Day 617 – 7 November, 2016
N/a’an ku se, meaning “God will protect us” in the ancient ‘click’ language of Khao San, is pronounced with a click between the ‘n’ and the first ‘a’, sounding like when you press your tongue to the top of your mouth and separate it with a clicking sound. I could never quite get the click to flow out correctly as most other tongues accustomed to a traditional alphabet couldn’t either. No matter, this was a place I had read about years ago, long before I ever fancied a round the world journey. I dreamed of working with endangered African animals, but never thought it would be possible. How could I expect to take time away from my 9-5 for a minimum of two weeks to live and work in such a remote place? It seemed the logistics were stacked against me until I built it into my long-term travel plans as a pillar of my itinerary.
I was especially inspired by their mission statement – “Our vision is an Africa where humans and wildlife can live and thrive together. Our mission is to conserve the land, cultures, and wildlife of Namibia and rescue species threatened by an ever-shrinking habitat.”
The wildlife sanctuary was established in 2006 by Rudie and Marlice Van Vuuren, he a doctor and she a conservationist and wildlife lover. Together with some friends, they had established a Lifeline Clinic that would serve the healthcare needs of local bushmen who had long been marginalized by society. The clinic only costs about $95,000USD to run annually, which roughly is equivalent to the top salary of a World Wildlife Fund representative. Later, they built a wildlife lodge with the main purpose of employing bushmen in a meaningful way and as the need arose, they also created the Clever Cubs School on the premises to educate the children of their employees. With a population of 2.6 million and a reported 40% unemployment rate, this is one of their most proud contributions to their community.
Famous ties through the Jolie-Pitt Foundation ensure strong contributions toward their mission. Angelina Jolie and Marlice have been friends since 1998, but in 2011, following a visit by Angelina, Brad, and their famous brood, they committed to a partnership in honor of their Namibian-born daughter, Shiloh, and the rest is history.
As it is a problem throughout the African continent, human wildlife conflict is a major issue in conservation of these unique animals. Habitat destruction, urban development, agriculture and livestock rearing are all common sources of conflict and when the need arises, Rudie and Marlice will intervene whether it be collaring an animal to keep tabs on their whereabouts, relocating an animal, or potentially sheltering an animal until they can determine a better option.
The four main reasons an animal may be brought to live at the farm would include human habituation or if an animal had been raised as a pet, when an animal is deemed a pest, if it has been orphaned or injured, or if it has developed into a problem animal. Any animal that has lost its fear of humans, specifically baboons, but can really be any animal, can be dangerous to both the animals and humans if they have become habituated to each other. By nature, wild animals are scared of humans unless they begin to associate people with food (stop feeding wild animals!). In turn, a human habituated animal might turn into a pest. If you’ve ever stayed in a tented camp near a game reserve, you might be familiar with baboon pests who will brazenly steal food or try to ransack your tent or have even been found inside homes or hotel lobbies confiscating everything.
In a few cases, the farm had rescued orphans that were too young to survive on their own in the wild. We had a litter of wild dogs, several baboons, leopards, and a few others that were rescued in this way. Unfortunately, orphans are rarely ever released and must stay at the farm indefinitely. In addition, we had a three-legged cheetah, Lucky, whose leg was caught in a trap and needed to be amputated. Lucky was obviously never going to be able to hunt for herself and also became a permanent resident at N/a’an ku se.
Lastly, many of the large carnivores can develop into problem animals, meaning that they have taken to killing a farmer’s livestock because it’s easy when their traditional prey is unavailable or harder to find. The Namibian government allows farmers to shoot to kill if their livestock is threatened so an important goal of N/a’an ku se is to mitigate conflict before it turns deadly.
Taking a strong environmental stance, I was inspired by the farm’s commitment to not waste anything. Everything can be recycled. Aside from traditional recycling of glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper, waste water is recycled and used to water the plants. Leftover food is saved, sorted and fed to the baboons. On a few occasions where the water ran dry even for us humans, we learned to conserve our consumption and not to take running water for granted.
Perhaps the most famous residents of the farm are Mailo and Gomez, a feisty stubborn goat and a flightless white-backed vulture, respectively. Mailo is perhaps the most dangerous and aggressive member of the family as evident by the countless horn-shaped bruises decorating the legs of his victims. He could routinely be found walking on the table while people are eating or laying in the fire pit that still had embers burning from the night before. Gomez had been rescued at the farm after someone had clipped his wings and he could no longer fly. He too would be lingering just outside the kitchen, especially on the nights of the Namibian barbecue, braii.
Samira, a cheetah that had been raised as someone’s domestic pet, was brought to N/a’an ku se as one of their original residents and now has aged to nineteen years, the oldest known cheetah to have ever lived in captivity. Suffering from severe arthritis, where her every move is slow and painful, Samira is a gentle soul with a loud motoring purr. Her enclosure was immediately outside of my room and I could often find her in the early mornings or evenings when the heat of mid-day sun had finally dissipated. She would sit by the fence waiting for someone to rub her behind the ears and I was happy to oblige.
Other animals to be found on the farm include a kudu, creatively named Kudu, Elsa the hartebeest, a litter of jackals, wild dogs, a boatload of tortoises, Gollum and his gang of vervet monkeys, Beetlejuice the striped polecat (similar to the North American skunk), mongooses, meerkats, genets, Taz the porcupine and friend, rock dassies, wart hogs, horses, goats, sheep, geese and a misfit troop of baboons. This is not to mention the lions, leopards, cheetahs, and wild dogs that have much more spacious enclosures on other parts of the property.
Part Eden and part Noah’s Ark, N/a’an ku se is an incredibly special place and other than the days when I had to work really really hard, it felt a little bit like a fairy tale. Every morning I would go for a morning run and rarely saw another human soul on the dusty desert roads, but I was frequently accompanied by springbok, oryx, and zebra, with the rare sighting of jackals and giraffe along the way.