THE HASSEN FAMILY, THE FARM AND THE LODGE HISTORY
For generations, the Hanssen Family had been avid cattle farmers until the need for solutions to increasing livestock losses and post-independence interest in Namibia as a tourist destination, changed the face of Okonjima, as well as that of Carnivore Conservation.
With the family still at the helm, Okonjima now encompasses a dedicated team and a variety of accommodation facilities, offering you, our guest, a truly Namibian stay…
Established in 1993, The AfriCat Foundation started off as a sanctuary for Cheetah and Leopard rescued from irate, livestock farmers.
Today, AfriCat is dedicated to the protection and long-term conservation of all large carnivores in Namibia and has since become renowned for much-needed Environmental Education, Carnivore Research and Animal Welfare.
Environmental Education Programmes amongst Namibia’s youth as well as the farming community are aimed at promoting greater tolerance of carnivores through:
1. Environmental Awareness Programmes and
2. Mitigating farmer-predator conflict on farmland, through improved livestock protection methods
3. Carnivore Research is imperative in order to establish effective management strategies and techniques, thereby supporting the sustainable conservation of each species
4. The Welfare Programme includes rescue, release and rehabilitation of a large number of confiscated, injured and orphaned carnivores
The AfriCat Foundation is based on the farm Okonjima; this mutually beneficial relationship allows for interested visitors to experience, first hand, the works of The Project, gaining valuable insight into carnivore conservation and, at the same time, creating the platform for donating much-needed funds to The Project and its Programmes.
Okonjima farm is a mere 5 400 hectares (ha). During the development of the Okonjima Park, 4 additional farms, i.e. Ombujongwe – 7 500 ha, Joumbira – 4 000 ha & Marathon – 4 500 ha, were included to create the 22 000 ha (55 000 acres – 220 km2)
The Okonjima farm boundary traces a central plateau, at an altitude of 1 700 metres, surrounded by the Omboroko Mountains (remnants of Etjo Sandstone are evident).
In the 1890’s, during colonial South West Africa, Okonjima was used by German military as a resting place for their horses; due to its high altitude, Okonjima is apparently free of the African Horse Sickness virus (transmitted by gnats & biting flies).
In the early 1920’s, Okonjima became a cattle farm and was bought by Val (VJ) & Rose Hanssen in 1970. They were well established Brahman breeders and continued to farm cattle until 1993, when the herds of Brahman and Jersey cattle were sold.
(The Brahman was bred from the Zebu / Indicus breed, originally the traditional Indian holy cow)
This was the start of the Okonjima of today: a successful tourism venture supporting Carnivore Conservation.
VAL & ROSE on the Main Camp lawn with Chinga the cheetah,
Elvis the baboon, Bennie the badger & Hussy the fox-terrier
Due to severe drought in the ‘Khomas Hochland’ (south west of Windhoek), the Hanssen family were forced to sell their farm.
Okonjima was chosen because of its excellent underground water supply. The Brahman cattle were transported by train from Windhoek to Otjiwarongo, a 250 km journey, to their new home on Okonjima farm.
The OKONJIMA Brahmans – aggressive mothers & a hardy breed
Initially, the Brahmans adapted well; however, soon after the first successful calving season, calves between birth and the age of 6 months began disappearing! Investigation into these disappearances revealed tell-tale leopard tracks and drag marks; these drag marks led to the carcasses of the missing animals. . .
The Hanssen family was experiencing the same problems as previous owners, whom had eventually given up farming due to the high stock losses inflicted by leopard. Annual losses of 20 to 30 calves to the dominant predator in this area, were unsustainable and would soon bankrupt the family.
Action was taken in the form of gin- and box-traps; these were set at the calf carcasses in order to catch the problem predator(s).
These traps proved to be extremely effective: leopards were caught and promptly shot, to relieve the problem. The leopards on Okonjima were large animals and offering them to trophy hunters could solve the predator problems as well as bring in revenue to boost the income of this small, cattle farm.
