Ark member and Anglican priest, David Sox, travels to a remote African
for wild animals, and reports his finding to us here.
BY DAVID SOX
MARIETA VAN DER MERWE WAS BORN in what today is Namibia and raised as an only
child at Harnas, an isolated Afrikaans cattle ranch. Here her only friends were
Marieta’s companionship with the wild creatures would bloom into a life’s work
in saving from persecution and death hundreds of big cats, wild dogs and smaller
animals. Marieta became the mother of Harnas Wildlife Sanctuary which, with the
Africat Foundation and the Cheetah Conservation Foundation, remain the best hope
for the survival of big cats in Namibia.
Previously I had spent time in the Africat centre. Harnas was off the beaten
track even more than Africat. It was in the south-east, not far from Botswana.
The 7,000 acre sanctuary was in the bush – that was for certain.
I had not driven a car for more than ten years and behind the four-wheel drive
monstrosity I hired I wondered what I’d got myself into. Mercifully there aren’t
many cars in Namibia, but I also discovered that the next petrol station could
be 500 kilometers away.
Cattle country – and trophy-hunting land
Harnas was not far from Gobadis, a godforsaken town which reminded me of redneck
areas of North Carolina where I was born. This is cattle country with a capital
C. A large statue of a bull lets you know this as you enter the district. There
are several taxidermy shops with charming names like ‘Hunter’s Pride’.
Namibian tourist literature doesn’t say it, but this is trophy hunting land. We
are told that Namibia has the largest number of cheetahs remaining in the wild
but what is kept quiet is that trophy hunting is big lucrative business there. I
met an American who boasted that he now had examples of all the ‘Big 5’, stuffed
and in his living room in Texas. I said ‘You don’t mean including the rhino and
the hippo?’ and he smiled and nodded, yes.
The hypocrisy of the government agencies does get to you. You can’t have it both
ways: going for ecological tourism and at the same time grasping the money
brought in by trophy hunters. You never get a straight answer. The real nadir of
this situation is where you have tourist centres which tell you how they are
keeping the land wild – and yet you know they allow trophy hunting.
After getting settled at Harnas, I soon began to feel very Out of Africa as my
cottage was open to the elements. On my first night, I realised how much. The
roars of the lions were awfully near. I was beginning to feel like Deborah Kerr
in Quo Vadis, waiting my turn at the Colosseum.
The next morning I offered to go on the feeding run, taking carcasses to
fourteen lions, seventeen cheetahs, twenty-eight wild dogs, seven leopards,
forty-seven baboons, etc. They get their major meal every day except one, when
they fast. Recently the cheetahs have been fed Hills Science Diet twice a week.
Cat owners will recognise the name. It has been very successful in improving the
cheetahs’ general physical condition. Legs from donkeys and horses are thrown
out to the big beasts; modest bits and pieces for smaller creatures.
A cheetah-run, and those pesky warthogs
Later in the day we took a few cheetahs and lion cubs for their run. A plastic
water bottle is tied to the bumper of a land rover and off they go. One cheetah
reached 70 m.p.h. but you have to watch it because cheetahs can overheat or
worse. Little ‘Cleopatra’, an orphaned cub and the smallest, is not ready for
that. Anyway she loves the company of another orphan, a young deer, ‘Bambi’ – I
wonder about the hunters who create these orphan situations. How can they be so
As well as the big cats at Harnas, there are also crocodiles, warthogs, kudu,
springbok and other antelope. Add to that: monkeys, baboons, deer, zebra, wild
dogs, meerkats and mongoose. Amazingly there are also lots of domestic cats
which appear not to have any difficulties with the big cats or other large
creatures. The cats must have known that I love felines, as they regularly
appeared at the door of my cottage. But so did five warthogs living near me. I
had to shove them out of the front door as they can be very destructive.
Intensive farming in eastern Namibia has almost completely destroyed what was
once a notable lion population. By 1993, only four lions survived in the area
around Harnas. By 1978, Marieta and her husband Nick were committed to animal
concern and eco-tourism. From a maltreated vervet monkey to orphaned lion and
cheetah cubs, Harnas, as a large wildlife sanctuary, began to take shape.
Marieta was well equipped for such a future. As on only child she was expected
to learn how to manage the ranch. Her father took her wherever he went –
especially after the untimely death of her mother. Marieta did not like school
and developed into a crusader for animal rights long before the term was
generally used. She despised the abusive behaviour landowners inflicted on the
wild creatures, and, unlike them, recognised these animals presented a unique
and important character for South Africa.
Fortunately for the creatures, Nick purchased the 8,000 hectare farm from his
father. It would become one of the largest privately-owned wild animal
sanctuaries in southern Africa. Marietta and Nick have three children: Nico who
studied to be a vet in Pretoria; Scalk, very accomplished at rugby, and Marlice,
who followed her mother’s interest in the wild creation. Today it is Marlice who
is basically in charge at Harnas.
The challenge ahead
Much has been accomplished by Harnas, but reality must be faced. As a book on
Harnas vividly puts it, ‘The only thing faster on land than the cheetah is the
rate at which this sublime animal and its habitat are being destroyed in
southern Africa. Whilst the Namibian tourist brochures claim that their country
has the largest population of free-ranging cheetahs in Africa, the animals may
nevertheless be doomed there’.
While you read this, dozens of these lovable cats are being trapped, poisoned,
snared, and , yes, even strafed from the air by microlight hunters armed with
automatic rifles and shotguns. Undeclared war is raging against them for several
reasons. First, cheetahs having been deprived of their normal prey animals by
the ranchers, are forced to prey on livestock, principally calves. Cattle
ranching is Namibia’s major economic industry, and takes no prisoners. All the
lions and spotted hyenas within the millions of hectares which it monopolises
have already gone the way of the bullet.
Next on the list is the cheetah. Soon
there will be none left. For every cheetah rescued by Africat or Harnas, a
hundred more perish in box traps which litter the ranches and game farms. And if
the poor cheetah didn’t have enough to cope with from cattle-ranchers and trophy
hunters, a new book Tears of the Cheetah, by Stephen J. O’Brien shows how the
world’s fastest animal cannot escape its own genetic weaknesses. The cheetah’s
lack of genetic variation is frightening. As O’Brien says: ‘Their genes have had
the look of deliberately inbred laboratory mice or rats’. It is not known for
sure how the cheetah lost its diversity, but it is assumed that it experienced a
historic brush with extinction. After the last glacier retreat, cheetahs which
once ranged throughout Europe, Asia and Africa abruptly disappeared, except in
The picture, however, is not hopeless. Unlike the sabre-tooth tiger, giant
ground sloths and mastodons, cheetahs have survived for 12,000 years and are
still with us. Let’s hope that a future brush with extinction can be avoided.
I felt sad on my last morning at Harnas. Where else can you pet a cheetah,
cuddle a lion cub or scratch a warthog? I would miss this. I went out and looked
at the sky, now a lighter shade of violet, and that great orange orb was rising,
soon to lighten up the sky.
I watched the young volunteers Harnas attracts every year – mainly English and
German. I stroked little Cleopatra who was ready for her morning bottle. Marlice
had reminded me that volunteers did not have to be young. Maybe I’d apply. I
squeezed Cleo and went to my monster car. Soon I’d be on the Trans-Kalahari
Highway. That made me smile: it was not much bigger than Halford Road outside my
home in Richmond upon Thames.