Clive leaves early Friday morning for Windhoek with the volunteers who are flying back home. He makes a little speech after breakfast to say thanks for the work they have done and their contribution to the work of PAWS. He remarks that it isn’t everyone who will get off their bum and do something for the environment during their time off and we all feel a bit emotional when the van drives off. It is just me and Alice and Pam left back at camp and it feels strangely quiet.
Pam will fly off to the skeleton coast on Saturday from the little air strip at Okonjima Reserve. We will be spending Friday morning with AJ, learning a bit more about his work with the cheetahs and observing him as he tracks Tongs, Trish and Charlie.
AJ, (Andre Rousseau), grew up in Grootfontein in a farm in this north-eastern part of Namibia. He grew up speaking both English and Africaans at home and can also understand German quite well.
He moved to Windhoek for high school and finished a degree in Marketing through a University at Stellenbosch, South Africa. While in high school, he met his future wife although they didn’t get married till ten years later, when in 2008 she announced she was getting married – with or without him!
His dad worked in the conservation area and AJ grew up with a passion for the environment. Unfortunately, at the time he was commencing his higher education there was no real future in tourism in Namibia and he chose marketing, a field that seemed to make sense from an economic perspective.
After working for Barclays Bank, he found himself back home and did a number of jobs that included working in the agriculture & farming industries.
A chance encounter with Raleigh International, an organisation that sends gap year students to volunteer around the world, saw him also signed up as a volunteer for 6 months. His stint in volunteering involved game counts in hides in Namibia, helping out with Brown Hyena research and taking part in a 340 km trek across Namibia over 21 days.
The walk which was about self motivation also involved research on desert elephants, lions and other wildlife. AJ had discovered his passion in life and realised that he would never really use his degree in marketing.
He returned home and picked up a brochure his sister had brought home on Okonjima Reserve. She was a chef and was looking for work in the area. He applied for a job there but didn’t hear back for awhile and after 3 weeks of starting a new job finally got a job offer from Okonjima!
The rest as they say is history. AJ quit the job he had just started and moved to Okonjima in 2005 to train as a guide for the lodge. After 2 years of working at the reserve he left and went to Windhoek to guide private safaris that toured Namibia. He was tired of listening to tourists who talked about all these amazing places in his own country and decided it was time he explored them for himself.
After working as a safari guide for almost a year, he returned to Okonjima and started working in the management side of the business at the bush camp. He was also studying and researching cats on his own time and around the time he was poised to take over the management of the bush camp he was offered a position to head up the research arm of AfriCat as a Field Research Coordinator. He took up this position, which was still funded by Okonjima.
As we travel with him on Friday we get a taste of what his job entails. We have found Charlie and Trish, two cats that have been released into the rehabilitation program. We follow their signal till we find them relaxing under a tree. These two cats hang out together, despite the fact they are not siblings. A stones throw away from where they lie, is a recent kill, perhaps made less than 24 hours earlier.
Part of AJ’s job involves checking the kill for bite marks, to see how cheetah reintroduced to the wild are bringing down their prey. He will also make a note of the GPS coordinates, the parts of the kill they have eaten, and the nature of the terrain where it has been found. He also notes the species killed, which in this instance, is a kudu that is not more than 6 months old.
While a cheetah may not finish its kill, the leftovers will fill feed many other species from honey badgers to vultures. AJ will install a motion sensitive camera to record what happens later on in the day, when the smell of this kill will bring other animals to the area. We learn later on that an un-collared leopard and a honey badger have also visited this spot.
He continues to make notes on the cheetahs. Noting the size of their stomachs (very full obviously), their general physical condition and if they’ve had injuries, the nature of their wounds. He will also monitor how long they will stay with their kill. While cheetahs who have spent their entire lives in the wild will only eat fresh meat, cheetahs such as Charlie and Trish who came to the welfare program as orphans and were fed regularly for 2-3 years, will also scavenge and eat meat that is more than a day old.
While the instinct to run after anything that moves is natural for a cheetah, the techniques of hunting and what to bring down are learnt from their mother. These orphaned cheetahs obviously do not have all of the skills of a wild cheetah, which is why they are monitored daily to see how they cope once released.
If a cheetah is too chilled, then their chances of being released to a much bigger area such as a national park is not great. If these cats are not afraid of humans, they could (for example) walk in to a lodge and be of harm to little children or be shot themselves because of their actions.
While Trish is quite relaxed, Charlie is very shy of humans. If these cheetahs break up their coalition and separate, then Charlie may go on to a new home but it is unlikely that Trish will ever leave. She is not afraid of human interaction which means she will live out her days in the reserve here at Okonjima.
It has been an interesting day with AJ. He talks to us about the challenge of balancing tourism and conservation. Obviously conservation needs constant funding and tourism brings these dollars in. If we are to save the future of Africa’s Big Cats, then we cannot possibly ignore the value of tourism.
My journey through Africa brings me in constant contact with people living out their dreams and following their passions. It is both a privilege and an inspiration to meet people such as AJ who want to make a contribution to conservation and believes that ones life work must be about giving something back!
AJ too his looking forward to a future that will see him continuing to work in the great outdoors and wishes to study ecology next. In the next couple of weeks, both Alice and I will get a chance to work with AJ on a one on one basis and follow him around as he observes and continues to research these magnificent cats. We are looking forward to this opportunity as we bid him goodbye.
"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." John Muir