Cattle farming at Okonjima took yet another blow: the calving percentage of 48% was unusually low for these versatile cattle. Nutrition studies done by Dr. Rina Grant during 1981 – 1983, revealed that the grazing was lacking in Phosphate and the cattle would have to be supplemented with this mineral. Once the problem had been identified and supplementation introduced, the calving percentage increased to 98% during the next calving season.
Active leopard trapping, shooting and hunting continued on Okonjima for a period of twenty years, with Wayne, their son, taking over leopard hunting from his father, Val, during the 1980’s: the Omboroko Mountains of Okonjima, are a haven for both leopard and kudu and these two animals were marketed as Okonjima’s sought-after trophy species.
Between 1970 and 1990, an average of 3 leopards were killed annually on Okonjima, in an attempt at reducing livestock losses. Information from previous owners, revealed similarities: despite their destroying the leopards, livestock losses during this time were not reduced and continued at a rate of 20 to 30 calves per annum. Val and Rose came to realise that the more leopards they killed, the higher their stock losses became…
VJ with Elvis, Rose with Bennie & Wayne with Chinga
Wayne hugging his Leopard Wahu
Desperate measures were needed as leopards, bad grazing and inflation were rapidly reducing the financial viability of livestock farming on Okonjima.
Calf holding-pens were built at the watering corrals and during the calving seasons, heavily pregnant cows were placed inside the enclosures to give birth, thus protecting the new-born calves from leopards. The cows were allowed to graze close-by during the day-time; the calves, however, stayed within these enclosures and would drink when their mothers returned. As the calves grew older and their diet changed, they were fed grass / hay, but they remained in “protective custody” until approx. four months of age. Thereafter, the calves were usually strong enough to keep up with their mothers whilst they grazed; the mothers became very protective of their offspring, thus offering protection from all predators. (Brahman cows are known to be very aggressive when they have calves).
The result: Annual livestock losses were reduced from 20 to 30 animals annually to 3 or less.
Val & Wayne Hanssen realised the need to have a better understanding of leopards and their habits, as shooting and hunting were ineffective in conquering this extremely resilient carnivore. They examined dirt roads and game paths looking for pugmarks (spoor) and actively baited in many areas of the farm. ‘Baits’ of kudu, gemsbok and warthog meat, placed in these strategic areas, were taken by leopard shortly after being put out. When this became a regular occurrence, Wayne began observing the leopards at night.
Initially, the leopards were extremely shy and cautious as, for many years, they had been actively persecuted. In time, they became less wary and they could be observed at night with a red, filtered light. The baits also attracted honey badgers and many a competitive fight was observed over this readily available food source.
Wayne was soon forced to build elevated, honey badger-proof, ‘feeding tables’, whilst still allowing the leopards to jump onto the table.
Time constraints did not allow Wayne to sit and observe leopards every night, so he began monitoring the time of their feeding sessions by attaching the bait to the battery in an alarm clock; when the leopard pulled the bait, the battery was pulled out of the alarm clock and the clock would stop. These observations led to further interest and a homemade, trip camera was placed at the table. An infra-red beam triggered a mouse trap that would trigger the shutter of an old camera, strategically placed on the feeding table: the leopards regularly photographed themselves feeding!
A typical ‘feeding table’ with clock & camera connected to the bait with fishing line
The 1st picture taken from the ‘table’ of a leopard eating the bait
After some time, Wayne was able to identify individuals from their photographs and by their behaviour. He estimated that between 8 and 12 leopards were making use of Okonjima farm, as part of their home ranges.
The successful tourism business which drives Okonjima today, had small beginnings in 1986.
Dennis Rundle had started ‘Namib Wilderness Safaris’ and needed overnight accommodation for his guests, en-route from Windhoek to the Etosha National Park.
Donna Hanssen met with his wife, Ross, the then Managing Director of the Namib Travel Shop. As many of their clients were keen ‘birders’, Ross was searching for a “birder’s paradise” near Otjiwarongo – Donna promptly mentioned that her mother, Rose Hanssen, had a brilliant knowledge of the birds which occurred on their farm, Okonjima, Rose & Val Hanssen were approached to use Okonjima as a camp-site and guest farm for their Safaris.
So, the family moved out of their rooms – and the guests moved in!
