SCHOOL VISITS - HAMPTON SCHOOL
Hampton School Adventure Society Expedition visits AfriCat HQ, based in the private, Okonjima Nature Reserve
After leaving Etosha, we travelled down to Okonjima, a 55,000 acre reserve for Namibia’s large carnivores. After arriving at the campsite we were given a quick talk on dos and don’ts before we went out to spend the evening tracking cheetahs. We travelled in a couple of land cruisers to see if we could catch a glimpse of the newly reintroduced cheetah siblings Coco, Spud and Bones from the vehicles. We worked out, using a radio tracking device, that the cheetahs were in the middle of some thick bush which we couldn’t drive into and so to continue tracking them, we got out on foot. We were told that a leopard was in the area and so should follow our guides in single file with another guide bringing up the rear. We soon found the cheetahs and were able to get some stunning photographs as the siblings half slept in the evening sun. We were then told we could get even closer to these amazing cats. Under the expert eye of our guides we got as close as 5m to three semi-wild cheetahs. It was a really fantastic experience. We watched them as the sun set behind us and eventually started back to camp convinced that this experience would definitely be the highlight of our three weeks in Namibia, only to be told on our return that there was so much more to come.
The next day we got up extra early to climb up one of the mountains that overlooks the Okonjima valley in order to watch the sun rise. It was an absolutely remarkable experience and we genuinely got the feeling of being on top of the world as we looked down over the plains. On our return our guide took us out on the bushman trail to teach us about the ancient Bushmen and how they lived and hunted. It was incredible to learn quite how resourceful these people were and we were shown everything from typical bushman jewellery made of seeds to a bushman water bottle – an empty ostrich shell. We later went out in the search of wild dogs and leopards and managed to get a brilliant sighting of Shanti - a young female leopard – with a kill in a riverbed. The raw power of the animal was evident despite Shanti being quite small in comparison to other leopards. Only a few minutes later we found Rex and his two sisters – Okonjima’s three dog strong wild dog pack sunning themselves by a waterhole. I was fortunate enough to be in the first land cruiser to find them as before the others could arrive they disappeared into the bush.
After lunch Helen took us around AfriCat’s clinic and education centre where we were taught about AfriCats aims as a charity and we were shown some of the horrific traps and snares poachers set up to catch large carnivores. Next we were allowed to watch Wahu, a leopard who had been hand reared and so would be too tame to release into the reserve, being fed. It was extraordinary to see such a powerful animal so close even from the safety of the observation hut! We were then shown five cheetah siblings whose mother had been shot in the wild and they had been rescued from her womb. Again, because these cats had been hand reared, they would never be returned completely to the wild for their own safety as they were just too comfortable around humans, which we were fortunate enough to experience first-hand. The cheetahs were perfectly comfortable eating no more than a few feet from where we were standing, the other side of a mesh fence.
That night we slept in a wild camp in a riverbed under the stars about 500m from a hyena den. Because we were sleeping in the open we set a watch throughout the night although fortunately they were only required to keep the fires alight! The next morning we went in search of Pooh, one of the three hyenas in the Okonjima reserve - all named after bears – but he had gone too far from base camp for us to be able to follow him. Helen later showed us some termite mounds up close and as well as making us realise the size of the mound above ground, she explained to us the vast magnitude of the underground system that goes on underneath the mound.
Before we stopped for lunch we helped clear an acre of encroaching bush to help return Okonjima to an open plains landscape. This is very important as the acacia bushes that we were clearing prevent the antelope from grazing so they would struggle to survive and without the antelope, the carnivores cannot survive either. After lunch we visited another leopard – Lewa – who again had been hand reared and so could not be released. For our last evening in Africa we went down to a watering hole in the middle of the reserve to watch the sunset and after the more adventurous members of the group had had a swim, we all competed in the traditional Namibian sport of faeces spitting – don’t ask!
