Updated on March 1st, 2021
Ever wanted to experience volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary? If so, then Na’ankuse is exactly what you are looking for. Here, I give an account of my second week working with wild animals in Namibia. It includes spending time in the wild with cheetahs, walking with baboons & spending the night on a platform next to the lions, on the lookout for poachers.”
N/a’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary, Windhoek, Namibia
I chose to spend 2 weeks at the N/a’ankuse Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia to gain some experience of a volunteering holiday & have an opportunity to work in close contact with wildlife. The minimum allowed was 2 weeks which suited me perfectly. To learn more about the experiences of my first week, how & who I booked with & N/a’ankuse itself please see my previous post Volunteering at a Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia – Week One. In addition, why not check out my tour in Namibia or the story of my final night fighting a devastating & terrifying bushfire.
If you are interested to read about other amazing animal interactions, then look no further than my Top 11 Wildlife Experiences in the World.
What do you need to know?
After feeling that my first week was more about the ‘chores’ around the sanctuary, for my second week my involvement with the animals really increased & I had some unique experiences which I will never forget. So, my second week consisted of:
1. Horse riding
The sanctuary has a number of horses, some rescued, some abused by owners, some born here. Game Counts on a horse can get a lot closer to the wildlife than in a truck. Our day started with the obligatory collection of poo from around the horses compound, followed by cleaning the rugs. Once we’d finished the chores it was time to find the horses. They let out into the reserve every night. The horses had a good drink (by order of hierarchical importance in the group). We were then assigned our buddy for the day. Mine was Big Red & I loved him instantly despite his penchant for stubbornness & falling asleep! We groomed our horses, saddled up & we were away.
Monday afternoons are always compulsory for important things like First Aid or Fire Drills. On usual horse duty, you spend the morning doing chores & lessons and the afternoon riding. We just had the morning so I was happy to just get out riding.
After Big Red & I had discovered an understanding (he took a while to succumb to my horse whispering charms), we made a great team. The order of horses was all based on a hierarchy of who is the highest status in the group & who least likes to have their bum sniffed! That placed Big Red & I 4th out of 5 horses in the pecking order (low class & with the 2nd biggest aversion to bum sniffers – I was happy with my lot!)”
Throughout the morning we saw eland, warthog, lots of hartebeest, oryx, kudu & a vulture with a baby. Despite a shorter session, it was another unique experience to chalk up & my arse was grateful when we returned to the farm & washed the horses.
The afternoon was a practical exercise in first aid. To find out why Fire Training may have been the more useful option, check out How to Survive a Bush Fire in Namibia.
2. Baboon Walk (again – hooray!)
Although I’ve already written about the joys of Baboon Walk (see article Week One), this was different as there were only 2 of us in the group which meant more attention & time with these beautiful, cheeky & human creatures.
Our first stop was the tree area where, although we got some attention, many of the baboons were playing at a distance & I discovered that sitting on the floor (unfortunately amid the acacia thorns) was better for interactions than the more comfortable log. I was befriended by the alpha female, Mina, who always demanded to have the baby Bienkie with her. I realised that if you mimic her lip-smacking, this effectively means you want to be groomed. Also, baboons like it if you groom them too & observation showed me that they stay with you longer if you fake groom them.
So, for the morning we had a bit of a groom fest love in with me grooming Mina who shared her attention between me & Bienkie, sometimes combining the 2 & grooming Bienkie on my lap. Then Mina peed on my boot – the ultimate seal of approval! I loved it & felt I’d arrived as part of the baboon clan!”
On to the Waterhole
We then moved on to the waterhole where some of the group (baboons only!) went straight into the water, increasing the jeopardy of who was landing on you & occasionally using your head as a fun springboard! We then created the game where baboons climbed the tree & jumped from there into our arms – great until they all wanted to do it at once & fight for supremacy over my shoulders!
Walking back with baboons on my shoulders & hips will always remain one of the highlights of my time in Namibia. And again, as we got to the farm I caught up with Shrinky (abandoned when young, with brain damage & hand-reared). Again, she reached out to me & again I carried her for the last part of the walk. This time she didn’t bite – maybe we had developed an understanding, maybe I was just more comfortable & she sensed it, either way, it was a special end to a very special baboon experience. I felt privileged.
3. Baboon & Carnivore Feed
Our first job was to grab food for the baboons – bread (from a local bakery who donates out of date stock), mielie pap (cooked corn & a staple diet for most of the animals) & a few nectarines & strawberries (again donations from Woolworths) as treats. There were 2 large enclosures for the adult baboons & feeding them involved throwing handfuls of food over the fence in 5 separate stops. As with all the animals, they eat in a hierarchy. Therefore by spreading the food around, all members of the group had a chance to get food.
In the second enclosure, there were a number of babies as a wild male had entered the enclosure & been busy a few months ago. You could tell instantly which one he was – aggressive & with a different demeanour to the rest who have been raised in captivity.
