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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Volunteer Story - Elizabeth Corse

A few kilometers outside Windhoek, Brian (moves like a spring, permanently sunburned, London accent thick as the London fog) announced there were baboons in the road. I saw a few black-ish lumps that magically became, as we drew closer, actual baboons – and lots of them. Over the next few hours there were warthogs, eland, goats and sheep and cattle, jackals, steenbok and a mongoose, plus hornbills and various hawks, all surviving in a world of dry riverbeds, dry grasses and thorny bushes.

First impressions set the stage of an experience. Brian’s energy, Matti’s enthusiasm and the flourishing announcement, to our small van-load, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – the Waterberg,” drew up the curtain on a transformative two weeks. A few hours later, I was sitting down to dinner, gazing past a twin-peaked termite mound at that Waterberg, a magnificent and mysterious plateau of striated rock, as it reflected the brilliant fire colors of the setting sun. And it kept getting better from there.

My volunteer experience at CCF was mundane and extraordinary, tiring and invigorating, fascinating and even more fascinating. I raked goat yards and cheetah pens, fed and walked dogs, listened to a ruckus of bird calls every morning, and one day spent twelve-plus hours in a hide, counting zebra, tracking warthogs and trying to determine the ages and sexes of various oryx.

I have fed a lot of dogs in my life, but I’ve never before measured out Ultra Dog Superwoof Ostrich & Rice kibble. I have fed a few cats, but never before thrown two-kilo chunks of donkey meat over a three-meter fence for a cheetah. Three of these cats, purring together, sound as loud and rumbling as test-time at a Boeing factory – but so much lovelier.

When they play, they chase a scrap of cloth on a string – but at 60 or 70 kilometers an hour, tails swinging to the side as they take the corners at speed. They stalk, they wait, they pounce, and when they catch that rag they hold onto it – sometimes carrying it off under a tree, and trading it reluctantly when Juliette or Jenny offers a meat cube on a very long handled spoon.

On my second afternoon at CCF, after the amazement of traveling a country that has scores of deeply-carved rivers without a drop of water, I had the joy of watching the clouds mass, and hoping – seeing them darken, and hoping, hoping – feeling the wind cool and quicken, and crossing fingers – celebrating the first few drops with caught breath – seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling the rain take hold in earnest and exhaling joyfully, arms outstretched, face to the sky.

On my last morning at CCF, I watched the sky lighten above the Waterberg from a dusty, green plastic chair outside my rondavel, and then catch pink fire, radiating molten gold, copper, rose gold as scores of birds chirped, sang, called, cooed and whistled, and a kilometer or two away several small but powerful roosters crowed their heads off. A tiny duiker – unmarked, narrow ears instead of the steenboks’ oversized, stripey ones – skipped over and nibbled the ground under the acacia tree maybe ten meters from me.

Any one of those experiences would have been worth the 17-hour flight, and I haven’t even mentioned bouncing along in a well-used bush vehicle while Matti spots ostrich 300 meters away, or Chavoux eloquently catalogues causes of human-wildlife conflict, or Rob spots a bit of rhino scat he can show us – note the precise 45-degree angle at which the rhino’s teeth cut through twigs. Reaching into Amos’s head-cone to provide the ear scratches he appreciates so obviously, fending off curious goats, ferrying meat to the “boys”, tweezing ten hairs of various sizes and colors from the remnants of a scat sample. The two weeks contained about a year’s worth of new experiences.

Heading home, about a hundred miles out of Dulles Airport, the pilot announced that the temperature in Washington, DC, was six degrees below zero centigrade, or 21 degrees Fahrenheit. It seemed unreal. The Namibian savannah needs rain, and all my thoughts are of dark clouds lowering – and when can I go back.

Elizabeth Corse
CCF EarthWatch Volunteer

Monday, 23 December 2013

Digging Holes

Last week Lucia, Fabiano, Mark, Matti, Selma and Natalie went out in the field with a vehicle loaded with 2 shovels, a GPS, lots of plastic bags, a pen, ethanol in a spray bottle and some paper towels.