This was the start of something much larger than anyone had ever imagined: tourists would stay for one night and were offered a basic lunch on arrival and walks in the veldt during the afternoon; the following morning, Rose, an avid birder who actively took part in the annual Bird Atlas Projects, would show guests the endemic Damara, Rock Runner and near-endemics such as the White-Tailed Shrike, Hartlaub’s Francolin and many more. Rose also excelled in the kitchen with farm cooking and herbal recipes (Rose was nationally known for her knowledge of medicinal & edible herbs); she made everyone feel that they had come ‘home’ for the holidays. . .
Okonjima soon became a regular stop-over on the ‘Namib Wilderness Safari’ route. This additional income allowedVal & Rose to build two bungalows in the garden (the present rooms 3 & 4) in order to accommodate guests. The old hunter’s rooms (VJ’s house) also provided accommodation but, on occasion, the family still had to move out of their own bedrooms when the groups were too large.
In 1988, Wayne completed his university studies and in-house technical training with the NBC (Namibia Broadcasting Corporation); and in 1989, he returned to Okonjima.
His job was to help manage the farm and to entertain the guests. Wayne had grown-up with a Bushman, who had spent many hours showing him how to survive in the bush: which plants to eat, how to hide water underground and how to set humane traps, to name but a few of their amazing skills. Wayne realised that most guests would enjoy this ‘cultural’ experience, so he set up the very popular Bushman Trail, which still today is one of the most popular trails on Okonjima.
He also decided to experiment with his Leopard baiting, as an activity for tourists. With little thought for safety, guests would sit on rock ledges under cover of darkness and wait for the leopards: although some nights were disappointing, mostly the leopard viewing was successful and this became a popular activity at Okonjima.
Tourism continued to grow and Okonjima became increasingly popular. Rosalea and Donna, Wayne’s sisters, helped with the guest business during their university holidays and eventually both moved back to Okonjima permanently –Rosalea in 1992 and Donna during 1993.
Rosalea with Tambo and Donna with Tess – the orphaned lions
This family-run guest farm, en-route to the Etosha National Park, fast became a sought-after stop-over; the activities expanded from birding and guided walking trails to include a 2½ hour Bushman Trail; leopard viewing from a hide, the once considered ‘pest’, also became a popular tourist attraction.
Sadly, Rose passed away in August 1992.
In 1989, a cheetah cub named Chinga, came to live at Okonjima. Val Hanssen had attended an auction, organised to raise funds for a political party (DTA), just before Namibian Independence from South Africa. Amongst the chairs, tables, pots, pans, meat, eggs and ‘biltong’ was a cheetah cub in a cage. No one was interested in the cheetah cub and out of pity, Val bought her for R200-00 (N$). Initially, she was extremely wild, but slowly became used to people. Chinga was free to roam around the garden and the surrounding veldt, visible to the guests; little did we suspect that Chinga and our leopard-viewing were to lead us into an active role in carnivore conservation in Namibia …
As word of Okonjima’s success with cheetah and leopard spread, it wasn’t long before we were approached by a number of farmers, to take on the cheetah & leopard that had been trapped on their farms, in an effort to relieve livestock losses.
This was the beginning of The AfriCat Welfare Programme.
By this time, hunting had ceased on Okonjima and our interests had turned to developing the guest farm, turning it into an active conservation project and a lodge. We were extremely short on manpower: Donna & Rosalea with Wayne and his new wife Lise Conradie, managed the lodge, cooked, helped clean the rooms, guided and entertained the guests. In addition to our already full schedule, we were rescuing distressed leopard and cheetah from all over Namibia.
Cheetah and Leopard rescue was purely a welfare exercise, but this would lead to more ambitious carnivore projects in the future. Soon we were holding a large number of orphaned cheetah and leopard and were battling to house them all: this lead to our first fundraising venture, to fund the building of a large enclosure for some of the cheetah. As an answer to our call, guests Diane and Richard Reynolds-Hale offered their support and within a few months, a 25-hectare area had been fenced and de-bushed – this was the beginning of our Cheetah Project.
