation while living in rustic tents on the mountainside. These camps are organised and run by the Hanssen siblings’ aunt Helen Newmarch, and the children get to meet the carnivore ambassadors in their large enclosures, studying each cat close-up before visiting the wild and rehabilitated predators on the reserve.

The goal of educating children through conservation is that even though the older generations may not welcome advice or change old habits easily, we will often listen to our children who have seen and learnt the benefits of conservation practices first-hand. At Okonjima and AfriCat North more than 30 000 children and young adults have benefited from these programmes since 1998. Helen is also involved in adult education programmes which include equipping farmers, teachers, guides and decision-makers with the necessary skills to ensure the long term protection of predators.

AFRICAT NORTH
AfriCat North’s goal is primarily to resolve human-wildlife conflict and monitor lion movement between Etosha, Hobatere and the bordering farmlands. Tammy Hoth-Hanssen, older sister to the Okonjima Hanssen siblings, heads the team based in nearby Kamanjab. Their aim is to support commercial and communal farmers by offering management strategies for protecting their livestock, rather than removing the problem animals. The team provides and constructs lion and hyena-proof kraals for protection at night and early in the morning when these predators are on the prowl for prey. The team also offers advice on daytime protection of livestock and sustainable grazing management. Their goal is to improve the income of local farmers, prevent stock losses and reduce the killing of lions and other large predators which move in and out of nearby Etosha. Environmental Education Programmes are also offered for young people and farmers in the area. Four lion cubs which were rescued here some years ago joined the other carnivore ambassadors at the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre at Okonjima.

Mulder,-now-12-years-old-remains-in-captivity-as-an-AfriCat-ambassador
Mulder, now 12 years old remains in captivity as an AfriCat ambassador

RESEARCH
Researcher Jenny Noack has been at AfriCat for a year and a half to study the resident wild leopard population of Okonjima. So far 35 leopards have been identified, of which 14 have been collared. Jenny’s work includes monitoring the 20 flash-camera traps that she has spaced evenly over the 20 000 ha reserve. The data and images collected from these cameras help AfriCat to better understand the density and movements of their leopard population. Several of the rehabilitated cheetahs that have been re-introduced to the reserve were killed by the leopards, therefore the de-bushing programme is of prime importance in order to give the cheetahs the open plains they desperately need to avoid the leopards.

CARNIVORE CARE CENTRE
Okonjima and AfriCat’s mission has always been to ‘to keep wild carnivores wild’. Of the more than 1080 carnivores rescued by AfriCat 85% were released, 5% died and the remaining 10% can’t be released. 34 animals are now in AfriCat’s care: 15 cheetahs, 4 leopards and 3 lions that make up the carnivore ambassadors of AfriCat. They cannot be released back into the wild, either because they have become tame or habituated to people, or were orphaned and never taught how to hunt. A further 12 cheetahs are awaiting release in the private nature reserve. The Carnivore Care Centre provides care for orphaned, injured and young predators until such time that they can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Annual health checks by a team of specialist veterinarians are done on all the captive and rehabilitated carnivores at the new animal clinic here. This also forms part of AfriCat’s research programme carried out by veterinary specialists. Among others, findings on stress levels and diets of captive and wild animals are compared.

Even from a distance there are many ways to support this extraordinary foundation. Visit www.africat.org/support to find out how you can contribute to environmental education, community support and ensuring the survival of large carnivores in Namibia.

Teacher-Sandy-instructs-Grades-4-and-5
Teacher Sandy instructs Grades 4 and 5
Researcher-Jenny-Noack-checking-a-camera-trap-on-Okonjima
Researcher Jenny Noack checking a camera trap on Okonjima
1
Thimba the Carnivore Ambassador that succumbed to cancer on 17 April 2016
2
Donna Hanssen who runs AfriCat on Okonjima
3
The AfriCat Environmental Education centre’s camp at Okonjima
This article was first published in the Winter 2016 issue of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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