Namibia: Helping Track and Preserve Leopards
Adventure Among the Leopards: Helping to convince locals to let them live
By Sue McVerry
“Don’t worry, by day three you’ll be experts,” said Alisa, our Expedition Leader.
It was our first briefing at Okambara camp deep in the Namibian bush. Eleven of us had arrived that day to begin our volunteer assignment as the “hands and feet” of a conservation project run by Biosphere Expeditions.
Our job was to collect the data to help their scientists conserve the different species of wildlife – leopards, giraffes, rhinos, elephants and many more. For the last couple of hours, Alisa had explained how we would go about this.
She was obviously used to dealing with anxious volunteers. We didn’t share her confidence and glanced uneasily at one another, worrying about our ability to cope with the challenges that lay ahead.
Earlier we had introduced ourselves. Our youngest members were Rebekka, 23, from Switzerland, and Jeff from Canada who was 27. Jan, from Toronto, was our elder stateswoman at 74. I was approaching 60 and the only English member of this mini-United Nations.
We would need to pass driving tests in 4 x 4 trucks the size of tractors and learn how to change their huge tires. Punctures were a daily occurrence in the thorny African savannah.
Venom Extractor Practice
We practiced using venom extractors on each other in case of snake bites. We learned how to use compasses, range-finders, radios, and satellite navigation systems to find our way around the 100 square miles of Okambara. There was something called telemetry used to track wild elephants.
For a technophobe like me, this did not bode well. We would walk miles, sweating in the heat of the day and freeze in the cold African dawn as we conducted early morning game counts. Well, I thought, at least I can handle that.
I had prepared myself for this trip, keeping my fitness levels high by swimming and walking regularly. We were convinced that Alisa was wrong – we would NEVER be experts. But we were here to learn and to work and it was an adventure, right? Right! And the one thing we all had in common was a spirit of adventure.
Over our dinner barbecue that evening and a fortifying beer under the stars watching a herd of zebra visiting the waterhole, we reassured one another that it would all be fine and retired to our bungalows feeling ready for anything – well almost. The next morning, bright and early – well dark and early actually as it was well before dawn we were “up and at ‘em!”
Muffled up in layers of fleeces, thermal vests, woolly hats, and gloves that could be shed as the sun rose we arrived for breakfast, loaded our rucksacks with food, sunscreen and at least two liters of water each and set off – leaving our comfort zones way behind us.
Every day we split into three groups, took a truck each, and set off in the grey early morning light. There are few landmarks in the African savannah and so we were on a steep learning curve with our navigational skills.
We quickly learned how to put “Fred in his shed” (the term used to find your initial location using a compass) and to read the GPS to check where exactly we were heading.
One of my personal highlights was driving a truck around this wild and beautiful landscape transporting my fellow volunteers on the back. My navigational skills might not be up to much but I proved to be a good driver and it was each according to their particular skills.
Ed from Washington DC proved to be an excellent navigator and the division of labor worked brilliantly.
We had strict instructions not to exceed twenty kilometers per hour. Alisa had told us that “every animal makes a hole” and “every bush has thorns the size of logs.” She was right. Punctures were inevitable and most journeys were interrupted by frequent tire changes.
The record was three on the same day. “If my friends and family could see me now,” was a recurring thought as I maneuvered my truck carefully through huge ditches and deep gullies, feeling like Mr. T. Well, I wanted an adventure and sure enough I was having one!
The Leopard Project
The main aim was to monitor the behavior of the leopard population living in the area. This was to help reassure local farmers that they were not preying on their cattle.
We had been told that before the project began the farmers had felt the “only good leopard was a dead one.” If these beautiful animals were not to be hunted to extinction it was vital that they were not seen as dangerous predators.
So how do you monitor leopard behavior given that they are nocturnal and roam vast areas? Well, you catch one of course. Then you immobilize it and fit a radio collar so you can monitor his or her every move through your strategically-placed hidden cameras without disturbing the animal. Simple.
First – Catch Your Leopard!
Not surprisingly catching leopards proved pretty difficult. Our job as volunteers was to try to entice a leopard to walk into one of the five box traps, basically, a large cage, placed at various points where the animals were known to hunt.
No, we were not expected to pose as prey! Instead, we would crawl into the box traps and hang a huge chunk of raw meat – antelope or wildebeest for example.
Then we would set the trap, camouflaging it with branches from nearby thorn bushes, cover our tracks with dust, and creep away. A few hours later one of the teams would drive around to check all the traps to see if we had been successful.
Alisa had warned us not to be despondent if no animal took the bait. The project had been underway for a couple of years and leopard catches were by no means an everyday occurrence.
Often when we went to check the traps a porcupine or other small animal was sitting waiting for us – but no leopard. We tried not to feel disappointed and went about the rest of our day-to-day work.