Orphaned and wild cheetah and leopard continued to come in at an alarming rate: the cost of feeding them was covered by Okonjima Lodge. It was decided at this stage to take guests to visit the cheetahs so that they could learn more about these specialised predators; in turn, these captive cheetah generated so much interest, that their up-keep was supported by donations.
Although guests loved seeing the cheetah and leopard at Okonjima, the ever-increasing expenses (i.e. vehicles, fuel, veterinary fees and food) became too much for Okonjima to carry. At this time, Wayne and his then wife Lise, had the opportunity to attend a tourism show in London – the World Travel Market; they were also invited to attend a fair at the Islington Exhibition Centre, where Wayne presented a talk on the ‘Big Cats’.
This was the ideal opportunity to begin fundraising, but problems arose when it became clear that Wayne and Lise did not represent a registered Charity. It was then decided to establish a foundation dedicated to the conservation of large carnivores; a Namibian lawyer drew up the legal constitution and in 1993, The AfriCat Foundation was born.
From this moment on, The AfriCat Foundation functioned as a separate entity to Okonjima Lodge, although AfriCat remains based on Okonjima farm:
Environmental Education and Awareness – educating the next generation about carnivore conservation and its role in maintaining the balance of nature
Farmer-Predator Conflict Resolution – creating awareness and promoting the tolerance of large carnivores among the farming community, by assisting farmers in effective management and subsequent improved livestock protection
Large Carnivore Research and Monitoring – initiating and supporting much-needed carnivore research
Welfare and Rehabilitation – providing humane housing, treatment and care for orphaned and injured animals, as well as rescue, rehabilitation and release of large carnivores
Approx. 50% of Namibia is comprised of livestock farms. Commercial or free-hold farmers own their land and run livestock commercially; communal farmers tend to carry out subsistence farming.
A number of commercial farmers do not practice effective livestock management: most practice two calving seasons per year and offer inadequate protection to young calves, sheep and goats.
Having also farmed livestock on Okonjima, the AfriCat team is able to offer correct and effective advice for improved livestock protection from predators. Our approach is to provide valuable information and offer practical advice to livestock farmers, in the hope that they accept responsibility for the protection of their livestock and see the economic advantages of improved livestock management.
This advice may take the form of the introduction of calving seasons, so that there is some control over calves born (where some farmers leave the bulls with the herds all year round, producing calves throughout the year) and, in high density predator areas, introducing predator-proof enclosures. Unfortunately calves sometimes lose body mass through separation from their mothers for extended periods of time, and if this is severe, one has to compromise and allow the calves to graze with their mothers.
However, if a herdsman can accompany the herd, then all the better for the young calves.
Other options include keeping long horned bulls with the cow/calf herds and if the predator problem is extreme, introducing more aggressive breeds such as the Brahman.
Effective management techniques have to be cost effective; expenditure should not exceed loss of livestock and only be introduced when farmers suffer losses over a sustainable limit.
The long-horned African, Sanga or Nguni cattle
Due to their shy, solitary nature, a leopard population estimate is almost an impossible task. One cannot extrapolate their numbers from density estimates already known from study areas because rainfall and available resources will affect their density.
Management of carnivores in Namibia is particularly difficult because carnivores do not always respond as one would expect. For instance, attempts at contraception in lionesses in the Etosha National Park, to control the population and halt the need for lion to leave the park, had no effect on the number of vagrant lion shot on the farms bordering the park.
As already proved through the culling and hunting of leopards at Okonjima, this practice does not reduce numbers, but merely makes space for migrants from other areas. Farmers regularly report that they continuously kill leopard to control livestock problems, but to no avail.
The only way that one can truly manage a carnivore population is by understanding the dynamics that drive these populations and by adapting farming methods accordingly. Culling actually stimulates populations by allowing more sub-adults to survive, replacing older animals that would be killed off which causes the population to have a higher turnover, but not necessarily be reduced. Culling can actually benefit these populations instead of decreasing them, which is what many people have tried to achieve and failed.
In order to improve management of carnivores in Namibia, we need to initiate more research projects, to give us a better understanding of these animals and guide conservation strategies in the right direction.