They followed a set of given coordinates to find the same exact spots visited twice last year at the beginning of the study. They visited a total of 96 points, 48 spots under thorn trees and 48 spots beside some grass or at least the bit of grass the drought has left. Sometimes a 300m walk through the bush was required to reach a point.
sample collection points
Once they found a spot, Selma cleaned the shovels with ethanol just for Lucia and the others to make them dirty again by digging a 20cm deep hole. The cleaning of the shovels in between the samples is important to avoid contamination. The soil was then nicely mixed up and put in a labelled plastic bag. The same procedure for the next spot, and the next spot, and the next… For 2 days they were digging holes in the hard ground which took a lot of effort on some spots where the soil was particularly compacted.

sanitising the shovel
digging the hole
But what’s the point?

In 2012 CCF started collaborating with Dr. Jeffrey Buyer, a research scientist from the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory that is part of the United States Department of Agriculture. The aim of the study is to determine how flora in the soil is affected by bush encroachment. This study complements CCF’s research on the biodiversity of fauna and flora in areas affected by bush encroachment. As part of the soil flora collaboration, soil samples are collected from open as well as bush encroached areas here at CCF. In addition samples were collected from areas in which CCF’s Bushblok harvested the bush to open up habitat and produce the eco-friendly fuel log (for more information on Bushblok see so that the flora and it’s ecology from the two different soil types can be compared.

placing sample in bag

The results of this study have not yet been analysed, but we will keep you posted when we learn more.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Matti's USA Tour

On 1 October 2013 I set off for a three-week trip to the USA. This trip allowed me to travel to many different parts of the continent on a trail that connected me with the farmlands and cities of Northern America and the hearts of our cheetah friends. Before I left Namibia, I was very cautious of the onset of winter in the northern hemisphere, as we have had soaring temperatures here in the southern hemisphere. I visited shops in search of the warmest jacket that I could find before heading to the airport. Although mostly winter clothes were unavailable, I was able to get hold of a jacket eventually and I went to my taxi.

The trip was long, and at around 6:22am on 2 Oct we landed in Washington Dulles International Airport – what a relief! The weather was lovely, no jacket needed! I stayed with my sister for 2 days and we talked for hours – catching up with all the happenings back home and my work.

On 4 October, I flew to Denver, Colorado. The city was covered in snow and the jacket came in handy. I was picked up at the airport by Mrs. Pip Conrad before embarking on a ~ 3.5 hour trip to Rafiki Ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Salida. I stayed with Aaron and Pip Conrad who had been CCF volunteers in Namibia roughly 13 years ago. We did lots of reminiscing about the earlier days at CCF: we talked about wildlife, the farm, people, cheetahs, getting stuck in the mud and interestingly, snakes. I gave a presentation about CCF to the community of Salida the following day.

On the 6th I left Salida for Denver, where I met up with former CCF volunteer Elise Ward. At her residence, we watched American football together with the Denver CCF chapter members and friends. The combination of football and cheetahs was absolutely fantastic because I have always considered cheetahs as a sports icon.

The following day, I left Denver for San Fransisco to attend the 12th annual WCN event in Palo Alo. This event connects conservationists from around the world to invaluable resources. After a week with WCN I have a much greater appreciation of the great vision held by this network and its partners. I was happy to see Dr. Laurie Marker and Dr. Bruce Brewer; my colleagues from CCF Namibia who met me there, but could not stay for the Expo. It was great to learn about other issues from different conservationists such as small cat conservation, illegal ivory trade, and the Saiga antelope from Mongolia. On 12 Oct, I represented CCF at the WCN expo in Mission Bay, CA, along with CCF’s west coast representative, Laurie Payne. Over 1,000 public participants visited the venue.

On 14 Oct, I departed for San Diego and was picked up at the airport by past CCF volunteers and my dear friends Karen and Mike Burke. Meeting them reminded me a lot of Namibia, especially of composing cheetah songs, playing guitar, and night walking trails. That evening I gave a presentation about CCF to the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) at the San Diego Zoo. The next day I toured the San Diego Wild Animal Park with Karen and Mike and had the opportunity to meet their ambassador cheetahs. And, our CCF San Diego friends celebrated my birthday with me! It was great with a birthday cake and birthday presents.

