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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

From one of our volunteers

Many people ask us what it is like to volunteer at CCF. We are fortunate to have volunteers all year round, coming from all walks of life, lending their skills and passion to help us carry out our work, either in Namibia or Kenya. Here is a short essay written by Liz Karch, one of those incredible people that keep us going. For information about volunteering, please visit our web page, and click on Volunteer.

Come, Come, Come!

Back in the late 70s, I remember watching the show "Fantasy Island" where people lived out their fantasy for a week. I used to wonder what my fantasy was, but don't think I really came up with one. That was then, this is now.

In October 2007, thirty years later, I traveled to the Cheetah Conservation Fund and lived out my fantasy. For two weeks I worked along side a team of dedicated, cheerful and talented people. Our little group pulled into CCF on a rainy late afternoon - the first of the "little rains" had arrived. And so had we. The very next morning, we filed into the Hogwarts yard with a group of farmers and walked to the end corner. We were told the rules for the cheetah run: Stay together … Don't bend down. The three cats stood at attention, the lure started to move and they were off! Everyone watched them intently; they completely ignored us.

But not all of the 46 resident cheetahs felt that way about us. When we appeared at Bellebeno, a 158-acre enclosed area for some female cheetahs, the cats would hear our trucks and meet us at the entrance. They knew we had food and were anxious for us to drive down the dirt road yelling "Come, come, come! Come, come, come!" We would stop the truck and then throw each a chunk of meat.

After feeding the Bellebeno girls, our group had the privilege of bone clean-up. A couple weeks before the little rains came, the cats were temporarily relocated and the staff carried out a controlled burn. Due to the high probability of a lightening strike starting a wildfire, the area had been set on fire. Everything was scorched and black. This helped us find the bones left over from weeks of daily feedings. We would return looking like we had foraged through a charcoal jungle. At night while washing my hair, I would smell like Burnt Bellebeno. How I wish I could smell that now.

Center Feeding was a bit cleaner. Here the cats are kept in smaller, fenced-in enclosures with a separate feeding pen. First we would go in with scoopers and buckets to pick up bones and any waste while the cheetahs hissed and growled and spat from the other side of the fence. Next we'd bring in and line up the bowls of meat. Then we would leave through the gate and open the guillotine. The hungry cats would race in, scoop up their chunk of meat and take off. Some of them, though, would politely eat from the bowl. Those were great photo op moments.

I brought along my new digital camera (about the size of a deck of cards) and kept it in my pocket at all times. You'd never know when that three thousand dollar picture (as one staffer called it) would appear. In my case, I was standing outside the pen area as the other volunteers went in to clean. Four male cheetahs were stalking up to the fence toward me - hissing and growling and spitting and stomping. As if on cue, they lined up perfectly with their hackles up. Click! It nearly drove me wild.

Driving is a way of life at CCF: trekking out to Bellebeno, checking cheetah traps and camera traps and rain gauges, conducting game counts and looking for spoor tracks. Riding down a dirt road - and they're ALL dirt roads! - on the back of a truck, with a 360 degree view of the Namibian landscape, is exhilarating. But the jewel of it all is the Big Field, also known as "Little Serengeti." It was mostly here that we saw an abundance of wildlife: red hartebeests, kori bustards, warthogs, black-backed jackals, and a variety of antelopes. The Bellebeno farm is also home to giraffes and zebras. And everywhere there are birds, chipmunks, rabbits, snakes, and other small creatures like lizards and spiders.

Yet the cutest little animals by far are found right at CCF. We were lucky enough to have arrived weeks after Tylee and Ushi - two Kangal Anatolian Shepherds - had their litters of puppies. Those energetic and adorable puppies would run up to you, pull at your shoestrings and nip at your ankles. It wasn't hard for these future livestock guarding dogs to steal my heart.
My emotions ran the gamut. I got teary-eyed while walking into a cheetah necropsy in progress, and eventually leaving as the sight of an adolescent cheetah was too much for me. Some nights while looking up at a clear and starry sky, tears of pure joy rolled down my cheeks. I experienced tremendous sadness seeing a very old livestock guarding dog, in really bad shape, that had been returned to CCF. Petting Chewbaaka, Kanini and littleC - and listening to Kanini's thunderous purr - was amazing. Sheer exhaustion felt so pleasurable after a hard day's work. Never in my life have I worked so hard and enjoyed it so much.

There was, of course, administrative work to be done. My official assignment was to enter the feeding logs into an Excel spreadsheet. I also worked in the Clinic doing filing, and spent a couple hours in the Center's gift shop straightening up and restocking the shelves. Each and every task, no matter how small or how challenging, was cherished.

Volunteering at CCF was one of the greatest experiences of my life. When I think back (and I often do!) I am so thankful to have been there. Was it a Fantasy Island? In some ways it was. But more than that, it was an amazing opportunity to help save the wild cheetah just by being there. And I can't wait to do it all over again.