A leopard’s charms in Namibia are reserved for the lucky few. Stale tracks tease most tourists. Snatched sightings spellbind others. But for struggling farmers, this predator is an ever-present plague with a target on its back. Before condemning the shootings, a conservationist urged me to look at the lives of the people standing behind the gun.
Words and Photography by Megan Brownrigg
“In 30 years there will be no wild animals. There will only be animals which hold a value to humans. For a traveller with a camera, this value gives animals a great life expectancy. For a person with a gun, it doesn’t”.
Such is the view of Tristan at the Okonjima Reserve in Namibia. He lives and breathes to protect predators, but is frank about the reality of managing it.
Inside a nature reserve, I thought I was equipped to talk about shooting wildlife. I casually borrowed words from the banks of right and wrong and attached these without caveat, like in a game of pin the tail on the donkey, to notions of life and death. But as Tristan’s frown lines furrowed, my ‘good guys bad guys’ narrative crumbled. This conservationist did not look impressed.
He offered me a story much more complex and grey about the conflicts between humans and wild animals. It begins with a character I hadn’t thought of.
“Namibia is a land where one of the world’s most endangered species, the leopard, is regularly considered a common pest.”
Hunters had never looked like farmers to me before. I’d thought of poachers and trophy hunters, peacocks with guns. I hadn’t considered the people who hunt to survive.
But Namibia is a land where one of the world’s most endangered species, the leopard, is regularly considered a common pest. It’s a country where the cats are both sought for their skin and spared for their beauty. But the leopard’s most desperate predator is a poor man defending his livestock. A position which the Okonjima family were once in. What makes their conservation knowledge unique, is that they have both shot and saved these creatures.
These days the reserve is a place where people pray for leopard sightings, but back in the eighties, they were dreaded. Okonjima was a working cattle farm which lost 30 calves a year to hungry cats. The family shot the same amount of leopards in recompense. In Namibia this is legal. Whilst people need a permit to shoot a protected species, if a leopard harms you or your income, permit or not, you have licence to shoot. And people do.
“You can’t blame them. It’s not evil, it’s the suffering struggling,” states Tristan.
Tristan is an old friend of the Hanssen family of Okonjima. Today, he works with them. He tells me how back in the day, the family wrestled with the realisation that shooting cats didn’t solve their problems. The children, Wayne, Rosalea and Donna, began researching a deeper understanding of this predator. Slowly, this understanding became respect, which grew into a desire to protect rather than hunt them.
Turning a cattle farm into an improved leopard habitat was never going to be an easy discussion across the dinner table. “Val, their father, had travelled with these cattle in a ship from America. To sell them was something he couldn’t understand his children wanted.”
But by the end of his life, Val was the driving force which made this conservation project possible. He was the conventional Namibian cattle farmer who came to understand the importance of the cat.
Today, Okonjima is a 55,000 acre fenced reserve for its lucky leopards and cheetahs. Lying at the foot of the Omboroko Mountains, predators thrive alongside game here. Although a fence defines this space, its purpose is to restore the land to wilderness. The kind it might have resembled 200 years ago. At sunset, the copper dust clearings and rocky crags harbouring brown hyena don’t make this difficult to imagine. The family don’t refer to the reserve as a sanctuary but a ‘re-realised habitat’. A microcosm of uninhibited leopard heydays. But managing a habitat doesn’t come without its challenges. The reserve is no nostalgic nod to the wild, but a project fuelled by future value.
“If more people want to witness wild animals alive than shop for their skins, industries are empowered to adapt.”
So what is the importance of the leopard? Despite Namibia’s leopard population dropping by almost a fifth since 2011, Tristan assures me that talk of them being an endangered species will hold no water with locals. “Relative to the rest of the world, they’re in high density. There’s less shame about shooting them”
As these cats divide communities, it’s for local livelihoods that they must offer value. That value exists most easily as a tourist attraction. Tristan argues that even some hunters who shoot the warthog and the antelope, just want to see a leopard. “This is the moment baiting tables become viewing hides. The leopards are saved by their beauty”
If more people want to witness wild animals alive than shop for their skins, industries are empowered to adapt. Conservation will become more lucrative than hunting as soon as there is more demand. Right now, the latter brings in quicker cash.
Tristan admits, it’s a tough transition to pitch to struggling farmers. “Older generations who have suffered don’t want to hear how pretty something is, which has made life so ugly for them. So you need to tell the community that the leopard has a photo value. Open a lodge, give local people work, let them see how it can bring funding for a school to educate their kids in.”