On the 16th, I departed for Phoenix, Arizona and was picked up at the airport by Mr. Darrin Grandmason, who is the CEO of DNA on a Shirt. Immediately, we headed to AZ Bioscience High School where I gave a presentation on cheetah conservation and impacts on food production systems to 10th grade learners. I spent the rest of the afternoon with Darrin, whose latest DNA on a Shirt, a cheetah, is in partnership with CCF and is being highlighted in the Holiday Catalogue of Sky Mall. We talked about art and cheetahs and innovative solutions to communicate conservation messages. In the evening, I gave another presentation at the Fine Mark Bank (organised by Aaron Mascarella) to Spirit of the Senses members under the theme ‘Cheetahs of Namibia'. While preparing to start with the talk, I received a text message from Dr Marker about the fire at the CCF Visitor Centre. I couldn’t believe it, I felt like I was dreaming.

The following day, I boarded a shuttle from Phoenix to Tucson and upon arrival, was greeted by CCF Trustee, John and Jody Carver – Parents of the globally famous, Cameron, who founded Cheetah Kids. We travelled to the Arizona Desert museum where I gave a CCF presentation to zoo staff.

On the 18th it was off to Cincinnati, Ohio. Dan Marsh, the Director of Education at the Cincinnati Zoo, picked me up at the airport. In the afternoon, I gave a presentation to zoo staff and CCF friends in the education auditorium. This was a difficult presentation for me because I kept visualising the CCF’s Visitor Centre in Namibia going up in flames. However, the participants made me courageous with their engaging questions about how cheetahs live in Namibia. I was honoured with the presence of Mrs. Catherine Hilker, a long-time CCF cheetah supporter. I also had an opportunity to visit the animal exhibits, learn about different aspects of zoo animals and the care they receive from the dedicated staff.

Then I departed for the CCF Gala in Chicago. I was picked up at the airport by CCF’s Board of Director’s member, Polly Hix and husband Tony Fair, who were all ready for the annual gala event! All I had was a pair of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers. I felt awkward! When we got to the Foley and Lardner building, I headed for the bathrooms to change into something appropriate for the evening. This was a “star studded” event given that an ambassador cheetah from the Columbus Zoo was present! Dr. Laurie Marker and the very dedicated Chicago CCF Chapter were also there. The event was very successful; there was a buzz of positive energy amongst the participants. The event also helped to raise awareness and much needed funds to help save the cheetah. During my stay in Chicago I was kindly hosted by Marion McCreedy and Kris and Jayne Bazos.

On 21 Oct. I boarded my last plane in North America, and arrived back in Namibia the next day. I feel that my trip was successful, but there is still so much more for us to do. We have lots of support from people who care about the cheetah and CCF, and trips like this one help us grow our network of supporters. Now I am home again and work continues here, informing the public and persuading them to participate in saving a species. Even with all the technology, and all the travel and all the large events, in the end, this is what it’s all about – the people that I meet, here in Namibia and abroad, and all of us working together to save the cheetah. I hope all you, our CCF friends, will help us spread the cheetah’s story for survival, thanks!

Matti Tweshiningilwa Nghikembua
CCF Senior Ecologist

Monday, 16 December 2013

Volunteer Story - Kathleen Ager

Namibia is a land of stunning sunsets, brilliant three-dimensional night skies, breath-taking arid landscapes and, best of all, amazing wildlife. However, my purpose in visiting this young and forward-seeking country was none of the above. It was to fulfil a life-long dream of a close encounter with the oldest, fastest and most graceful of the big cats, the cheetah, and do my bit to contribute to its race for survival. The rest was just a bonus.

The land, its people, and the adventure involved in staying and volunteering at the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s compound surpassed all my expectations. Sure, for someone used to a desk job in air-conditioned comfort, there were physical challenges involved. November is the end of the dry season, and temperatures were soaring, the sun was relentless, and I had not done my homework in regard to the altitude. However, I would be happy to repeat the experience tomorrow. In fact, I can’t wait to return.

