Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Feeding cheetah, digging up termites, and a bike race. (Jan 8-11)

Current Location: Cheetah View Farm, Otjiwarongo, Namibia.
Highlights: Feeding Cheetah, learning about the science of conservation biology and the plight of the Cheetah, tracing radio collared cheetah from a plane, and digging out a HUGE termite mound.
Upcoming: The skeleton coast and huge colonies of seals and flamingos, avoiding the growing problems in the north (3 French tourists killed), and meeting up with another Phoenix group driving through Africa.
Current GPS Coordinates: LAT: S 20. 48. 59 LONG: E 17.03.35

The last few days have been a blast, simply incredible, I fed wild cheetah, went up in a plane to radio track wild cheetah, and helped dig out a HUGE termite mound in search of the queen and found an enormous fungus garden on which the millions of termites feed. We arrived at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and the Cheetah View farm on Saturday. The later is owned by the CCF but used as a base camp to teach conservation biology to groups of American students though a US organization called Round River. We have been following the activities of the students who have just arrived, all of whom have never been to Africa before. The CCF has several cheetah in captivity that it saved from farmers who would have otherwise shot the animals, game farms that no longer wanted them, or orphaned cubs who’s mothers were shot by farmers and could not fend for themselves. Unfortunately these cheetah are not able to be released as they were not old enough to learn the necessary survival skills to fend for themselves when turned over to the CCF. We were lucky enough to help feed these incredible and highly endangered animals. When I approached the enclosures (which are fortunately very large) you learn very quickly that these are wild animals as they spit
and growl and hiss as soon as you come close as they expectantly wait for food. Although cheetah are not a danger to humans in the wild, when in enclosures that can get very defensive. It was an incredible experience to see these wild animals up close.

I want to extend a huge thanks to Laurie, director of CCF, Sanj who organized our visit and wrote the conservation biology section, and Rich who is running the Round River program with the students.

The CCF has about 9 wild cheetah radio collared which they track each week from the air. I was lucky enough to be invited to go with them on one of the flights and help them track a collared cheetah. We were incredibly lucky saw two large males on the ground from the air. These are completely wild cheetahs, not in any park or reserve but free to roam wild. Unfortunately almost all of the land in Namibia, is private and owned by farmers. Historically farmers have shot cheetah as they considered them a threat to livestock and as such vastly reduced cheetah numbers. We know today that cheetah pose very little threat to livestock as they prefer wild game as prey items. One reason is that wild game meat is much leaner that
livestock meat and cheetah vomit when they eat fatty meat. Thankfully many of the farmers have been educated by the CCF and are learning together with cheetah on their farms, although cheetah numbers are so low that the future looks bleak for the worlds fastest land animal. This makes me incredibly sad.

This area is has literally 100s and 100s of termite mounds all over the place. I have never dug up a termite mound to see what its like inside but we decided to take the shovel and pick to find out. We chose a tall mound at the CCF headquarters that was due to be removed anyway for building.

These termite mounds are very odd. The tall column you see above ground is only a ventilation shaft for the main colony which lives below ground. Within a short time the main column was removed revealing intricate smooth walled channels going down. So down we dug. At about 50 cm below ground level we hit the termite fungus garden. These termites collect dead plant material, and feed it to a fungus which they cultivate in vast underground gardens. They then consume the fungus. We dug deeper, for about another 2
hours (about 2 meters deep) until we hit bedrock and the fungus garden ended. The fungus garden is incredible and probably extends several meters outwards. Its in layers, like the shelves of a supermarket in some ways and almost looks like coral. Just look at the pictures below. We didn’t find the queen unfortunately, but she could have been anywhere in this huge tunneled out underground system of tunnels and layers. The termite fungus actually forms a huge mushroom which sprouts from the mound. These can measure more than 30 cm in diameter and are edible. We were lucky enough to
find some of these mushrooms, picked them, and had them for dinner. They are by far the best tasting , mushrooms I have even eaten.

Yesterday I took on a challenge to ride an average Namibian bike from the cheetah view farm into the town of Otjiwarongo, just under 35 km (21 miles) away along rough dirt and sand roads in under 2 hours. This was quite a big event. Most people here thought it was not possible as the roads are so bad (4x4 only on one road), the bike so sketchy with no gears, a very loose chain and very wobbly chain wheel and the local Namibians said it takes 4 hrs. The other issue is the wildlife in the area which includes leopard, cheetah, and ostrich. To cut a long story short I made it in 1 hr, 29 min
and 55 seconds! They were all amazed. I think it will now become a regular

I think we will leave this great place tomorrow as we want to try and meet up with another group who are driving from South Africa to Paris and they are in Windhoek at the moment. They are going to do the trip in about 3 months! Ironically, one of the guys in the group is also from Arizona.

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