Despite reaching speeds of up to 100km per hour, the most surprising thing about cheetahs is not how fast they run. It is how loud they purr. “They sound like outboard motors!” said Harriet Whitmarsh, a repeat volunteer at Naankuse a sanctuary for the big cats in Namibia.
Extinct from 20
countries, almost a third of the world’s 10,000 cheetahs currently live in the arid,
southern African country of Namibia. Their numbers halved in the 1980s as the Namibian
population grew and land was claimed for farming. The species was threatened by
road traffic, by coming into contact with non-native plants and by cattle
farmers who shot them in protection of their livestock. Since then, a number of
conservation projects have helped the cheetah population stabilise and even
increase slightly, to between 2,500 and 3,000.
Thanks to a new
group of tourism operators, travellers have the chance to spend their holidays helping
these vulnerable felines. While the experience will require some hard work, your
devotion to conservation may not seem so selfless after you spend a few nights eating
dinner around a campfire, participating in local football tournaments and
hiking around the Namibian countryside.
For any of these
volunteer holidays, you will need a work permit from your chosen project. Most
of the time, volunteers need to be 18 or older.
Get up close and personal
The tourism operator Great
Projects runs two to12-week volunteer holidays with the Naankuse cheetah conservation project and
sanctuary, located around 45 minutes from Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.
Volunteers live in dormitories or permanent safari tents, and spend their sunny
days clearing bush, cleaning out cheetah enclosures and even babysitting baby
“We get bankers,
teachers and dinner ladies who come to us wanting to do something completely
different and live the life of a conservationist, “explained Afzaal Mauthoor, the
director of Great Projects.
Naankuse’s main goal
is to rehabilitate cheetahs and transition them back into the wild. But, sadly,
some are too damaged to ever leave the sanctuary. Fortunately for travellers, this
creates a surreal experience at grooming time, where you may have a brush in
one hand and a wild animal in the other.
People and Wildlife
Solutions (PAWS) is a volunteer programme that is part of Africat, a project that aims to provide
a safe habitat for leopards and cheetahs. Nearly 20 years after the
organization began collecting cheetahs that were injured or threatening
livestock, Africat runs a reserve that houses many of their rescued felines.
work here is very physical. The former cattle ranch has been cleared so that cheetahs
can live in it freely but there is still much work to do. Waterholes and fence post holes need to be dug out, as do the foreign
thorn bushes that can blind cheetahs.
Volunteers can stay
for a minimum of two weeks and a maximum of eight, and will need the hard work
to burn off the big, fire-side dinners, including game stroganoff and local
stews served with millpap, a mashed potato-like maize. Afternoons are spent on game
drives and tracking hikes to see cheetahs, leopards and hyenas.
Sleeping under the
stars is the order of the day here – well, in three square metre tents under
protective thatched roofs. These can be shared if you are travelling with a
friend, or the project will tell you in advance if you are sharing with another
volunteer. For those with a bit more time to spare, PAWS can arrange an
onward seven-day tour of the Namibia’s stunning dunes, coast and historic
The Africat programme is located 210
km from Windhoek, bordering Etosha
National Park which is home to zebra, springbok, giraffe, rare white rhino,
elephants and many different species of
bird. The organization picks you up on Saturdays from Windhoek, so arrive early
enough on Friday for a look around the capital.
A bit of luxury
Also located near Etosha National Park, the Cheetah Conservation
Fund (CCF) hosts volunteers and interns on their reserve, about 300 km from
Windhoek, at the foot of the Waterberg
Plateau National Park.
The CCF, a biological
research project, focuses on cheetah rehabilitation and collecting biological
data about the cats. Volunteers help in the onsite animal care clinic and undertake tasks around the property, including
feedings and cleaning cheetah enclosures. Volunteers can also help raise the Anatolian
sheepdog puppies, which the CCF gives to local farmers to help protect their
livestock against cheetahs. This also reduces the likelihood that local
cheetahs will get shot.
Volunteers can stay
in shared, dorm-style rooms in one of the farmhouses on the property, or they
can request the luxurious, 1940s colonial-style Babson House, which has a private
chef and a (domesticated) cheetah as a next door neighbour. It sleeps six, has
large airy rooms and a terrace overlooking the savannah.
When to go
Namibia is coolest and driest from May to September. July to September are the
best months to go, when the weather is temperate and mild. January to March is
rainy season (14 inches on average through the period), but it is also when a
lot of animals give birth.