I was surprised by the size of the CCF Centre’s property. One of CCF’s farms, called Elandsvreugde (meaning “Eland’s Joy), even includes a runway strip. There is the sheer size of the land, which appears to cover as far as the eye can see, up to the beautiful Waterberg Plateau. It agglomerates seven farms including a number of large cheetah habitat enclosures to shelter the current 50 or so resident cheetahs, all of them rescue animals. A portion of these will be rehabilitated and returned to the wild; for those who are physically and psychologically unfit to survive in the wild, this will be their permanent home. There is a genetic laboratory, a research centre and a clinic – the more we find out about the cheetah, the more tools we will have to help it to survive; the CCF is also the keeper of the International Cheetah Studbook. But the land also carries a thousand head of prime cattle (Cheetah Friendly Beef), goat herds, a creamery producing goat cheeses and ice-cream, and a factory manufacturing fire logs made from local acacia, a species encroaching on the land to the detriment of other savannah plants and cheetah habitat. Most important of all, is the Livestock Guarding Dog Programme, which assists the cheetah by providing Namibian farmers with predator protection. This program is an important tool in the challenge of changing a well-embedded mindset and transforming the perception of the cheetah as vermin into that of an important asset for tourism and a healthy ecosystem. There is an education centre, a restaurant, a guesthouse and a gift shop, as the centre is open to the public for visits and activities. All in all, the CCF employs over 90 people, an achievement for a charity. And the dedication and welcome of the staff and interns, headed by the remarkable Dr Laurie Marker, are exemplary.

CCF days usually start at dawn, to avoid the heat. Not much time to admire the glorious morning skies. Various tasks await, from walking the dogs whose task is to detect the scat of wild cheetahs, to cleaning the goats’ kraal, or preparing meat and feeding the resident cheetahs. For me, the most exciting activities are the wildlife counts; these are normally done at dusk or at night, from one of the rather rickety safari vehicles, or from dawn to dusk from a hide at a waterhole. On one of these occasions, I saw nine giraffes together, drinking at one of the CCF’s waterholes! In the heat of the day, volunteers help with office work – in our case, scanning archives. Following the recent tragic fire, in which the visitor’s centre was destroyed by lightning, this has become a priority to ensure that all paper documents are preserved in digital format.

For the weekend, the CCF helped to organise for us to visit Etosha National Park, with a very knowledgeable guide. There we saw elephants, lions, hyenas and even a couple of rhinos, all in a magnificent setting presented with careful consideration for the environment, due to the foresight of the Namibian Government who enshrined conservation in the national constitution.

The work is a price I willingly paid for precious memories: a glimpse of a rare albino jackal, a family of banded mongoose scurrying around in the undergrowth, a majestic male kudu with his pretty females, a Kori Bustard in display, and, especially, gazing into the stunning amber eyes of a purring cheetah.

I will be back!

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Forgotten Red-Listers Blog #1: The Secretarybird

One of the most popular sightings to be had at CCF, is that of a Secretarybird.  They're not particularly common here, but we do have a couple of pairs who seem to persist in the area.

The secretarybird is extremely distinctive and really cannot be mistaken for anything else. It stands up to 1.5m tall with an eagle-like head and weighs up to 5 kg.  They fly well, but generally hunt on the ground, striding across open grasslands while searching for their chosen prey of snakes, including some extremely venomous ones, small mammals (including some carnivores), large insects and other reptiles. Prey is often killed by being stamped on repeatedly by the secretarybird's powerful legs.

A pair will often return to the same tree or bush to lay eggs year after year, and we have identified one such location on the edge of our Big Field.  Each mating can produce up to four eggs, although fewer are more likely.  Aside from the need to nest, the secretarybirds prefer open grasslands and savannas, and will spend most of their time there.  They will sometimes wait on the fringes of a bush-fire and prey on animals flushed out by the flames.

Despite being powerful, charismatic, and present in some 35 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, secretarybirds are nonetheless classed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist.  Their exact numbers are unknown, but believed to be in the five-figure range, and their numbers are definitely decreasing. 

