04 September 2009

Not Your Typical Thursday Afternoon

Herman Oosthuizen, local transfer/transport guru associated with Harnas, helped me out with accommodations in Windhoek at Puccini House when mine fell through just before I left Jo'burg. Looking at the brush covered landscape that went on and on and on, I was excited for things to come as we landed. Sure enough, among the top-ranking text messages I have EVER received (right up there with one I got earlier this summer from a close friend in Seattle) arrived around 11:30 this morning:
"David are you in Whk.? We got a leopard today that we going to dart this afternoon and it have to go to Harnas early tomorrow morning. I want you to join the car in the morning at about 6h30. Would that be fine. Herman"

Ummmmm.... YES! that would be quite fine!

To clarify, this business of darting a leopard has to do with Harnas' role as a refuge for big cats that are often captured, shot, or poisoned by farmers in Namibia who don't like the fact that the predators are preying on their calves, goats, sheep, and the like.  Harnas has been reaching out to farmers requesting that the farmers not shoot the animals but, rather, get in touch to have Harnas come pick up the cats to relocate to safer parts of the country (for all parties involved).

I was thrilled about Friday morning and getting ready to go for an afternoon walk in Windhoek to see what there might be to see when I got a message from reception at Puccini House saying Herman wanted me to call him, so of course I did. What followed ranked among one of the most exciting brief phone conversations I've EVER had. Herman asked if I wanted to go with them to dart and retrieve the leopard from a farm about 2 hours west of Windhoek ... today! I'm thinking, "and I don't even officially start my program at Harnas until tomorrow!" I have to preface this tale with the comment that I am not a huge fan of leopards. Yes, I judge. They're just not my favorite large cat. They look particularly mean.

At about 2:15 Herman, Marika, Ivan, and Davide (a Ligurian veterinarian studies graduate who's doing a practicum at Harnas for a month) show up. I'll be sitting next to a box cage in the back, along with Davide. A little cramped, but totally worth it. Westward, ho!

Davide and I bounced along, cramped in the back of the 4-Runner, winding through, up, and down dusty, rocky, dirt roads. A series of probably a dozen gates with long stretches of more dusty, rocky, dirt roads between each pair led to the center of the "farm". There we met a couple of guys and two dogs: Rex and a short-legged longish dog whose name I didn't catch. The dogs, two guys, and eventually two kids who hopped in along the way stood in the back of a better suited pickup for the extremely steep, rocky terrain that lie ahead to get to where the leopard had been trapped. Davide road in the cab, I stood in the back, thinking the whole while about advice I got about wearing my seat belt and buying travel insurance. Remember the "king of the world" business in Titanic. Yeah. Pretty much it. This farmer has killed over 20 leopards menacing his livestock and said if we couldn't pick this trapped one up today he'd kill it too. This is what Harnas is trying to stop. What an incredible privilege and unique opportunity to get to go on this mission to retrieve this bad ass kitty today.

As we approached the caged, frightened, angry animal, I heard a roar that actually made me take a step backward. This was real. This was not going to the zoo and looking at the animals. I was now about 40 feet (only to get closer) from a ferocious wild animal, about to take pictures of an Italian vet who has to tranquilize it. What pressure setting does the air gun need for the dart? 3, 4, 5? In order for us to open the trap he's in to move him into the box cage Davide and I will be sitting next to on the ride back to Windhoek and then on to Harnas tomorrow, he had to be totally out. You don't reach in and pull out a wild leopard by the tail if he isn't really really really out of it. As Davide approached, however, the leopard took a position as if he could pounce and showed the teeth that confirm my earlier statement about their meanness. These animals have what look like super sharp fangs that could pierce anything. The plan was for other people to distract the leopard while Davide shot the tranquilizer dart into his hind. The first dart Davide shot him with we gave about 15 minutes to kick in. He responded shortly after being hit by lying down and growling less, but he was definitely still responsive beyond simply reflexes when poked with a stick ... wouldn't you be, though? Eventually, the consensus, in which my opinion was obviously the least informed -- even the 11 year old was more informed than I on these matters -- was that the leopard needed another dose of the anesthetic. Just as Davide gave him the injection (by hand, with much concurrent consternation by Marika), he was down. What disturbed me was that his eyes were still open. It looked like he was stuffed or dead, except that he was still visibly breathing. We transferred him to the box, put drops in his eyes and closed his eyelids to keep them from drying out, splashed water on him and put a dampened towel on his head to keep him cool during the ride.

After loading his new temporary box cage into the 4-runner, we headed back through the steep rocky part of the farm again. I'm standing in the back of this truck bouncing along thinking about what just happened -- I had some tiny tiny part in saving this leopard's life. There was a full or new moon and a planet I have yet to identify in the sky. The landscape at dusk was beautiful. The whole experience left me speechless. Davide and I got back into the 4-Runner sitting next to the leopard for the ride back to Windhoek: about 1/2 inch of wood and some anesthesia between me and a wild leopard. Wow.

I had dinner by myself at nice, the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education, 2 Mozart Street, Windhoek: Springbok tournedos in cherry-chocolate sauce over tagliatelle with a glass of Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tomorrow is my first day at Harnas. I'll be leaving at 6am with Herman, Davide and the roughly one-year old Leopard who may now be called DD (for Davide & David, who went along to get him).


  1. I'm so glad to see you have a blog I can stalk you with, ahem, I mean follow. We miss you :-)

  2. Oh. My. God. Saying that I am living vicariously is just SLIGHTLY understating it.

  3. Yay! Yay! The adventure begins! (and, p.s., Center Stage is one of my FAVORITE guilty pleasures!)

  4. Wow David, I'd say you've started your adventures off with a bang!! Incredible! I can't wait for the next installment...

  5. Well done David. Respect the leopards. Just small house cats with a big appetite. Nothing to fear. Just scratch behind their ears and don't forget the chin.