There was a hilarious moment when one of the baboons was literally gathering up as much bread as he could carry & trying to run off furtively on 2 legs without anyone noticing!”
We also left a bucket of bread for the wild baboons. This prevents them from trying to get into the enclosures to steal the food.
Then we went back to stock up for the carnivore feed. Throughout the next couple of hours, we went around the compound throwing meat over the side of fences to ever-present & ready beautiful creatures. The leopards were brooding but spectacular & the caracal quick & elusive. There were a number of groups of cheetah & I threw a big chunk of meat to Lucky who had 3 legs. She was found having been caught in a vicious trap so had to have a leg amputated & therefore was no longer able to compete in the wild.
The African wild dogs were amazing and a special treat to feed. They are now an endangered species across the continent. We fed a group of 5, which involved opening the gate & putting a couple of huge chunks of meat at the entrance while our co-ordinator distracted them & kept them back. My tent mate, Linda had told me that they went to feed a different pack of wild dogs before I arrived at camp & had a sweepstake on how long it would take for the dogs to devour a carcass. It was apparently a sight to behold. The vicious enthusiasm of this pack of 12 took 13 minutes to strip off all the meat. Wow!
Most frightening of all was feeding the big lion, Kilimanjaro. As we approached he made his presence known with incredibly loud roaring. We were told he has been in a bad mood for the last few days. We may not be able to stay long…no kidding!
As the meat was thrown this huge beast leapt in the air to catch it & let rip even more with his vocal performance. He looked so big & impressive I was in awe as I remained unconvinced that in a fit of rage he couldn’t jump over the fence. Our co-ordinator immediately told us to back off… QUICKLY as Kilimanjaro serenaded our swift exit from his lunch spot. What a morning!”
4. Cheetah & Hyena Walk
One of the first things I learnt on my arrival at N/a’ankuse was how surprisingly quickly cheetahs become acclimatized to human contact – 3 days. Leopards & lions are much more suspicious & it takes a lot longer, meaning they stand a much better chance of being re-released into the wild. Once cheetahs have spent just a short time in the company of humans, they no longer have any fear & in the wild, this causes issues as they fail to run when danger approaches in the form of farmers defending their livestock.
At the sanctuary, there are a group of 7 young cheetahs who currently live in an enclosure on the farm. The enclosure is neither a huge or permanent home for them. It is therefore required that they are walked outside periodically. This means great delight of us volunteers as we were able to go with them.
Walking with Cheetahs
We collected 3 of the cheetahs (Kozo, Bullet & Flash) in the back of a trailer. It’s hot in the afternoon & they were initially reluctant to get out from under the shade of the trees. We drove a short way into the bush before stopping & getting out of the truck ourselves & releasing the cheetahs. We were given instructions to wait for them to walk & then follow them slowly & as a group. We were told we should not try & touch them but they may try & brush against us. If they did we don’t respond and we don’t take photos of them with humans. N/a’ankuse has a strict philosophy that selfies with the cheetahs are for our own self-gratification. It is therefore forbidden. They were again reticent to move but then reluctantly got out of the trailer & started to walk slowly, wisely not keen to move out of the shade.
It’s fascinating how complacent you get so quickly about the potential for harm that these beautiful creatures represent. There were only 7 of us, the coordinator Johannes & 3 cheetahs – no leads, no guns & no fear.”
There was only one moment when reality struck. One of my friends stopped to pick up & a guinea fowl feather so got slightly separated from the group. One of the cheetahs was behind her & started growling & bearing its teeth. A harsh reminder that we shouldn’t get complacent & a reprimand from Johannes to not get separated from the group. Strangely we all kept quite close after that!
We spent an hour in total following our feline guides a short way along a dry river bed. When they stopped, we stopped & sat 3 metres away as they watched the surroundings, clearly on high alert for any sounds or movement which meant the occasional short bolt into the undergrowth. On a previous cheetah walk they had apparently chased & brought down a duiker, not killed it properly (they are orphans so didn’t have a mother to teach them how to hunt & actually kill) but the instinct is clearly still there.
Is this really happening?
On our walk, it was uneventful apart from the awe-inspiring spectacle of walking in the wild surrounded by cheetahs. It was yet another moment when I pinched myself & promised never to take these special opportunities & privileged experiences for granted.
Then they refused to get back in the trailer again!
After we had eventually got the cheetahs back to the farm, we went to pick up Nana (a 6-month-old, orphaned hyena) for a walk at the waterhole. Nana was a very cute ball of fluff who loved to play fight with the resident dog, Nattie. She also loved to nip at your ankles if you stood still & didn’t have your defence mechanisms switched on (i.e. be ready to run & chased by a hyena!). Yet another very surreal experience!