The main cause is habitat loss due to spreading urban areas, and increased farming.  The presence of cattle, and herders, tends to drive the main prey species away.  There is also an illegal trade in live secretarybirds for private collectors, but as yet not enough information exists to establish how significant this is. 

More research is needed on both fronts, to find out exactly what is happening, and hopefully to educate farmers on the damage being done in this respect.  Secretarybirds will not be disappearing in the near future, but there could eerily come a time when they become limited to within the boundaries of National Parks and other protected reserves. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

Learning More About Harvesting Bush

On 12 – 16 November 2013, CCF hosted a visiting researcher Dr. Arvo Leinonen, Chief Research Scientist at Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) Finland. Dr Leinonen, an engineer by profession, previously visited CCF in 2007 and conducted a feasibility study on electricity and pyrolisis oil production from encroaching Acacia wood chips in Namibia (Research report NO VTT-R077612-07/14.4.2008).

Namibian farmlands provide refuge to the cheetah populations and its prey, yet bush encroachment – the increase in woody density - has become a common environmental concern. Open thorn-bush savannas are turning into dense vegetation partly due to anthropogenic influence. This change in vegetation structure has direct consequences on the functioning of ecosystems and ecological services. In addition, it could potentially threaten agriculture and tourism which are key sectors in the Namibian economy.

CCF received a grant from Tillvaxtverket, the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth to assist in acquisition of harvest machinery. We acquired a small mechanized harvest machine (VIMEK 404T) from a Swedish manufacturer and are testing the productivity of this mechanised harvester and comparing its productivity to manual harvesting (~15 men) in demarcated plots.

Manual harvesting of Acacia biomass is practiced widely in Namibia. However, the use of mechanised tools attached to the harvester such as the Nisula and Bracke are unknown. About 26 million hectares of the Namibian farmland is affected by bush encroachment. The common culprits of bush encroachment are Acacia mellifera (Black thorn), Acacia erubescens (Blue thorn), Acacia reficiens (False-umbrella thorn), Dichrostachys cineria (Sickle bush), Terminalia prunoides (Purple-pod terminalia), Terminalia sericea (Silver-leave terminalia) and Colophospermum mopane (Mopane tree). Due to the abundance of acacia biomass, we’re investigating different harvesting methods in order to increase productivity and restore adequate habitat for the local biodiversity, consequently, the reduction in human-wildlife conflict.

Dr. Leinonen is one of the world’s experts in forest logistics and will compile a formal analysis of the machinery that will help us to utilize it effectively to increase harvesting of thickened thornbush.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Upcoming Blog Series

Last year I wrote a series of blogs (the A-Z of camera trap photos) about some of the many other animals that can be found on CCF's extensive lands.  This year I plan to extend the series, again using camera trap photos as the basis.

African Crested Porcupine
One of CCF's greatest strengths as a conservation organisation is that we don't simply try to save the cheetah on it's own.  Unless you plan to wall them all up in a zoo, such indeed would ultimately be impossible.  Instead then, we look at the whole picture, the complete ecosystem in which the cheetahs exist.  In so doing, we impact that entirety, helping to save species with no conservation fund of their own, species that, in many cases have barely been heard of by the majority of people, let alone the fact that they too are threatened with extinction.

This blog is therefore dedicated to not the Big Five, or the Big Seven, or the other household names, but the forgotten ones, the species that without the support of organisations like CCF could so eerily disappear for ever, unremarked, unmissed save by the ecosystem that relies on them.

African Wildcat

Each blog entry will discuss a species listed on the IUCN Redlist, that also occurs on CCF land.  I'll look at the threats they face, their current status, and where possible, an outline of what can be done to save them.  The blog is not intended to depress you, but rather to help open your eyes to the wealth of Africa's wildlife, and to show you what delights await those who venture off the beaten track.  With your help, such will remain for our children and children's children to enjoy, equally as we can.

Rob Thomson
CCF Ecologist 

Monday, 25 November 2013

International Cheetah Day is December 4th!!!

