Jenss Family Travels: Lessons From the Road III
If there’s been an added benefit to home schooling the kids during this trip, it’s that Carol and I have had the chance to learn right along with them. I haven’t personally watched “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader,” but it sounds like a pretty clever premise for a game show to me, especially after looking over the materials Tyler is expected to master as a twelve year old. I can admit that this stuff isn’t exactly at the forefront of my memory, particularly sixth-grade math, so after plodding through the core curriculum of their academic studies, we were all excited to get to the more hands-on lessons that this trip was meant to provide in the first place. Nowhere would this opportunity present itself quite as appropriately as in our visit to Namibia.
When it comes to a general understanding of cheetahs, I can proudly say that I had the basics pretty much down. Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an organization I learned of through my job at National Geographic. Before being introduced to its founder, Dr. Laurie Marker, I was ignorant to the fact that cheetahs were even on the endangered species list. Three years later, I now found myself in Namibia, at the base of the Waterberg Plateau in the Waterberg Conservancy near Otjiwarongo, the cheetah capital of the world and home of the CCF Research and Educational Center. And because this country has more of these majestic cats than any other in the world (about 3,000, or 20% of their total estimated population), it’s only fitting that the world’s leading efforts to save and understand them be located here.
We arrived to a warm welcome from the center’s director, Bruce Brewer, who together with Dr. Marker, helped launch the CCF program in 1990. Even though Laurie was back in the States during our visit, it didn’t detract at all from the incredible time we would have here over the next three days. We had barely put our suitcases down when Bruce announced to the boys that we’d just made it in time to feed their three resident cubs–“Cubby Time” as we grew to call it. In hindsight, I was grateful that we’d seen cheetahs in the wild before our arrival, because it made this experience all the more profound. It’s hard to truly describe the sensation of what it’s like to be this up-close and personal with one of the wildest creatures on earth, but I couldn’t help being overcome with emotion. Not only are they incredibly majestic animals–and particularly cute when they’re young–there’s an almost ethereal feeling you get when you can actually touch them.
The magic didn’t end there. During our stay, we helped feed some of the other 50 resident captive cheetahs as well. They arrive here mostly as orphans or from farmers who have trapped them. The healthy ones who come from the wild are kept in the Bellebeno Cheetah Monitoring enclosures several kilometers from the center. To feed them, we helped toss slabs of donkey meat off the back of a racing pick-up truck to hungry cheetahs running anxiously behind. Back at the CCF, they provide the cheetahs with their morning exercise by running them around a track that pulls a lure that they chase at about 45 kilometers an hour. Even at half their maximum speed, it still makes for a breathtaking photo and video opportunity and allows you to get a glimpse of the fastest land animals on earth.
Besides the thousands of hectares around the center that house and protect the cats, the CCF also uses its property for unique safari drive experiences offered to the general public. We took advantage of this and toured their “Little Serengeti,” which offered us our first views of hartebeests and oryxes, two of the prettiest antelopes in Africa. Additional CCF land is being used for a black rhino conservation program, which is also growing in size.
Their facilities themselves house a specialized veterinary clinic, museum/visitors center, and a model farm that sets the standard for cheetah management and conservation worldwide. Perhaps the one thing that impressed me most about the center was the people who worked there. Bruce was terrific with the kids and couldn’t have been a more appropriate substitute teacher for our home schooling efforts. But the volunteers were the ones who I really admired. We met people from Europe, South America, and the States who came here to work without pay just for the experience. Their love of animals and desire to help realize the goal of seeing cheetahs live and flourish in coexistence with people and the environment really resonated with the boys.
Ultimately, the cheetah’s survival rests largely on our ability to live harmoniously with them. It also depends on another key partner. Because 90 percent of Namibia’s cheetahs live on or near active farms, and cheetahs will often hunt livestock, the CCF has developed management programs to educate farmers on how they can sustain their livelihood without resorting to killing cheetahs. For this, they breed and distribute Anatolian Shepherd guarding dogs to farmers and educate the farmers in how to train the dogs. These dogs in turn will protect the sheep, goats, and cattle by scaring away potential cheetah attacks.
Fortunately for us, they had a couple of recent litters and there were 21 of these adorable puppies around for us to help feed. They were a pretty wild bunch, smothering the kids when they entered their enclosure. We’ve never had a dog and the boys have been talking incessantly about which one we’d get upon our return back to the States (Carol and I promised them one as a reward for completing the trip, although we first have to find a home in which to house it!). My vote is for one of these.
Feeding the dogs was our last activity before sadly saying good-bye to Bruce and the wonderful people at CCF who made our time there so memorable.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Undoubtedly, the kids would rate this among the top highlights of our journey thus far and learned a thing or two about cheetahs and the passion, dedication, and commitment that’s needed to help protect them.
So here’s your chance to see if you’re smarter than a fifth grader, or at least our two Global Bros: If the cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth, what’s the fastest living creature in the world?
Answer: Tune in to my next report.
Photos: Rainer Jenss