History of AfriCat: From Enemies to Friends
Two of the greatest threats facing large cats are ongoing conflicts with humans and the disappearance of their habitat. In Namibia, farms and ranches attract carnivores who have shrinking access to protected wild lands. Many farmers turn to shooting or poisoning 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 protective corrals for pregnant cows and young calves. Around four months of age, the calves would begin grazing freely with their mothers on the range. Livestock losses dropped to just two or three every year.
A Sanctuary for Wildlife
During 1992, the Hanssens converted their 15,000 acre cattle ranch into a conservation haven that would become Okonjima Nature Reserve. By 2000, they completed an enclosed 11,000 acre nature sanctuary for rehabilitating injured and orphaned carnivores. By 2010, Okonjima Nature Reserve was enlarged to 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 higher-level carnivores like leopards and brown hyaenas increased on Okonjima Reserve, AfriCat observed that released cheetahs had a hard time competing. This is largely due to the reserve being enclosed, which is done to protect neighboring farms. Fences keep cheetahs from leaving the reserve, so each time a cheetah was added to the reserve, the territory of other animals was affected. In 2018, AfriCat came to the difficult conclusion that Okonjima Nature Reserve was too small for releasing additional cheetahs. It still serves as home to previously released cats and their offspring.
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. This information is used to improve the management of similar reserves throughout Africa.
In addition, AfriCat educates Namibians about living in harmony with predators. It also works to find new ways to reduce farm losses while respecting the role of predators in Namibia’s ecosystem.