Several conservation projects that have helped stabilize the country’s cheetah population also let travellers get up close and personal with the vulnerable felines.

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 baboons.

“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.

Get physical
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.

The conservation 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 towns.

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.