Communities harbour animosity toward leopard mainly due to a lack of understanding of their behaviour. Some of the neighbouring farmers to Okonjima have accused the Hanssen family of being responsible for the increase in leopards in the area. As there cannot be more leopards in an area than the area can support, this is an unfounded accusation.
To counteract this negativity it was decided to include our neighbours in leopard research, in order to make them feel a part of the conservation of these animals.
Leopards occur throughout Namibia except for the true desert in the west, where the prey-base is low. They are also absent from areas of dense human habitation, e.g. the capital city of Windhoek, but can be found on the outskirts. Population density figures are only available for small areas in Namibia. These figures differ according to prey availability which can vary greatly between different rain fall areas. For this reason, population figures cannot be extrapolated from the available data.
Leopards are listed on CITES Appendix 1 and are protected in most of their natural range. In Namibia, they may be killed as problem animals if they threaten livestock, as long as this action is reported to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Limited trophy hunting of leopard occurs in Namibia and is controlled by use of a permit system.
Leopards are nocturnal animals. They are extremely shy and secretive; this could be because they are actively persecuted on most farms. Leopards tend to hunt animals that are the most abundant within their territory.
Although leopards are found in state protected areas such as the Etosha National Park in the north, Kaudom National Park in the north east and the Namib Naukluft Park in the south west, a higher density of leopard are found on communal and free-hold farms as these state protected areas only cover an approx. 13.8% of Namibia.
There are no reliable population figures for leopard in Namibia, but livestock farmers regularly complain about livestock losses to leopard and regularly catch, poison and shoot them to prevent further losses.
Judging by conflict reports by farmers and leopard tracks seen on roads and game paths, the leopard population in most areas in Namibia appears to be stable. Because of their unknown status in Namibia and their vulnerability to habitat loss, conservation of this species is imperative.
The Minister of Environment and Tourism (MET) approached us in 1997, with the view to initiating the first collaborative carnivore research study in Namibia.
As part of this study, we had been active in moving trapped leopards and releasing them in ‘leopard friendly’ areas, without knowing the long-term implications of these actions. Okonjima was also actively baiting leopard for tourism viewing. Because we are involved in predator conservation and are also in a position to raise funds for projects, our situation was ideal to attempt something of that nature.
Following consultation with Dr. Flip Stander, the then carnivore co-ordinator for MET, the Leopard Study commenced in June, 1998.
The aim of the project was to establish the true density of the leopard population on Okonjima farm.
In order to attract resident leopard, the number and intensity of baiting increased on Okonjima. As soon as they started taking the bait, box-traps were set at the baiting sites and disguised to look like tunnels through the vegetation.
Within one month of baiting, we had captured four animals: three males between 2.5 and 6 years of age and a lactating female of 2.5 years old. They were promptly radio-collared and released. The monitoring of these animals continued intensively, with Lise tracking daily on foot and Dr. Flip Stander flying twice monthly for the MET.
Four Months into our tracking routine, one male was killed on a farm 11km’s away. Within a week he was replaced in his territory by a younger animal, which again demonstrated that removal does not guarantee a leopard-free area. Months later we were able to trap the ‘unknown’ leopard – he, too, was radio-collared and his movements were monitored along with the other leopards.
Our radio-telemetry study continued for almost 3 years and we were able to gather reliable data; home ranges were plotted and as the project will continue intensively in the new Okonjima Private Nature Reserve, we will be able to say with far greater accuracy, how large their territories are inside the reserve compared to the collared leopards outside of the reserve. Previous carnivore research has noted that many carnivores have exclusive home ranges and territories. This is completely contradictory to what we have seen with our leopards: the tolerance between these animals is remarkable with two of the animals sharing almost the same home range area. This is probably due to the abundant prey in the area.
To our knowledge, none of the radio-collared animals have caused any conflict on any of Okonjima’s neighbouring farms. One immediate neighbour lost a foal to leopard, but none of the radio-collared leopards were in the area at that specific time. He agreed to bait the leopard and allow us to radio-collar it, in order to monitor its movements. This would then give him some indication on how to manage his livestock. We eventually caught a leopard in the area; he was radio-collared and monitored during the 3-year Project. Radio-collaring is extremely interesting to farmers as prior to this, they had had no idea about leopard movements. Now they are able to follow the movements of some of the animals in the area, leading to further interest and involvement.
