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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

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