The Golden Ticket

Day 624 – 14 November, 2016

After one week on the farm, I was beginning to develop a routine, which was nice for a change. I had a purpose besides traveling around listlessly and letting the days unfold in a random way. Gathering around for our morning meeting, I was expecting a day on the research team as the job board indicated, but we were about to have different kind of surprise. 

Fifty six volunteers gathered in a large circle as we were told about a leopard that a farmer had caught in a capture cage on his property. Twenty five of us would accompany the rock star, Marlice Van Vuuren, to the Namib Poultry Farm to collar the leopard and release it. There is no volunteer that doesn’t see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so with bated breath, we took turns drawing a slip of paper out of a bucket. A smiley face indicated we had been chosen; a blank paper meant you would have to stay behind. In that moment, I had not wanted anything more. I wanted to witness Marlice in action. I wanted to see the inner workings of the conservation practice. I wanted to see the leopard. We selected our paper and waited quietly until we could look. Shouts of joy erupted from the crowd. I truly felt like I had selected Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. So those of us lucky ones sprinted back to our dorms to grab passports (necessary for any foreigner traveling in the country) and other essentials so we could eagerly line up like they were passing out diamonds.

The staff bus was commissioned and off we drove toward the capital of Windhoek. The Namib Poultry Farm was on the other side of the city so it was about 90 minutes from the farm. Marlice drove her jeep with the necessary gear. We were greeted by the farmer and his wife to show us where the leopard was waiting (and had been for 2 days already). Marlice and a couple other professionals approached the cage with a blow gun. Generally they use a dart gun, but the dart canister was empty. Marlice was going to try to tranquilize an unhappy cat with a blow gun. We watched from a distance when she came back laughing at her apparent failure. Next, she filled a syringe. Low on supplies, she had rapidly shifted to Plan D of tranquilizing the leopard by hand with a small syringe. Don’t try this at home, folks.

Fifteen minutes later, while twenty five volunteers were angling for position to see or photograph with the best angle, Marlice asked for a couple of guys to help carry the sleeping leopard to a place where everyone could see. Seeing as most of us present were women, the guys didn’t hesitate to shove us aside so that they could help.  

Up to this point, I had been noticing out of my previous 20 months of travel I had never had such a hard time making human friends as I was at N/a’an ku se. I had friends, sure, but there was an underlying competitiveness that hindered the possibility of true friendships. That day, watching the aggressive nature of the volunteers, each man or woman for themselves, I realized I was unknowingly competing with overachievers and teachers’ pets and know-it-alls. I couldn’t help but think that twenty five volunteers for such a simple task was overkill. While I appreciated that Marlice wanted to include as many people as possible, we were too many.

The leopard, who was determined to be an adolescent and too young to be collared for fear he would outgrow the size of the collar, was laid on the ground in an open clearing where Marlice could check his teeth and claws for damage. After all, he had been trapped in the cage for two days already. He was weighed. His temperature was taken. All vitals were checked. Then came the moment of truth. This was a 9-10 month old male. His mother was surely somewhere nearby. By Namibian law, the farmer had the right to destroy him if he is a threat to the livestock. Marlice asked the farmer what he would like to do with the gaze of twenty five international volunteers on his back. Now I understood why we were all there. Nothing like a little pressure to save a leopard’s life. The farmer relented and agreed that we could release him and as a demonstration of good will, Marlice sent volunteers back on consecutive days to help build a thorn fence around his corral.

After her examination, we were to move the leopard again so she could reverse his cathartic state and we could return to the farm. I happened to be standing in the right place at the right time when she asked someone to pick him up. I scooped my arms under his backside while someone else grabbed him from the front and shuffled back to the jeep. This leopard had been inside of a cage with a dead animal (the bait) for two days and he smelled as such. Therefore, having carried the warm comatose leopard next to my body, I too smelled like a dead animal. All worth it, right?

After Marlice administered the reversal, it took nearly an hour for the leopard to drunkenly regain his senses and stagger off, but it was amazing. I was thrilled to have witnessed such an amazing part of N/a’an ku se’s work. Sadly, I later learned that the farmer shot the leopard a few days later anyway, a testament to the tenuous relationship between humans and wildlife in Namibia. It’s a constant struggle between conserving iconic creatures and poverty-stricken farmers trying to protect their livelihood.  

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