P.A.W.S. for thought
Every year thousands of people head to Okonjima to hear about the work of AfriCat – a big cat sanctuary roughly halfway between Etosha National Park and Windhoek. They may spend two or even three days at the lodge, tracking leopard, learning about rehabilitating rescued cheetahs or going on bushman walks. But tourists have never been behind the scenes… until now. As Mary Askew discovered, a new project allows people to see much more of these beautiful cats, and do so much more for their long-term survival.

 

There was great excitement as I arrived at the PAWS project. A leopard had just been seen at a water hole, 20 metres from where guests were sitting around the campfire.  I say ‘guests’, but perhaps ‘workers’ would be more correct. Staying at the camp is no traditional holiday. Right now everyone is relaxing with a beer in their hands, watching the sun set over a nearby kopje. However, much of the day has been spent grafting. These people have a seemingly impossible mission – restoring 22,000 hectares of shrub land to how it was 200 years ago, before cattle, feeding troughs, fences and boreholes were introduced. Their biggest enemy is the thorny sickle bush which has encroached on much of Namibia’s savannah.


Once cleared, the land will be used by AfriCat to increase the number of cheetahs and leopards it can rehabilitate. The foundation already has cats waiting to be introduced to the land. Most of the animals are cheetahs that have been preying on cattle. In Namibia farmers are free to trap and kill cheetahs on their land, but AfriCat offers them a humane alternative.


Clive and Roma Muccio-Johnson have sunk their life savings into the PAWS project (PAWS stands for People and Wildlife Solutions). They arrived at Okonjima four years ago to manage one of the lodges, but quickly realised they wanted to do something much more hands on.


“Restoring this land is my passion and I want to install that passion into everyone that comes here,” says Clive.


“Sixty per cent of the grass species found here 200 years ago have disappeared, and it would be great to re-introduce them. A dream would be to bring back rhino and elephant too. It’s a very long term project. We think it will take about 12 years to complete the work, although by the end of 2009 we should have a perimeter fence up so AfriCat can start bringing in some animals”.


Clive and Roma started building the PAWS project in May 2008, and their first guests arrived in August. At the moment their capacity is ten, but they hope to increase that to 28 in the coming months. “We work hard here, but the rewards are great,” says Roma.


Clive, whose previous jobs have included being a holistic therapist, a wine adviser and a security guard, is a qualified wildlife guide. Clive’s safaris into Okonjima Game Reserve are justifiably popular. As he drives his commentary is fascinating. “There’s a dik dik. Did you know that they don’t drink? They get all the moisture they need from eating leaves… See that eland? He can jump two-and-a-half metres from standing… That cheetah is touching the ground about every seven metres when it is running”.


The speed that cheetahs run is one of the reasons that the bush at Okonjima needs to be cleared of shrub. A cheetah’s defensive reflexes cannot keep up when it sprints and so it can’t blink in time to protect its eyes from the sickle bush’s sharp thorns. Increasingly, rescued cheetahs are being found with damaged eyes. There’s a concern across Namibia that if sickle bush encroachment cannot be stopped then more and more cheetahs will have damaged sight. Cheetahs, relying only on their hearing to hunt, will then prey on cattle which, unlike game, make plenty of noise. This will only increase the current conflict between the country’s farmers and its big cats.


Perhaps the biggest incentive for PAWS guests is that they will be involved in an AfriCat rescue. In the first four months of operating, PAWS project members have helped save 17 cheetahs from farms where they would otherwise have been shot. Sixteen of those cats have been successfully reintroduced to the wild, one at water hole where that leopard has just been spotted. The waterhole was dug by the guests themselves and they fitted a spotlight in the hope of round-the-clock wildlife viewing. That was just two days ago.


As they talk excitedly about the young female leopard, totally wild, that spent 20 minutes drinking from their freshly-dug hole, I hear the words time and again, “It’s just so satisfying”.


• For more information visit www.pawsnamibia.org or www.okonjima.com or www.africat.org 

 

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