5. Night Watch
Each night at the sanctuary there are people needed to be on security for the threat of poachers. Tonight was my night. In theory, this involves at least one person being alert at any given time to watch & listen for anything unusual (mainly cars, lights, dogs) acting suspiciously. You need to occasionally do a survey with the light of 360 degrees around the platform & radio to the coordinator in charge if you suspect anything. Reality is that you do all of this BUT you also sleep under the (regularly shooting!) stars. Your bed is on a raised wooden platform next to the lions’ enclosure. You are also woken up periodically when the silence is broken by a chorus of roaring from the lions below. It was awesome!
At one point I was on watch & it was time to do a torch sweep of the area which thankfully was unfruitful. I then did the same in the lions enclosure to be met by a very close & very loud onslaught of movement & guttural complaints from my neighbours who didn’t seem to appreciate my concern for their well-being. It literally felt like they were about to jump onto our platform & tear me limb from limb.”
Needless to say, I quickly turned the light out & hid in my sleeping bag until they quietened down. I didn’t see them or know where they were but heard all I needed to & eventually went back to sleep.
The next day I was woken by a heralding of the new morning from the lions as they moaned & roared to welcome the day while the sun rose over the horizon on the other side of the platform. For 40 minutes it was just me & the lions as my fellow volunteers continued to sleep & I got a beautiful display of roaring, fighting, pacing & sitting as the light drifted over the area beneath. Wow!
6. Baboon walk (with the adults)
On my 3rd baboon walk, we took the adults which, I had been told was a bit boring as the older ones are far less interactive than the babies. I disagreed. How can walking in the wild with baboons ever be boring? Some people here I felt were starting to get complacent! For me, there were fewer individuals who wanted interactions but as a result, they somehow seemed more intimate & meaningful.
Overall, as most of the group kept their distance climbing the trees & chasing each other, 5 of them at different times came to join us as we sat. Ever present was one of the ladies who was a very thorough (& at times aggressive!) expert in grooming.
It was always an honour to get her attention. However it was also a concern for how many things she could find in my (clean) hair! She had a way of pulling so hard I could barely stay sitting up, & then when she had found everything she could in my hair (at least until 10 minutes later), she was generously trying to help by scratching off my moles(!!!).”
7. Meerkat Diaries
Another early start as we were on duty for researching the local wild meerkat group as they emerged from their den for the morning. It was cold. Although it is very hot during the day in the desert, the nights can be really cold. We were met with a truck at 6am. The meerkats had been surfacing at about 6.20am for the last couple of mornings. The idea is to see if we can discover anything more about the group – so far we knew there were 10 & they lived in their den with a mongoose & a ground squirrel which they think are just roommates, as opposed to all working together in any way. We stood in the cold as the sun came up staring through binoculars & waiting for our first sighting. This morning they were having a lie-in!
After a while, we decided to move a little further & watch a different area & as soon as we did they emerged. We were able to discover that they were an equal mix of 5 males, 5 females & there were 2 yellow mongooses living with them. Great to see their heads as they popped up & watch as they had their noses in the air – alert & surveying the new day.
8. Footprint Identification Technique (FIT)
The aim of FIT is that cheetahs (and rhinos, elephants & many other African wildlife) have unique footprints & once the data has been collected & analysed they should be able to identify specific animals from their footprints alone. This could be an essential tool in the human-wildlife conflict situations which N/a’ankuse are so committed to resolving.
So, after preparing a patch of mud in the enclosure (removing leaves, grass & stones, wetting & finely raking) we tempted Athena with meat to walk across the area in both directions so we could start the process (while trying to be alert & stop any of the others from also getting involved!). Then we took it in turns to identify hind footprints, whether they were right or left, cleaning them up & adding a ruler for scale before photographing them at numerous different angles. This will then be collected & analysed for 16 different points which, once they have enough examples, will allow instant recognition from the marks left by the cheetah. Click here to find out more about the FIT techniques & possibilities. Amazing!
What an unbelievable & mind-blowing week of experiences!
So after 2 weeks of volunteering, I went into my final weekend expecting a quiet one. It wasn’t! To find out more about my scary weekend check out my experiences of the bushfire…!
Where next time?
For me, 2 weeks was perfect here. It allowed me to participate in all the main events throughout my time at the sanctuary. If I was to return, I would consider visiting one of the other conservation & research sites that are also under the N/a’ankuse umbrella:
Neuras – lots of hiking in the mountains of Namibia. You can get involved in research, setting camera traps, a day trip to Sossusvlei, and there’s wine!
Kanaan – a new site where you can get involved in the construction of enclosures & walking trails as well as a hike in search of hyena dens and marking trees & feed the resident cheetahs who have been relocated to a large enclosure here.
Mengetti – focusses on African wild dogs & elephants and involves monitoring movements and observing behaviour to change the perspective of local farmers when dealing with these perceived pests.
All of the above are best booked before you leave home & cost an additional UK£70 per week.
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