Okonjima Nature Reserve

Okonjima Nature Reserve

Just south of Otjiwarongo, in central Namibia, Okonjima started off as a guest farm about 25 years ago, around the same time that the AfriCat Foundation was set up to here to help conserve some of Namibia’s threatened carnivores. Since then, Okonjima’s offering to guests has broadened into several camps, all within a landscape of rolling hills and grassy plains – which is now known as the Okonjima Nature Reserve. A stay in one of the camps within this 220km2 reserve usually focuses mostly on Namibia’s big cats, with excellent opportunities to learn about them, and to view them at close quarters.

Now the Okonjima Reserve includes a fenced central core, from which the predators are excluded. Here you’ll find the Okonjima Plains Camp, the Okonjima Bush Camp and the Okonjima Bush Suite. Outside of this, and surrounding it on all sides, is the reserve proper – where there’s plenty of free-roaming natural game, and this is where the Okonjima Villa is located.

History of Okonjima

Going back to the 1890’s and colonial South West Africa, Okonjima was used by the German military. Due to its relative high altitude, in the area, it was apparently free of the African Horse Sickness and therefore it was a good place to rest their horses. From the early 1920s Okonjima was used as a cattle farm and in 1970 Val and Rose Hanssen bought the farm, to breed and farm Brahman and Jersey cattle. Throughout the time that cattle were kept on the farm, loses of stock to predators, particularly leopards, caused a strain on the finances.

Okonjima’s relationship with Namibia’s big cats did not start too favourably, as livestock losses to predators resulted in them being actively persecuted. However, herein developed an interest to further understand the habits and behaviour of Namibia’s big cats, particularly leopards.

The tourism element to Okonjima had humble beginnings: it started in 1986 as an overnight stop for travellers between Etosha and Windhoek. From here it grew, they began to offer bird watching experiences, trails demonstrating skills of the Bushman and baited leopard viewing. They also raised a cheetah cub called Chinga, discovered in a cage at an auction, which would appear on the lawn at afternoon tea, and allow visitors to stroke it. The farm was very well run by the Hanssen family, and gradually word of Okonjima’s carnivores, and their work with them, began to spread. By 1992 Okonjima was a ‘highlight’ on any visitor’s trip around Namibia.

In 1993 Val and Rose’s three children; Wayne, Donna and Rosalea Hanssen purchased the farm from their parents and initially the reserve became home to cheetah and leopard rescued from conflict with livestock farmers. It continued to grow with further accommodation built to accommodate the increase in visitors.

The AfriCat Foundation was born in the same year, in order to support the conservation and research efforts on the reserve. This is a non-profit organisation set up to conserve and protect Namibia’s threatened cheetah, leopard and other wild carnivores. Now it is renowned for long-term conservation of Namibia’s carnivores, through community support and education, rehabilitation and human-wildlife conflict mitigation.

Okonjima is still home to and run by the Hanssen family.

Okonjima’s fauna and flora

The Predators of Okonjima

Namibia is home to over 20% of the world’s cheetah population – the largest concentration in the world. Since 1993, AfriCat has rescued over 1,000 cheetahs and leopards from Namibian farmland, returning over 85% of these animals to the wild.

This large reserve enables predators brought to the reserve, which may have been orphaned or removed from the wild at an early age, to live independently and to gain the experience that they need to return to the wild. The Okonjima Reserve provides a safe environment for this and often the animals are radio collared, so that they can be monitored closely. There are a few cheetah that over the years have not developed the skills to live independently and these are cared for within the AfriCat welfare programme. Also present within the AfriCat welfare programme are leopard and lion.

As well as cheetah and leopard, other predators present on the reserve are wild dog, brown hyena, African wildcat, honey badger, caracal, aardwolf, bat-eared fox and black-backed jackal.

Birding in Okonjima

With over 250 species of birds recorded at Okonjima, during a stay of just two or three days one can tick off many tens of species or even into three figures with a keen eye. Amongst these are many species of interest, from the magnificent Verreaux’s eagle owl that can weigh over 3kg, to the tiny pearl-spotted owlet weighing only 100g. The red-crested korhaan is relatively common on the reserve as well as three species of sandgrouse; Namaqua, Burchell’s and double-banded. Even around the camps one can expect to see smaller but no less eye-catching birds, such as the paradise flycatcher, the violet eared waxbill, the crimson-breasted shrike and the southern masked weaver.

Other wildlife in Okonjima

Although the focus is normally very much on looking for predators, on our trips to Okonjima the guides were informative and we stopped to watch oryx, giraffe and mountain zebra. We also have had superb sightings of the normally very shy and diminutive Damara dik-dik – one of Africa’s smallest antelope.

Activities at Okonjima

The activities on the Okonjima Reserve are the same regardless of which lodge or villa you stay in there. The choices are usually:

Carnivore tracking on foot at Okonjima

Guests staying at one of the lodges on the reserve have the opportunity to radio track rehabilitated cheetah, spotted hyenas and (if present) wild dogs on foot within the 200km2 reserve. This provides a special opportunity to observe these animals out of a vehicle.

Games drives within Okonjima

From game-viewing vehicles, guests have the opportunity to radio-track leopard, spotted hyena or wild dog. On a visit in July 2014 we successfully tracked leopard, cheetah and also wild dogs. Although the dogs were very shy, the leopard and cheetah seemed unperturbed by our presence; resulting in some fantastic photo opportunities! We were fortunate in our successes, but in a reserve of this size bear in mind that sightings can never be guaranteed. If staying on the reserve, after dinner you are also invited to take part in a night drive on the reserve.

Walking at Okonjima

Within the fenced core of the reserve, where predator densities are much lower, there are several marked walking trails of up to 8km. Whilst walking, keep an eye out for the abundant bird life and for the antelope species that roam free here. The guided ‘Bushman Trail’ is an easy going walk in which guests experience a day in the live of a bushman and learn how the San adapted to survive in the harsh Namibian environment; from setting up their homesteads to hunting for food.

Wildlife conservation, the community and tourism at Okonjima

Tourism underpins how the conservation efforts and rehabilitation of animals is funded at Okonjima. Every guest who visits or stays on the reserve is indirectly contributing to this important work. As well as contributing to the beneficial effect on the natural environment Okonjima is also passionate about supporting the local community through tourism. The jobs created provide many opportunities to local people from catering staff to wildlife guides.
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