Cheetahs, baboons, and conservation: A Namibian adventure

Reporter's Notebook

“Those who can’t see beauty, even in the smallest of creatures… they are poor and forever will remain so” -unknown

I was asked before my latest trip, “So where are you going this time?”. “Namibia to volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary”! This was followed by, “You’re going to pay to go somewhere to shovel poop and feed animals and get dirty and NOT get paid?!?” Yes, I am, and did. I’ve found it to be a very enlightening, enriching, stress-from-the-first-world-grind release to go out into the world and find amazing places like this. The usual cause is “My smile has left and wandered off, I must go find it again”. And find it again I did at an amazing place called N/a’n ku se located 42 km (26mi) outside of Windhoek Namibia in the Kalahari basin.

The reserve is situated on 10,000+ hectares (24,711 acres) of land, founded by Namibian conservationist Marlice van Vuuren and her husband Dr. Rudi van Vuuren who take in or rescue orphaned, abandoned or injured local wildlife with the goal of re-releasing those who cannot be safely returned to the wild. They work with local farmers to teach the function and need of having these animals, some endangered, so they are not killed. They also try to relocate problem animals to safer places.

Animals that have been injured in any way and cannot be returned to the wild find a safe and happy home here, well cared for by the van Vuuren’s as well as the amazing coordinator and volunteer staffing. Some of the “residents” there include the critically endangered African Wild Dog (between 3,000 and 5,500 individuals remain in the wild1), Rock Hyrax, Polecat, and of course the cheetah (less that 6700 remain in the wild, approximately 2). Also on the properties are giraffe, zebra, elephants, jakal and kudu.

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted” – Aesop

Volunteers are overseen by Cornè, the Volunteer Liaison & Bookings coordinator, who is a 3rd generation Namibian overflowing with energy. Each volunteer is assigned to a team and each team has morning and afternoon tasks to perform under the guidance of other coordinators. Some daily tasks include food preparations and taking baboons for daily walks, research and tracking, and maintenance of the property. And yes, there will be days where you have to go into an animals enclosure to clean. But… I can now proudly say I cleaned up after (and got bitten!) by a mongoose!

lion check ups

“Sounds boring”. HARDLY! I was fortunate to be apart of the yearly health checkup for two of N/a’n ku se’s lions! I helped to carry them (tranquilized!) from a vehicle to the shade while vets did their job and volunteers monitored breathing, took temperatures and helped to weigh these magnificent animals up close. I was part of a smaller team that got to witness a surgery on an injured animal not 10 feet from me. I was thoroughly groomed by baboons. I fed meerkats and prepared meals for warthogs and genets and leopards. I got to go on an afternoon walk with a cheetah. Boring?! LIVING, I say! EXPERIENCING and most importantly- learning about conservation and the necessity for preserving endangered species.

Many of these animals have been brought in from nearby farms due to injury (hit by vehicles), or orphaned because a mother was shot by a farmer or a poacher. Worse, “oh it will be a cute pet!” until it wasn’t any longer and now someone wants to be rid of it. They now have a home. Again, the intent is to be released but, unfortunately, some have become too habituated to humans and must be kept and cared for by volunteers and the amazing staff of coordinators. It is no petting zoo. There is a strict “No Touch” policy. “Wild means wild” is a common mantra.

Many of the coordinators are people who have walked away from their First World lives to dedicate themselves to this project. For example Jess, ex-Londoner, waitress, volunteer and now coordinator who’s knowledge of and passion for the Painted Dogs is inspiring! Or Charlie, a former nanny who’s zest and joy and lively smile makes food prep or enclosure cleaning actually an enjoyable experience.
There are also volunteers like Barb from Minnesota and Julie from Canada who have come back again and again, year after year, because it feels good to help and nurture these animals and to be near to them and feel a sense of selflessness.

One walks away… goes home with a sense of “job well done”. You did a good deed in this world. How can you fault someone for that!? YES.. I paid to go pick up poo. But I contributed an effort to help be a part of conserving and protecting these animals. I would highly recommend if you find your smile lost, go find it at N/a’an ku se. You won’t regret the adventure or experience.  If you would like to support this amazing nature conservation organization, you can volunteer at

“Stuff your eyes with wonder,’ he said, ‘live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” – Ray Bradbury