14 September 2009

Lions, Cheetahs, Baboons, Oh My!

My experience with the DD the leopard as a Harnas working guest is very unusual. I came to understand this as I found myself as a small fish in a big pond from day 1 at Harnas Wildlife Foundation. The oldies -- anyone who's been here more than 1 week, including some people who've been here for 10 or more -- have not necessarily had that sort of experience. Realizing this makes it that much more special. Nevertheless, it does not change the hierarchy of the volunteer/working guest system here.

The people who come to work at Harnas range in age from 18 to 41-ish. At least in the group of 51 volunteers that was here during my first week. The ratio of males to females was a bit surprising. Out of 51 working guests, only 5 are guys: me from USA, Ben from Australia, Andrew from Australia, Steve from UK, and Erland from Norway. Working guests here now are from Germany, Norway, Australia, South Africa, UK, Denmark, USA, Austria, Sweden, NZ. During introductions on the first night, I discovered that there's an American girl here now who hails from the greater Edmonds area in WA and goes to UW. Actually, she grew up in Fresno, CA and only moved to the Seattle area a year or so ago! Small world indeed. There's a volunteer village with each four-person cabin/tent (two walls wood + two walls frame, mosquito net, and canvas + corrugated tin/aluminum roof). Showers & toilets are in separate outdoor facilities. We're divided into four groups of about 10 to 12 people each. The remainder are group leaders, coordinators, or responsible for specific facets of life at Harnas.

Daily activities include "food prep", farm work, cheetah walks, meerkat walks, baboon walks, baby lion walks, older lion cub walks, eating, and sleeping. Very early on this past week I decided I wanted to extend my stay here by a week. Had I realized the amount of contact (close!) I would or could have with lions here, I may have skipped the Victoria Falls lion rehabilitation and conservation project I'm headed to next. Nevertheless, it will be great to check out Vic Falls and get a different perspective on lion conservation in Africa aside from the one of Harnas.

Each group is responsible for preparing food and feeding different groups of animals every day, some twice per day. Group 1 (my group!) is responsible for

  • Sule the wild cat
  • Audrey the 30+-year-old blind vervet monkey who was, in a way, the beginning of Harnas
  • Asem the vulture
  • Finn the one-winged buzzard
  • Rabbits
  • Roosters
  • Mice
  • Chickens
  • Turkeys
  • Baboons
  • Farm cats (i.e. the many cats living on the farm ... my favorite being a small black and white one that lays with me whenever I sit down in the courtyard)
  • "The Babies" - 4 lion cubs
  • the [wild] cheetah mom & her cubs

Animals sometimes get brought here when people can no longer take care of them. Sometimes farmers call Harnas to pick up wild carnivores that are killing their livestock (as was the case with DD the leopard). Other injured or sick animals get brought here to be taken care of for various reasons. The welfare of the animals on the 10,000 hectares of land here is top priority. Food prep is perhaps the most important activity the volunteers do. We cut up small and large pieces of raw meat to feed some animals, cut up vegetables to feed others, clean and refresh water holes for all of our animals, and hand select leftover food from our meals to supplement the fresh fruit & veggies some of the primates get. My group hand feeds our baboons every morning. So far I’ve witnessed two of the girls on my team get harassed by two of our baboons. One had her shirt ripped, with the shirt and bra strap snapped by the baboon. There’s some interesting sex-biased interaction with the primates, especially the baboons. They seem to respond very differently to males than females that are handling them.

Other activities during an “average” day as a volunteer include walks with/for baboons; vervet monkeys; cheetahs; the lion “babies”; the lion brothers Pax, Maddox, and Brad; caracals; Martha the baby baby lion; and Sana the baby baboon. And then there’s farm work. Farm work could consist of anything from digging water holes for cheetahs or caracals to cleaning out water holes for rabbits or wildcats or looking for and filling in holes that have been dug out underneath the perimeter fence by porcupines so that leopards or other animals that are in the lifeline (release program) do not escape to neighboring farms.

Speaking of releases, I have now heard from two sources that the leopard DD is going to be released Monday the 14th on a private reserve on the Namibian Coast. I found out that it was a female of approximately two years rather than a male of one. When we saved her from the farm west of Windhoek, we were more focused on getting her quickly and safely to Harnas than checking to see what parts there were underneath. That was done after she was here for a day and a little bit calmer than she had been. She couldn’t be released into the lifeline here because there are already several (read too many) female leopards there. Fortunately the Harnas staff were able to quickly find somewhere that could take her in.

(...Pics LATER!...)

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