Lise Hanssen, Okonjima and Africat Foundation
One Woman's Odyssey Among Namibia's Big Cats
It's not easy to convince a farmer who just lost a calf to a leopard that the leopard
shouldn't be shot. Nor do most farmers tolerate cheetahs wandering freely around their farms. Nevertheless, Lise Hanssen is trying to convince Namibian farmers to do just that:
to let predators continue to live on their farms. At the same time, they are educating foreign tourists and Namibian school children about the value of such predators.
The kids listen, adults don't, explains Lise Hanssen, who runs the Africat Foundation, a foundation based on her husband's family farm in Namibia, Africa. She and her husband, Wayne, run the foundation and take care of numerous cheetahs and leopards that they have rescued from farms where the cats were trapped or shot at and survived. One goal of the organization is to rehabilitate the cats and then relocate them, usually to game parks in other parts of Southern and Eastern Africa. To date, the organization has relocated more than 400 cheetahs and 200 leopards, as well as several brown hyenas, caracals and wild dogs. The other goal is to promote conservation of big cats in the wild.
Lise and the cats have a very personal relationship, explained Martin, a Belgian guide who was showing a group of us around the family farm, known as Okonjima, where the Africat Foundation is based. Martin had been working as a guide for over a year. There is no way I would do what she does with those animals, he said. They have some sort of connection with her. She can walk among them in situations where I have no doubt they would attack me. Dark haired, slender and moving with the same quiet glide of the cats she loves, Lise has been working to save cheetahs and leopards for ten years. It's not an easy task in a country where cheetahs and leopards are as unwelcome on a farm as wolves are on a ranch out west in the United States.
According to Martin, Africat now supports numerous orphans: 43 cheetahs (aged 6 months - 13 years), 11 leopards (aged 18 months - 15 years), and three lions (aged 3 - 4 years). Some are being rehabilitated. They are fed until they are well-nourished and their injuries are treated and healed. Then they are released to a farm owned by an enlightened farmer or to a game reserve somewhere else in Africa that needs a predatory cat. Some cats never recover from their injuries enough to be returned to the wild. Others have become too habituated to humans to be able to survive in the wild. Others are simply too old. These cats that cannot be rehabilitated are the Foundation's permanent residents. Okonjima is large, a total of 5000 hectares (12,355 acres). Approximately 350 hectares (750 acres) are fenced for the big cats. Within this area there are several cheetah and leopard camps. And a new, neighboring 4000 hectare (10,000 acre) enclosure recently was bought and donated to Africat by the British TUSK Foundation. It will be used as a transition area for rehabilitation of cats that might be able to return to the wild.
I first met Lise in May, 1994, when I was working as an anthropologist in Namibia. I was amazed at her calm fearlessness as she strode carrying a rifle into a large holding camp to put meat out for leopards. Talk about a role model, I thought. Every high school girl should see this. This is what they'd all want to be like when they grow up. On that same trip, I was chosen by Lise to help feed the cheetahs. Following her, I slowly dismounted from the Land Rover. The cheetahs we were feeding resided in a large holding camp. Moving evenly, I flung the meat to them, making sure it landed close enough to the Land Rover for the tourist group to watch the feeding. To be on the ground only a few feet from these cats, their eyes, golden yellow orbs staring at me, brought me under their spell.
Seven years later, I returned to Namibia, this time bringing my family. Now it was not only Lise's fearlessness that impressed me but her perseverance. Saving big cats in Africa is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Namibia is a large country of 321,500 square miles with only 1.7 million people, one of the least densely populated countries in Africa. The country is located south of Angola and north of South Africa with the Atlantic Ocean forming its western boundary. To the east is Botswana and the Kalahari desert. Namibia's vegetation is mostly desert and savannah. The country is rich and diverse in wildlife. It is also home to 25% of the world's cheetah population. But 90% of the cheetahs live as unwelcome residents on farms rather than in game parks. The Namibian leopard, lion, and brown hyena populations exist in this same farmland ecosystem. The biggest threat to all these animals is loss of habitat, Lise explained. So farmers must be educated about the value of these animals and there must be options for the co-existence of predators and cattle. The story of Okonjima is a prime example of attempting to solve this problem of co-existence.
In the beginning, Okonjima was a cattle farm. Wayne's father, Val, learned about cattle farming in Texas, where the breeds were hardy and suited to a dry climate like that found in Namibia. When Val returned to Namibia in 1970, he bought Okonjima, which means "a place of the baboons", and settled down to breeding Brahman cattle. However, the family struggled with extensive losses of cattle to carnivores, particularly leopard. As Wayne grew up, he became an expert tracker and protected the family's cattle by shooting leopard and other carnivores. With the passing of years, he found himself more and more unwilling to kill leopards until one day with a leopard in his gunsight he lowered his gun. He couldn't kill it. He had spent so much time tracking the big cats and learning about them that he had become attached to them. Some sort of truce between farmer and cat had to be devised. But how?