Hampton School AfriCat North Visit 2014
During the summer holidays of 2014, a cohort of 28 students and staff from Hampton School in London spent three and a half weeks voyaging around Namibia, witnessing some of the many wonders that the country has to offer. In the latter stages of our visit we spent some time with the AfriCat Foundation which, despite the numerous incredible experiences we had already had in Namibia, proved to be the highlight of most people’s trips. Our AfriCat adventure was broken into two, staying first with Tammy and co at AfriCat North before heading south to the home of the foundation at Okonjima.
We arrived at AfriCat North on the 14th of July after a day of travelling. Our camp was a wild camp, which during the day could be appreciated for its beautiful surroundings, and at night, alongside posing an array of trip hazards, displayed the stars with a clarity only seen as far away from artificial light as we were. We were equipped with a bush toilet, a shower and not much else but reassuringly we were in the company of a team with unprecedented expertise in the field of carnivore conservation. This made sleeping at night in the lions’ back garden just that little bit easier!
On the 15th, we started the building of two cattle kraals at sites around 10km apart. The kraals are a new design to the area which aims to prevent lions from attempting to kill the cattle contained within, thus protecting the lions from the farmers. The kraals are composed of a perimeter of poles with cables suspended between them, from which a high tech PVC white screen/curtain is hung. This curtain is UV resistant and unhooks if the cattle charge at it to prevent tearing. The concept is that if the lions cannot see the cattle, then they will not jump in to make a kill. We started by digging 90cm deep holes measuring 50x50cm. This was at times extremely hard work, particularly when digging in rocky ground, of which there was plenty at one of the sites. Regardless, the next morning we suspended and tensioned the wires, leaving the only remaining task to be attaching the PVC curtain. Unfortunately this is very expensive, and so was not ready for use whilst we were helping out, but we were assured that it would be in place shortly once the funding was raised.
That afternoon we drove with Tammy and her team including the Lion Guardians- a team of three locals who acted as bridges between AfriCat and the local communities- to visit a permanent kraal. It was immediately evident why this type of kraal wasn’t ideal. Around the kraal there was a zone where all vegetation had been grazed, meaning that the livestock would have to travel further and further each day to find food. The temporary kraals mean that the farmer can move his livestock, and the PVC curtains, from one site to the other once his animals have finished grazing. The success of this new design will become apparent in the near future.
Having visited the permanent kraal we made a journey to the Hobatere Wildlife Concession, where we spent the next two nights. On our first night there we went on a short night drive to a nearby watering hole to try and catch a glimpse of a pack of three lions which Francois had seen just a few minutes earlier whilst driving past. Unfortunately they had finished drinking and scarpered by the time we got there. Our first sighting of a big cat came when some of the group were sitting looking over the watering hole near our lodge at sunset and one wandered by in the distance. I however thought that I would seize the moment whilst everyone was away to take a shower, and am sceptical that a leopard was sighted given that no one had managed to take a photograph of it (rather conveniently).
The next day we went lion tracking with German, one of the Lion Guards, as our guide and look out. We were again unsuccessful in our search, but did see a wide variety of other species. Whilst stopping for lunch at a nearby lodge under construction we had an astonishing view of a watering hole with vast numbers of impala, oryx, springbok and zebra surrounding it. We visited a baiting station with camera traps focused on it to see how bait was set up to attract predators without letting them run off with the bait. The purpose of the baiting station was to try and get big cats into the habit of passing by to check for food so that they could be darted to be collared at some point if necessary. We also collected the recordings from a few other camera traps. That night we had a discussion of our experiences and the problems facing big cats in Namibia, and indeed the rest of Africa. This was a though provoking talk which repeatedly identified the cause of all the pressure on wildlife in Africa- humans. This discussion was followed by a viewing of camera trap footage. Despite not seeing anything in the day, there turned out to be plenty of carnivores in the area. The footage showed a majestic lion up close, a brown hyena attempting to loot the baiting station and a leopard at the baiting station in the early hours of the day we visited.
With a growing desire to see some big cats we headed to Etosha National Park, before rejoining AfriCat at Okonjima.