History of AfriCat: From Enemies to Friends
Within Namibia, the greatest threats to large cats are human-wildlife conflict, decreasing populations of wild prey, illegal trade and poaching, unsustainable trophy hunting, and habitat loss. Wild lands have been replaced by farms and ranches in many parts of Namibia, making it harder for hungry carnivores to find prey. So they go after cattle—and farmers often shoot or poison predators in order to protect their livestock.
The AfriCat Foundation was started by a family that had experienced the predator-farmer conflict first hand.
A Family Farm
In 1970, the Hanssen family bought a cattle ranch about 100 miles south of Etosha National Park. They lost 20 to 30 calves each year to predators and tried the only solutions they knew of: hunting, trapping, and inviting trophy hunters on their land. But these did not reduce their losses.
After seeing this cycle repeat every year, the family tried another approach. They created protected corrals for pregnant cows and young calves. As calves grew bigger, they became less appealing prey. So when they turned four months old, it was safe to release calves into grazing lands with the rest of the herd. Livestock losses dropped to just two or three every year.
A Sanctuary for Wildlife
In 1992, the Hanssens converted their 15,000-acre cattle ranch into a conservation haven that would become Okonjima Nature Reserve, the home of AfriCat. The reserve protects large predators from threats like human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and trophy hunting, allowing them to express their natural behaviors and enjoy the hunt without causing harm to local farms.
By 2000, they completed an enclosed 11,000-acre nature sanctuary for rehabilitating injured and orphaned carnivores. By 2010, Okonjima Nature Reserve hit 55,000 acres—that’s 85 square miles!
For many years, AfriCat was best known for running the largest cheetah and leopard rescue and release program in the world. Its groundbreaking work on Okonjima Reserve showed that rehabilitated cheetahs can adapt to different environments and learn how to survive in the wild.
Just as animals must adapt, AfriCat has also adapted. As Okonjima Reserve’s leopards and brown hyaenas multiplied, newly released cheetahs had a hard time competing. Since fences keep animals from leaving the reserve to protect neighboring farms, the territory of every predator was affected with each cheetah release. In 2019, AfriCat stopped releasing cheetahs on Okonjima Nature Reserve. Previously released cats and their offspring still live there.
Okonjima Nature Reserve and the AfriCat Carnivore Care Centre continue to provide refuge to cats who were already a part of the rehabilitation program prior to 2019. Scientists conduct research to learn more about the behavior of carnivores in a closed reserve. They share their findings to improve the work of similar reserves throughout Africa.
Education is another key aspect of the AfriCat program. The group invites university students, local and from abroad, to spend time in the reserve learning about living in harmony with predators. It also shares valuable information learned over the past 30 years with local farmers to try to reduce livestock losses in a way that respects the role of carnivores in Namibia’s ecosystem.