So began the long journey researching leopards to develop techniques to protect livestock. Wayne discovered that killing the resident alpha carnivore led to several nomadic, younger individuals moving onto a farm and carving out smaller, individual territories. So killing a resident leopard increased the number of leopards on a farm. He remembered that Okonjima had had an excessively high leopard population before his father bought the farm precisely because the previous owner had tried to eradicate all the leopards. Over time Wayne learned that the trick to protecting cattle from leopards was to make sure that the calves were in a pen until they were four months old and strong enough to keep up with their mothers on the veld. Until that time, he brought the cows to the pens to feed their calves.
When Wayne had reduced the number of calves that were killed by leopards to a manageable level, his father agreed to sell him the farm. His mother, Rose, had recently started a small guest business to help make ends meet. The farm lay on the route from the capital city of Windhoek to Etosha game park, and when the Namibian war for independence from South Africa ended in March of 1990, tourists began to trickle into Namibia. It was around this time that Lise Hanssen came to visit the farm, met Wayne, and fell in love with him and his vision for saving big cats.
From the beginning, Lise had a special repartee with the cats, particularly the cheetahs. Chinga, a young, female cheetah cub had been kept in a rabbit hutch until rescued by Okonjima before she was sold at auction. Caesar, another cheetah, was rescued from a local farm when he was around two. The cheetah Chui was hit by a car as a six-month old cub. All were raised by Lise and Wayne. As the number of cats on the farm increased, so did the tourists. Neighbors and others would come to the Hanssens for advice about predator problems or would bring them orphaned cubs. Soon people were calling the Hanssens and asking them to remove cheetahs and leopards from their farms. Okonjima became known as a place for animal welfare. By 1993 the Africat Foundation was firmly established and the Hanssen family got rid of the last of their cattle, turning Okonjima into a refuge for cats and an educational tourism lodge.
But convincing Namibia's 7,000 commercial and game farmers to stop shooting, poisoning, and trapping large carnivores would not be easy. The majority of farmers are still resistant to protecting large carnivores on their farms. This is why Africat switched its educational focus from adults to children, who seem more open to new knowledge. The good news, according to Lise, is that Africat now receives phone calls from upset farmers whose children have been educated at Africat and no longer want their parents to kill cheetahs or leopards. AThis gives us an opening to point out that there are practices that reduce livestock and game depredation,@ says Lise. We take the same approach when a farmer asks us to take a wild carnivore off his farm. We remove the animal and point out that we are available to help the farmer with new game and livestock management techniques.
There are 2,500 to 3,000 cheetahs in Namibia, according to the most recent 1987 estimate. Little is known about leopards in Namibia, but it's estimated that there are between 4,000 and 8,000. A few of the practices suggested by Africat to reduce big cat depredation are: breeding cows to calve during the same time period, keeping calves in protective pens near water so they can graze and then feed their young when they return to drink, hiring herders to watch the cows (a practice as old as the many pastoralists who roam Africa), using guard dogs and donkeys to protect young calves, and raising cattle breeds that are aggressive at protecting their calves. Best, according to Lise, is to use a combination of methods.
When I returned seven years later, there had been some changes at Okonjima. Lise now ran Africat full-time with Wayne. Wayne's sisters, Rosalea and Donna, ran the Okonjima guest lodge. Chinga, Chui, and Caesar, who used to wander round loose among the guest during tea-time no longer did so. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism had passed a law prohibiting contact between tourists and domesticated carnivores. Lise backed the law, pointing out that Africat had had to take on a number of unwanted, domesticated cheetahs after lodge owners abandoned them. A new environmental education center had been built on the farm and opened in 1998. It is staffed with a full-time teacher paid for by World Learning, a non-profit organization. Its goal is to promote education about large carnivores to young people who live on farms and communal lands. The center is free, but many schools can not afford the cost of transportation for school groups to the center.
As Africat has grown, Lise now finds herself participating in a variety of studies, such as a study on lions, leopards and cheetah in the desert-like Kunene Region in northwest Namibia. And, of course, the work on the farm never ends. The amount of progress Lise and the rest of the family have made with the foundation and the educational guest lodge is commendable. But more than anything, what drives Lise is the need to somehow convince farmers that they can co-exist with the big cats on their farms. And, despite the educational efforts and scientific arguments that Lise puts forth, what affected me most and what I imagine will eventually affect the farmers, just as it has affected their children, is seeing and relating to the big cats themselves.
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