Thursday, July 28, 2005

ENV: AfriCats

A Rescue Mission, Slowing Cheetahs' Fast Disappearance
By MICHAEL WINES, July 28, 2005, The New York Times


OKONJIMA, Namibia - Roused from his lair in the knee-high grass of the Namibian bush, Dewey the cheetah lifted his head toward his latest clutch of gaping humans, maybe 30 feet away, and offered a contemptuous stare of the sort that only cats can deliver.

Dean Masika played at reading the animal's mind. "Damn. They found me again," he mocked. "How do they do that?"

Simple. Wielding an antenna that resembles an oversize branding iron, Mr. Masika leads eco-tourists to Dewey every few days as surely as if the big cat carried a homing beacon - which he does, of course, on a bulky plastic collar around his neck.

But tourism is in some ways an asterisk to these visits. Dewey is one of some 70 cheetahs living on a 10,000-acre sanctuary managed by the AfriCat Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping Namibia's big carnivores survive. One purpose of Mr. Masika's drop-bys is to see if Dewey, who was rescued as a 2-month-old orphan, has picked up enough hunting skills to make it on his own.

In Namibia, a nation of arid grasslands and Wild West landscapes, there are bigger cats, like lions, and more common ones, like leopards. But cats like Dewey are the ones that grab the attention of wildlife conservationists like AfriCat, and for good reason: Namibia is home to perhaps 3,000 cheetahs, up to one-fourth of the world's population.

A threat to cheetahs here is a threat to the survival of the entire species. Cheetahs are now endangered, found only in Africa and in Iran, where about 200 remain. While adept hunters, they tend to fare poorly in wildlife reserves, where they must compete in a limited territory with lions and leopards.

Even in Namibia, where just 1.7 million people occupy land twice the size of California, wide-open spaces favorable to cheetahs are at a premium. Untamed as much of Namibia seems, its cheetahs and leopards are threatened by development and by conflict with some 7,000 farmers and ranchers who have fenced in most of the arable land and, sometimes, see the big cats as a threat.

Since the early 1990's, AfriCat and a second nonprofit, the Cheetah Conservation Fund, have rescued and relocated more than 1,600 Namibian cats, most of them cheetahs, and waged campaigns to show landowners how to live peaceably with predators they might otherwise gun down.

The result, said Laurie L. Marker, the executive director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, is that a precipitous drop in Namibia's cheetah population has been halted, and numbers have even begun to rise in the last few years. In the 1980's, Namibia's cheetah population shrank by half, with more than 800 killings reported annually to the government. Today that number is about 200.

When Ms. Marker began her cheetah-saving campaign in 1990, "probably 90 percent of the people looked at me and thought I was nuts," she said in a telephone interview. "At this point, a good 60 or 70 percent of people within the cheetah's range are very enlightened, and not having any problems with cheetahs."

AfriCat and the Cheetah Conservation Fund encourage farmers and ranchers to forgo guns and protect their livestock with herd dogs and by fencing in calves and lambs. Lately, they have an even more enticing proposition: cheetah-loving tourists, who are flocking to Namibia in ever greater numbers, and often staying and spending money at guest farms.

"There is definitely a change of thinking. Cattle farming is not bringing in the big bucks," Tristan Boehme, a shareholder in AfriCat, said in an interview. "Tourism is growing. With that, the value of wild animals grows, and with every animal having a greater value, farmers will say, 'I don't mind. You can come and release a cat on my property.' "

That is more or less how AfriCat began. With their own cattle farm struggling, Wayne Hanssen and his wife, Lisa, invited hunters and birdwatchers to their lodge in the mid-1980's to earn money. Then in 1987, they took pity on a cheetah cub displayed in a bird cage at a cattle auction, and took the cat home. A monitor lizard followed, then a honey badger, then a baboon named Elvis, then another cheetah, Caesar, and a hyena, Dracula. The Hanssens gradually came to see cheetahs as a perfect marriage of animal welfare and business.

They founded AfriCat in 1991 and now cover about 40 percent of its expenses with proceeds from Okonjima, the upscale lodge and bush camp they run. Donors helped them fence off 10,000 acres of their land as a sanctuary. Escorted by guides, Okonjima guests track cheetahs on foot or watch from the safety of a Land Rover as guides feed hunks of meat to crowds of the purring, chirping cats that roam fenced-off enclosures within the reserve.

The key to is release the rescued animals - usually on other farms - before they lose their fear of humans. But some must be held back, including cubs who were orphaned or kept as pets until the owners decided they were no longer so cute.

One such cub was Dewey, an orphan who arrived at Okonjima in 1997 with his brothers Huey and Louie. The three were kept for two years before being fitted with collars and released into the larger reserve to see if they had the skills to survive.

At first, they thrived. Then anthrax killed the two brothers, and Dewey, pining for companionship and roaming outside his old enclosure, had to be taken in again and paired with another male cheetah.

Early this year, Dewey and the other male were released once more into the larger reserve. The second male refused to hunt, but Dewey fared well until June, when Okonjima guides found him lying listlessly beside an oryx he had killed - but not before the oryx gored him.

Luckily, the horn had missed all his vital organs, Stitched up and treated with antibiotics, Dewey was released for the third time. "He already had his first kill that same morning," said Mr. Masika, the Okonjima guide.

Now, after eight years and three tries at AfriCat, Dewey is a prime candidate for relocation. "He looks like he has a good chance," said Mr. Boehme, the shareholder.

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