Well not loads. There aren’t loads of big cats in the world anymore, after all. This is for many reasons, most of which are down to the species you and I belong to. Day one of my northern Namibia adventure, which dramatically changed from a scorching morning with clear blue skies to a wild, wet and windy late afternoon, was spent learning about two of the rarer big cats who call Africa home: the cheetah and the leopard.
To see these secretive animals in action, my tour group (no car to do the self-drive dream, remember) zoomed out north from Windhoek, travelling about 170 km via a wood market in Okhandja. The crafts were nice but many aren’t exclusive to Namibia – a lot of their products are available in similar stalls in Lilongwe.
In the early afternoon we arrived at Okonjima, home of the AfriCat charity and 22,000 sq/km of flat bush, with trees of no great stature adding vibrancy to the land.
That land isn’t just home to cats. Whilst driving around and without specifically trying to find them, we saw all of these…
One of them, called Wahu, cannot be released back into the wild as he has lost his fear of humans. One result of this is that he is used by the charity as an ‘ambassador’, as they put it, to show visitors these reclusive and solitary cats up close.
Leopards are incredibly graceful movers. Wahu’s slow, controlled movements and effortless leaps onto tree trunks to collect his meat wouldn’t look out of place in an Olympic gymnastics event. He weighs the same as me, about 60 kg, but springs majestically and silently. Unlike me.
Watching the leopard seemingly cradle the hunk of meat with its super-sized paws whilst gnawing away at the flesh was a mesmeric experience. The most interesting thing I learnt about them is that these paws have retractable claws.
I could have watched and marvelled at the leopard for a lot longer but we were soon whisked away to learn more about the charity’s work and history. Wahu himself has an interesting story. He was cared for – and even lived with – one of the creators of AfriCat when he was young. One day the man returned to find a trail of blood at the front door. Rushing in, he found that Wahu had killed and dragged a warthog into the house to eat. Alas, he didn’t last in the house any longer. It’s a valuable reminder that leopards can’t be tamed. We were told they are the only cats who can’t be.
One of the stranger items we were shown in the clinic was a jar containing four lion embryos. These were retrieved from a female lion who had been killed by a farmer. It may seem a little bit unethical to keep these embryos; our guide told us they are a visual demonstration that someone may not be killing just one animal.
From here we drove into a fortified enclosure which was reminiscent of a part of Jurassic Park. The mission was to find the fastest land animal on the planet. Faster even than my beloved Usain Bolt.
Well not then, admittedly. Cheetahs are supposedly less of a threat than leopards, meaning our open vehicle could drive quite close to them. Their behaviour was fascinating. We were in one section which housed two brothers. The next section, separated by the wire fence, contained three cheetahs from a different family. It quickly became clear that they don’t like each other…
The cheetahs would hit the fence with their paws, wanting to have the chance to fight their rivals on the other side. Later, they started running along the dividing wire, desperately trying to find a gap through which they could spar to the death.
Unlike the solitary leopards, cheetahs stick together as a family. They look very similar but there are differences, some of which are the product of adaptation. A great example are the black teardrops under a cheetah’s eyes. These help deflect the sun when a cheetah is running at full pelt – a speed which can reach a scary 120 km/h – allowing it to lock eyes on its target.
You can argue that I didn’t truly see leopards or cheetahs in the ‘wild’. Unfortunately for these animals, they can’t be released back into the national parks. What they are offered in the AfriCat reserve is a lot of space to live as naturally and safely as possible. What we are offered in return is the opportunity to see these graceful creatures up close. I can only hope their populations aren’t depleted any further so that future generations can enjoy them with their own eyes.
Love you all