I spent a little over a month as a guest worker at the Cheetah Conservation Fund, in the Waterberg Plateau area of Namibia. The movie Duma first sparked my interest in cheetahs several years ago, and the opportunity to volunteer for CCF was part of the spark for this year of travel. It took some time for me to settle in at CCF, but in the end I had a great experience and was very grateful that they allowed me to participate in so many facets of their conservation work–game counts, scat detection, checking camera traps, caring for the cheetahs–that I otherwise would never have had the opportunity to do. Here are a few of the many memorable moments:
A Glimpse of Zinzi
A small group of us traveled out to a neighboring farm to see if we could check on Zinzi, a cheetah released back into the wild by CCF last year. We had tried twice before to track her, but like many cheetahs, Zinzi was elusive. We had, though, seen evidence of her before when we found the leftover legs of her recent kills, one from a duiker and one from a steenbok.
This time, though, for the first time we heard the faint tick…tick…tick of her radio collar when we held up the radio equipment. We got out of the car and trekked for 15 minutes or so on foot. Matt, who was working on his master’s project at CCF, carried a slab of donkey meat that we would give her as a reward for coming to us–if she came to us. Recently, the data from her radio collar indicated that she had cubs, so we were all eager to see both her and the cubs. Matt handed me a bowl as he and Eli, one of the cheetah keepers at CCF, called to her–“Come, Zinzi! Come, come!”–and told me to start banging on the bowl to help bring her to us. They called. I banged. Eventually, Matt turned back to me and Susan, a fellow volunteer. “She’s really close,” he said, and within a few steps, there she was, maybe 20 feet from us, looking alarmed, her belly round and well-fed. And then she dashed away. It was a brief but exhilirating sighting.
The Namibian sky has been one of the highlights of the country–first time seeing the Milky Way, first time seeing a blue tint in clouds, first time seeing double rainbows (two!) , puffy white clouds hanging like portrait paintings, thin white clouds swept across the sky. I can’t say why, but the Namibian sky is more dramatic than I’ve seen other places, even in nearby African countries. And being at CCF gave me more time to enjoy that sky, as well as being outside in general. As I walked back to my room after dinner many nights I stopped to stare at the moon and the stars above and soak in the purr of the cheetahs nearby and the sounds of the insects. When we drove places, I often had my arm out the window to feel the air on my skin or stood in the back of the truck both to feel the air push against me and to get a better view of the Waterberg Plateau area.
One evening after checking on a kill made by Zinzi, a small group of us drove back to CCF as the sun was setting. I stood in the back of the truck with a fellow volunteer and a CCF staff member. My eyes were stinging and running from the dirt and wind as we sped down the road, and in my short-sleeve t-shirt, I was getting cold. Somewhere we had taken a wrong turn and were out later than expected. Dinner was delayed by about an hour, but we got to watch the Namibian sky in action–gray, lavender and pink ahead of us, a starry night to our right and regular intervals of lightning that lit up the surrounding fields far more than the headlights shining from the dirty truck. The magic of nature.
Spreading Love to the Dogs
On many days I was assigned to help care for the dogs either in the morning, evening or both. I fed them, cleaned their water and checked them for ticks. One morning I timed a pair of breeding dogs while they were “locked.” These dogs are part of CCF’s Livestock Guarding Dog Program, which breeds Anatolian puppies and then pairs them with local farmers to protect the farmers’ livestock from predators such as cheetah or jackal. More than 95% of the cheetahs in Namibia live on farmland. Many times farmers will shoot cheetah out of a real or perceived threat to their livestock, so building a bridge with farmers is a crucial piece in helping ensure the cheetah’s survival in the wild.
Though the Anatolians are excellent guarding dogs, to me they were gentle giants, and I got attached to several of them despite some of their hijinks. I ended up in a bathroom with one named Karibib one day when she bolted from her enclosure and ran off to the “Hot Spot” area where we ate our meals. And another day a male goat named Hansel jumped me as I was cleaning the water container for one of the dogs. As soon as I bent down to clean it, I knew I was in trouble. I looked over and saw Hansel start heading my way with a creepy look on his face. After a while of me attempting to push him off, some farm workers came in and steered him to a bale of hay, all the while chuckling at the scene. I had his stink on me for the rest of the day, even after a rush laundry job at lunch. Thanks, Hansel.
Bloody Meat, Anyone?
Many days I also helped with feeding the cheetahs. Sometimes this was helping to feed some of CCF’s non-releasable cheetahs as part of its “centre feeding,” which gives the public a chance to learn more about cheetahs while watching them chow on a slab of meat (usually horse or donkey meat bought from local farmers and, on special days, the donkey head, which we grabbed by the tongue and placed on the ground). The cheetahs usually raced in to the feeding area, picked up their piece of meat from their specially placed metal bowl (which mimics the bowl-like cavity they carve out of a kill in the wild), made a circle with the meat in their clenches and then returned to their bowl to settle in for the meal.
Other days, I got to be part of the husbandry team that fed the cheetahs the public doesn’t see, some of whom will hopefully be released back into the wild when the right environment is found for them. We would select certain cuts of meat for each cheetah and cut up treats. Then we loaded everything into the husbandry truck. We ran each of the cheetahs alongside the speeding truck, with me and another volunteer in the back encouraging them and tossing them treats at the end of a run. Then we either tossed them their meat over the fence or fed them in bowls in their enclosures. It was dirty work, but a lot of fun.
Paw in Paw
One afternoon I was sitting at lunch when the husbandry truck came zooming in near the Hot Spot. One of the cheetah keepers hopped out and grabbed some hardboiled eggs for the road. It turned out Padme, one of the wilder cheetahs at CCF, had been injured after a scuffle with a fellow cheetah, and she needed stitches. Padme was put out, including placing giant wads of cotton in her ears and a sleep mask over her eyes (this is what I look like when I sleep!), and I got the thrill of holding an ice pack on her paw to help bring her temperature down. Yes, I nearly passed out after a while of watching them clean and stitch her wound and had to go sit outside on a chair. Scratch surgeon off the list of future jobs!
In the last couple of weeks they had me on various landscaping projects, and I discovered I love this work, in particular trimming trees. I found it relaxing, and I liked the visual aspect of shaping the tree. Bridget Scissorhands?
For one of these projects, we dug dirt out of what was once a rondavel and then filled it with sand. It was tough going, but when we came by the next day and saw adorable B2 enjoying the mound, it made it all worth it.
Some general comments on volunteering: If you are interested in volunteering at CCF or someplace else, I would encourage you to give it as much time as you can. I spent a month at CCF and only began to get in the swing of things after roughly 2-3 weeks. The more time you can give an organization, the more useful you can be. From what I saw, the people who had been there several months were the most helpful. It also took me time to build bonds with the other people there–to share in the jokes about, say, the car missing third gear and the many mishaps we all had at one time or another–which eventually made it more meaningful to me. With that, here are some photos of me and fellow volunteers, as well as some of the dedicated staff at CCF who very patiently taught me a lot about CCF and cheetahs in particular and conservation work in general.
Meet and Greet
On the last day, I got to meet the ambassador cheetahs who I had watched and heard purring every day. Highlight! I miss those guys.