We are not in a position to give an exact density figure as yet, although we estimate that it is exceptionally high. However, we do know that during the 3-year Project, there were eight leopards using Okonjima farm as part of their home range.
Leopard kills are extremely difficult to find because leopards are so secretive and tend to hide their kills. One also has to be very careful when approaching leopard kills on foot, as we have found leopard staying in the kill area for up to five days. We suspect a kill when the leopard locations continue in one area for a period of time.
Most of the prey were kudu calves between the ages of 8 and 12 months. The remains of a few warthog were found hidden in a rocky outcrop. As kudu is the most prolific prey species in this area, it makes sense that they would be the species mostly preyed upon. This follows trends found in other carnivore studies.
As finance would allow, the lodge was extended and today has ten double rooms at Main Camp, eight chalets at Bush Camp, 2 luxury rooms at Bush Suite, 4 luxury rooms at The Villa and an exclusive Campsite. Guests are treated to wonderful meals, good service and share all the up-to-date information and insight into the world of carnivores. Extensive publicity and a good reputation has led to Okonjima becoming one of the more popular stops on the Namibian tourism route. Although accurate figures for occupancy are only available from 1994, when Okonjima changed from being a guest farm to a lodge, these demonstrate that visitor numbers have steadily increased.
Conservation and tourism are probably the most compatible activities in a country like Namibia. Many tourists only take photographs, but contribute financially to the welfare of the country.
In communal farming areas, now largely grouped into so-called ‘conservancies’, consumptive (hunting for meat and trophies) and non-consumptive (photographic and game capture) utilization of wildlife is effectively contributing to poverty reduction, at the same time, ensuring a balanced, sustainable eco-system.
Importantly, however, the impact of over-utilization of this natural resource and mass tourism on these extremely sensitive eco-systems, should be effectively monitored, in order to prevent destruction of that which supports communities and attracts our valuable tourist trade.
The symbiotic relationship which exists between the AFRICAT FOUNDATION and OKONJIMA LODGE is imperative to the continued survival of both – without education, research and the mitigation of farmer-predator conflict throughout Namibia, the essential conservation of large carnivores would falter … and without the substantial financial support offered by our foreign visitors, who stay in the OKONJIMA lodges, neither would survive!
Valdemar James Hanssen (VJ) & Edith Rose Bagot-Smith
OKONJIMA’S next generation KEANU, JAYD & KAYDEN
Their LOVE of Life and the Wilderness will continue to guide us!
Wayne, Donna & Rosalea HANSSEN: co-owners of Okonjima Lodge, Okonjima farm and AfriCat Foundation trustees
Wayne HANSSEN: founder of ‘The AfriCat Foundation’
Donna HANSSEN: marketing & media Okonjima and AfriCat
Rosalea HANSSEN: education AfriCat & Perivoli Okonjima Country School; accounts and head of reservations
Tammy HOTH: nee Hanssen – AfriCat North, AfriCat fundraiser, research & education; co-owner, together with her husband Uwe Hoth, of Kavita Lion Lodge & Kaross farm, HQ AfriCat North.
Uwe HOTH: co-owner, together with Tammy Hoth, of Kavita Lion Lodge & Kaross farm, HQ AfriCat North; logistics AfriCat North ‘Livestock Protection Programme’ (improving farming practices) and the Lion management unit.
Luigi BASSI: (married to Rosalea Hanssen & the father of Okonjima’s next generation) – telecommunications & share-holder Okonjima Lodge.
Tristan BOEHME: AfriCat team leader, marketing & share-holder Okonjima Lodge
Yolandi ROOS: reservation,share-holder Okonjima Lodge, education Perivoli Okonjima Country School
Ben & Sarah FORBES: Northern Exposure UK – represent Okonjima Lodge and the AfriCat Foundation in the UK, Africa and North America
Pete & Wanda Hanssen: AfriCat America Inc
David Farquharson, Mark Reinecke, Carey & Janet Widdows: AfriCat UK