As well as trying to recruit a leopard to the project we tracked wild elephants in order to monitor their feeding patterns. Each afternoon one group would be assigned the task of locating the resident herd.
For this, we learned a new skill called telemetry. We would take turns standing at the highest point, which was usually on top of the truck, holding a piece of equipment that resembled a TV aerial high above our head, rotating it slowly, whilst another volunteer held the monitor which would make a beeping sound if the lead female who was fitted with a radio collar was within the vicinity. If she was there the rest of the herd would not be far away.
Now you may think elephants would be easy to spot but you would be wrong. Several times they gave us the run-around and we would return to camp hot and frustrated with blank datasheets.
But when we were successful and came upon our group of elephants, nine in all including a baby male, what joy it was to sit quietly in the truck and observe them as they strolled majestically around feeding on the low bushes that made up their vegetarian diet.
Tracks and Scats
Every morning a team would be assigned to this task which meant walking a particular track known to be used during the nights by leopards out hunting. We would walk slowly, eyes on the ground, looking for tracks.
When we found them we would record the exact position and the direction in which the animal had been headed. We became pretty good at distinguishing between leopard, cheetah and hyena tracks without recourse to our charts. Yes, you could almost say we had become experts.
“Scat” is the term used for animal droppings. Rubber gloves and plastic containers at the ready we would collect samples to be analyzed in the laboratory.
It seemed that the leopards at Okambara preferred the various species of antelope, Impala and Oryx for example, to cattle. This provided further reassurance to the farmers that the cattle so vital to their livelihoods were not being preyed upon.
One memorable Saturday morning, after many days of finding our box traps empty we received an excited radio message from the team checking them.
They had seen from a distance that something was in the trap. Imagine their surprise when they drew closer expecting one of the usual by-catch species and were growled at.
Yes, at last. We had caught a leopard during the night! It turned out to be a seven-year-old male, huge, weighing 70 kilos, and spectacularly beautiful.
The vet was called and arrived with his team who set up a field hospital in the bush where our leopard would have his radio collar fitted and various tests carried out to check his general health.
We, volunteers, gathered to await our instructions. We had been told by Alisa to “do exactly what Walter (the vet) tells you. Do it quickly and without hesitation as time is of the essence here.
We need to get this animal awake and back to the wild as soon as possible.” I think it is fair to say we were all a little worried that we might make some ghastly mistake. I know I was.
First, the animal was immobilized. He wasn’t too keen on going to sleep and needed four separate shots of anesthetic with a fifteen-minute gap between each one.
Then we volunteers were tasked with gently easing our slumbering leopard from the cage and carrying him on a tarpaulin up to the field hospital where the veterinary team was ready to begin work. His eyes were still wide open – he looked pretty mad – so the first job was to cover his eyes with a mask to avoid any problems caused by the lights and the dust.
By this time it was dark. It is difficult to describe the emotions I felt, being so close to this fierce yet helpless wild animal. By the light of our head-torches, we hauled him a couple of hundred yards over rough ground. He was heavy and our arms and legs began to ache as we navigated through the thick thorn bushes.
I remember hearing Jeff who was walking behind me telling me to take “big strides” so he wouldn’t bump into me. I remember glancing down and seeing the leopard’s huge haunches and tail just an inch or two from where my handheld tightly to the tarpaulin.
Once he was lying on the operating table we all stood around him awaiting further instructions, hoping we would be up to the job.
At one point the vet, who was working by the lights of the truck headlamps, handed me two vials of leopard blood and asked me to keep gently shaking them so the blood would not coagulate. Again I experienced that feeling of amazement at what I was actually doing.
The animal was helpless, vulnerable, and we had been given instructions about respecting his dignity. Photographs could be taken but we were asked not to publish them on social media or anywhere else.
We were allowed to gently touch him once the vet had finished his work and we took turns to carefully stroke his coarse fur. I think most of us had tears in our eyes at the privilege we had been afforded.
Then we carried him further into the bush where he would later wake. The vet and one of our scientists waited nearby in the truck to ensure that he was safe until he did so and two hours later he stood, shook himself down and loped off into the bush sporting his new collar.
From now on the team scientists would know him as LO75. He was none the wiser for his experience but he had given eleven starry-eyed volunteers the experience of their lives.
We may not have become conservation experts during our time at Okambara but we had learned new skills, made new friends and had an adventure that none of us will ever forget.
Sue McVerry: Everyone has those chats with themselves about “what I would do if I wasn’t doing this.” Mine was always something to do with conservation. Since retiring from my hospital job I have spent time traveling and volunteering overseas. So far I have had adventures in Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia and Antarctica to name just a few. I have no intention of stopping yet.