"Welcome to Namibia," shouts Wayne, one of the AfriCat Foundation guides sent to meet me at Windhoek's airport. As we drive through torrential rain he bellows over his shoulder: "It's not normally like this." It's a phrase I will come to hear often over the next few weeks.
I've come to Namibia at a very wet time. While parts of eastern Africa are suffering the worst drought for more than a decade, Namibia is green and lush--within an hour of my arrival, a deluge produces more than a tenth of the country's annual average rainfall (450 millimetres). It's the first time in 40 years that all of the country's reservoirs have been full: the landscape is verdant and wet, the skies are purple and the rain is hammering on the windscreen.
This rainy season has been very rainy indeed: rivers dry for decades are in full spate again, while desert flora that hasn't flowered in living memory is in bloom. If it weren't for a pair of tawny eagles spiralling over the nearby Otjihaveraberge, it would be difficult to believe that this is sub-Saharan Africa.
Namibia is a big place (the size of the UK and France combined) with a small human population (currently under two million). It's also home to the world's largest wild cheetah population--yet, even here, these cats are struggling for survival. While a reduced gene pool makes the species highly susceptible to disease, the immediate and constant threat comes from the cheetah's conflict with Namibia's farmers over habitat. Ninety per cent of Namibia's cheetahs live on livestock farmland, where commercial farmers see them as a direct threat to their livelihood. According to the Earthwatch Institute, farmers wiped out half the cheetah population--6,000 animals--during the 1980s. As if that wasn't enough, they shot another 3,000 during the '90s.
Originally established to conduct research on large carnivore populations in Namibia, the AfriCat Foundation now runs the world's largest cheetah and leopard rescue-and-release programme. It also focuses on education and awareness, the idea being that if you increase knowledge, you can reduce conflict between cats and humans.
AfriCat is located in the middle of Namibia's central farming belt, which stretches from Etosha National Park in the north to the Namib Naukluft Park in the south. The foundation is part of a former cattle farm called Okonjima, located on a plateau among the Omboroko Mountains. One of Okonjima's owners, Donna Hanssen, daughter of legendary cattle farmer Val 'VJ' Hanssen, describes it as "a lonely oasis of animal conservation slap-bang in the middle of 7,000 commercial farms". This isn't strictly true--the Cheetah Conservation Fund is located in roughly the same region, but when you're outnumbered to such an extent, you can be forgiven a slight exaggeration.
Hanssen is also one of the founders of AfriCat, and she is justifiably proud of the foundation's impressive record. Of a total of 850 cats rescued since 1993, some 86 per cent have been returned to the wild (the ratio of cheetahs to leopards is roughly 2:1). A small number die in captivity or are put down, and ten per cent are kept at AfriCat as 'welfare' animals: big cats kept in captivity because they can't be rehabilitated. Although in conservation terms these animals are essentially lost causes, they can still play a role in education.
More than half of the animals admitted to AfriCat are orphans, normally collected from guilt-ridden farmers who, having shot the mother, have no idea what to do with the 'cute cubs'. These cats can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. Hanssen takes up the story: "Five years ago, we set up a programme with the Tusk Trust where we built a predator-proof fence around 4,500 hectares. It was an experiment to see how orphaned cheetahs would behave if returned to the wild. We bought in zebra, eland, giraffe, impala, gave them six months to relax, and then we introduced radio-collared 3. …