A Shining example of Conservation - Okonjima Nature Reserve and Okonjima Lodges

AUTHOR: Kina Indongo Communications Specialist @ RDJ Publishing

This month, in order to explore strategies for wildlife conservation and its impact on the environment and the economy, the RDJ Briefingasked for an interview with the director of a carnivore conservation foundation. What we discovered however was a wonderfully symbiotic relationship between a conservation foundation, a tourism facility and a private wildlife reserve that serves as a model for sustainable conservation, eco-tourism, climate-change mitigation and self-reliance. The Okonjima Nature Reserve is a 220 square kilometers private reserve 50km south of Otjiwarongo that is home to Okonjima Lodges, a collection of tourism facilities ranging from an exclusive private villa to a series of campsites, and the AfriCat Foundation dedicated to wildlife conservation, in particular carnivores. We interviewed Mr. Hanssen, the CEO of Okonjima Lodges, one of the founders of the AfriCat Foundation and the inspiration behind the Okonjima Nature Reserve and Ms. Codling, the Coordinator of the AfriCat Foundation. During a leisurely interview on a typical Namibian sunny day Mr. Hanssen and Ms. Codling explained how Mr.Hanssen and his sisters converted their family cattle farm into a wildlife reserve and built up a profitable tourism business, established a conservation foundation and through trial and error identified the best way they could contribute to conservation, and learnt lessons from the Covid pandemic that they now use to ensure the sustainability of the Okonjima Nature Reserve.

Courtesy: Angelique Smith Kirsch


Mr. Hanssen’s parents bought Okonjima when he was a boy. His family were cattle farmers and like all cattle farmers, suffered substantial losses due to cattle falling prey to wildlife such as leopards, losing on average 15 to 20 cattle a year. And like all farmers, they resorted to shooting the leopards, or hosting hunters to shoot the leopards. But Mr. Hanssen felt their ‘solution’ wasn’t working and set up home-made camera traps to try to understand what was going on. From his cameras he came to understand that “Whenever an adult leopard kills a calf and you subsequently shoot that leopard, several younger leopards would move into the farm. What we learned was the larger male leopards would keep their territory free of competitors. Younger leopards are not territorial yet and do not mind being together. So now you have 3-4 young male leopards on your farm, whereas before you only had one older one and young leopards, still honing their hunting skills are much more likely to become habitual livestock hunters, whereas established males will only take livestock opportunistically.


Trying to remove predators can therefore lead to more predators, with a preference for livestock.” With this knowledge, the family tried other strategies to reduce calf losses, eventually learning that keeping calves with herdsmen during the day and in mobile kraals at night, greatly reduced losses. Excited by their findings, they attempted to convince other farmers to adopt similar strategies, even forming a Foundation – called the AfriCat Foundation – to fund human-wildlife conflict advocacy. But the average Namibian farmer proved resistant; they were unconvinced and reluctant to spend money on herdsmen and kraals. Instead, many asked the fledgling Foundation to remove cheetahs and leopards caught on their farms. Rather than refuse, which would put the animal at risk of being shot and close off communication with the farmer, the Foundation removed the captured animals and released them onto farms where they were welcome or at least tolerated. Territorial individuals were kept at AfriCat for several months before being released to reduce the chances of them returning to the farm where they had been captured. Farmers were concerned that this ‘rescue and release’ strategy was merely “circulating the problem” however and put pressure on the Ministry of Environment and Tourism to limit rescue and release permits. Attempts to instead release unwanted carnivores into national parks also failed when export of carnivores out of Namibia was curtailed, in part to prevent wild-caught carnivores ending up in the canned hunting (Canned hunting is the killing of captive-bred wild animals in small enclosures. It is most commonly associated with the trophy-hunting of lions in South Africa) business in South Africa. Even an attempt to release cheetahs into the Okonjima Nature Reserve was not successful, due to a naturally occurring high density of leopards in the Reserve and cheetahs’ need for large home ranges.



The experience led AfriCat to change strategy; they had had little success in trying to change livestock management strategies in order to address human wildlife conflict, relocation of carnivores was not possible and not a solution if animals tried to return to their home ranges, and maintaining rescued carnivores in captivity was not contributing to their conservation. Continuing todraw on their own experiences, the Foundation looked at the Okonjima Nature Reserve. The 220 square kilometer Reserve was created in a phased approach from the original family cattle farm. In the early days, the cattle farm hosted hunters as a secondary source of income. When it became clear that hunting the leopards was not the solution to cattle losses from leopards, the family switched to hosting first birders and then tourists wanting to see wildlife. Eventually the remaining cows were sold and the family focused on tourism as the primary source of income. The dream at the time was that the Okonjima guest farm would co-exist with neighboring livestock and game farming neighbors, with each farm consumptively and non-consumptively using wildlife that moved freely between the farms. It became clear however that this was not sustainable. As a wildlife tourism facility, wildlife on Okonjima were protected but when they went to neighboring farms, they were at risk of being hunted. It was therefore reluctantly decided that the Okonjima Nature Reserve had to be fenced to protect the animals within. An estimated 42% of Namibia’s landmass is under some form of conservation management, including private reserves, such as the Okonjima Nature Reserve. Research by the AfriCat Foundation has confirmed that the Okonjima Nature Reserve is able to support a high density of naturally-occurring leopard and brown hyena, thereby contributing to their conservation. Moreover, the Reserve is so far completely sustainable; “management” is limited to providing water, maintaining roads, fences and firebreaks, and occasionally removing excess herbivores through game capture. The Okonjima Nature Reserve is thus an example of how an enclosed protected area can contribute to conservation and the AfriCat is therefore focused on researching and documenting the ecology of the flora and fauna within the Reserve to support management and policy development on this conservation strategy. The Reserve also offers the opportunity to research lesser-known and normally-elusive species because they have grown accustomed to the presence of humans. For example, the AfriCat Pangolin Research Project is one of only a handful of projects studying free-roaming pangolins.