The suggestion of an alternative livelihood also raises other questions. A cynical community will ask; “How do we share the photo value of one leopard? What if that leopard is old with limited life? Will there always be a paying audience for this cat?” These aren’t easy mentalities to unpick, but Okonjima are working on it.
“To rescue more cats would be to jeopardise the quality of life for the current residents.”
In 1993 the Africat Foundation was established at the reserve. It began as a sanctuary for leopards and cheetahs rescued from farmers who were at the end of their tether because they’d suffered such stock losses to the cats. Today, the foundation works towards the long-term conservation of all large carnivores in Namibia. But the conservation doors at Okonjima are now closed to new cats.
Martin, one of the reserve’s trackers, explains; “We have fenced these animals in, now we need to manage this”.
Conservation is no easy venture – it’s full of compromises and difficult considerations. To rescue more cats would be to jeopardise the quality of life for the current residents. The territory is huge, but each cat has its own invisible hunting lines. The land is at capacity.
Another lesson that the AfriCat experts have learned is about leopard psychology. Unlike cheetahs, you can’t rehabilitate leopards to the wild once they’ve existed in captivity. Once a human has fed them, they’ll forever associate man with food. Which is less than ideal for a safari situation. Meanwhile, children under 6 can’t visit the reserve at all. Research suggests that their high-pitched voices mean the cats couldn’t be blamed for considering them prey.
Okonjima does look after a few orphaned cheetahs, and the intensive kind of care they need is no light task to take on. The captivity consideration I found most interesting, is compulsory dental checkups for cheetahs. These cats will often have been previously abducted as pets, and fed hunks of meat in bowls. Cheetahs dismiss this idiot notion and move their steaks into the sand to enjoy them. Over time, the sand erodes their teeth. Cats’ teeth aren’t evolved to mince meals with sand because, in the wild, the carcass of their prey serves as a plate.
Meanwhile, the reserve’s leopards roam freely in the farmland and are only located by radio tracking and collars. If you come to the reserve on the day the leopards are partying in the mountains rather than hanging in the lowlands, bad luck. On my visit, I was lucky enough to spot the two-year old female Amali.
Although leopards like Amali roam wild and free within the reserve, conserving them isn’t a ‘hands off’ affair. Climate change has ensured that. Namibia experienced the worst drought in 100 years in 2019, forcing the family to buy extra food for the animals. For the herbivores, the family mulched grass, added important minerals, and turned this into pellets. This worked for the browsers (animals which usually eat leaves), but the grazers needed digestion enzymes added to their pellets. This process alone taught me what a delicate dance famine management is. And that’s before we even got to the carnivores.
Tristan assures me that at Okonjima, they don’t shoot any of their own game for cat food. The cats still prey on the game, that’s nature. But their main source of food is actually butchered meat which has been bought in. Ironically, the reserve has more than enough live game to feed its predators. But from the impala to the warthog, tourists come to see these animals, too. Even when the fenced reserve naturally overpopulates, Tristan will sell his game alive before he hunts it for meat. “If I shoot, then my game isn’t relaxed around humans. They’d hide from tourists, and lose their value to me”
Tristan admits, by this logic, it’s plausible that he could be buying his own game back as meat. “We’re always sitting on difficult questions,” he says.
“To help wild animals survive, we have to help the humans they share space with to thrive.”
I realise that supporting the natural world is so complex, it can start to feel very unnatural. So what are the best, if not the right, answers to the challenges leopards pose? Tristan has a few ideas. “We need a game count throughout Namibia and we need to talk about fencing.”
Fencing is a huge contributor to how cattle meet their fate with cats. As farmland extends into wild territory, natural migration patterns are interrupted and cats are sent on desperate hunts in different directions. Sadly Tristan has little faith that these studies will get the scrutiny they deserve anytime soon. “There isn’t interest in funding that kind of thing – it isn’t sexy.”
Fencing isn’t sexy, but leopards are seductive as hell. People travel from far flung corners of the world just to see them. Which is why Okonjima’s biggest challenge is to have the cats’ value recognised by the people they live closest to. AfriCat’s biggest hope, is young people. “Younger generations influence a greater understanding to love the land. They become decision makers and teachers,” Tristan says.
If these youngsters can envisage a community built on conservation rather than cattle farming, space will be made for Namibia’s leopards. It’s co-existence, rather than casual brandishing of right and wrong, which makes up sustainable conservation. In defending Namibia’s animals, I hadn’t considered the farmers that make up the 39% of people living below the country’s poverty line. To help wild animals survive, we have to help the humans they share space with to thrive. We’re especially empowered to do this as explorers and photographers. By investing in quality conservation and leaning into our cameras: we can change how shots are taken.