You want to know how to celebrate, don’t you? Here at Cheetah Conservation Fund, our team of experts has assembled a carefully constructed list.....
Top 10 Ways to Help #SavetheCheetah on International Cheetah Day:
#10 -- Wear your favorite cheetah print clothing!
#9 -- Send out tweets using the hashtag #SavetheCheetah to tell your followers how important the cheetah is to its ecosystem.
#8 -- Join the “Virtual Cheetah Party” on our Facebook page! Post on our timeline all your thoughts, pictures, and fun cheetah facts to share with all our cheetah Facebook friends!
#7 -- Download our SOCIAL MEDIA TOOLS -- change your profile pics and cover photos to show your love for the cheetah!
#6 -- Find a CCF CHAPTER located near you, and send an email offering to volunteer!
#5 -- FORWARD CCF’s latest newsletter to all your friends!
#4 -- Have lunch with your best friend and tell them how we’ve lost 90% percent of the world’s population of wild cheetahs in the last 100 years.
#3 -- Watch Dr. Laurie Marker deliver her “State of the Cheetah Address” on our YouTube channel!
#2 -- Give to CCF, the world’s leading organization dedicated to saving the cheetah in the wild
and the #1 thing to do on International Cheetah Day is:

Friday, 22 November 2013

Memorable Places: the Management of Nature Conservation (MNC) in Al Ain, UAE

The need to raise funds and awareness about the plight of the cheetah takes me on the road quite often, and every trip I’ve taken has given me the opportunity to meet with memorable people, and visit memorable places.

One such place is the Management of Na ture Conservation (MNC) facilities in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. MNC is operated under the Department of the President’s Affairs.

During a lecturing trip to that country with my Assistant Directors, Dr. Anne Schmidt-K√ľntzel and Patricia Tricorache, I had the privilege of reconnecting with a long-time friend, Willie Labuschagne (all of us above photo on camels), who under the direction of His Excellency Mr. Abdul Jaleel, Director General of MNC, is responsible for an impressive operation that includes scientific research and conservation initiatives.

There, in the middle of Al Ain, a name that means “The Spring” as the city is known for its seven oases, the MNC is an oasis in itself. A beautifully landscaped area called the Savanna covering more than 300 hectares, provides natural settings for 8 species of mammals and 8 species of birds, including the majestic nyala, greater kudu, grey crowned crane, Caribbean flamingos, Damara springbok, Soemmering’s gazelle, Nile lechwe, kob, Grant’s gazelle, sable antelope, Blue cranes.

The savanna is just the beginning. The compound houses state-of-the-art research and diagnostic laboratories, including a genetics and veterinary division. World-class scientists were generous in sharing with us their knowledge, covering areas like veterinary pathology, embryology, animal management, reproductive physiology, and genetics. Meeting them and being able to exchange experiences and ideas was a truly important gift for us.

The MNC is concerned about endangered species, and manages two impressive captive-breeding programmes, the Houbara bustard (Chlamydotis undulate) and the Arabian tahr (Arabitragus jayakari), a goat-like ungulate endemic to the southeastern corner of the Peninsula. The tahr’s entire world population of less than 2000 occurs in the mountains of northern Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The MNC’s conservation model for this species was recently awarded the Certificate of Excellence by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany in recognition of its dedicated contribution towards saving the Arabian tahr from extinction. MNC was the first facility to successfully produce Arabian tahr through artificial insemination.

It is only through exchanges of information and ideas that scientists draw valuable information and research ideas. Unlike CCF, the MNC does not work with carnivore species; however, the knowledge we acquired through conversations with the scientists, and the visual impact of such a well-designed facility, left us with lots of food for thought.

During our stay, Willie also arranged for us to visit Al Bustan’s cheetah breeding facility where we met with the manager Meyer De Kock.   There we began discussions about the planning of a follow up visit and workshop with other facilities in the region.

It is impossible to thank our hosts enough for having provided us with this unique opportunity. Thank you to the scientists and researchers at MNC, to Willie Labuschagne, to His Excellency Mr. Abdul Jaleel Abdul Rahman Al Blouki and very especially to the Chairman of the Department of the President’s Affairs, His Excellency Eng. Mubarak Saad Al Ahbabi. 

Dr. Laurie Marker
Founder and Director
Cheetah Conservation Fund