Okonjima Nature Reserve - Big Cat Haven
There are very few places in Africa where you will be guaranteed a wild leopard sighting. I have spoken to people who have made several trips and never seen one. I myself have been lucky to see and photograph quite a few leopard in Botswana, Kenya and Namibia but this is not necessarily the usual course of affairs. There is however, a place in Namibia where you can be very confident that you will be able to see and photograph leopard and cheetah. Okonjima is a unique game reserve located an easy 2-3 hours drive from Namibia's capital Windhoek. The games reserve is 55,000ha in size, a large part of which is actually marginal farmland that has been amalgamated with an older game reserve and allowed become a wild place again.
Okonjima is the home of the Africat Foundation which is dedicated to conservation of Namibia's big cats. They also spend a lot of time on educating children, tourists and local stakeholders on conservation matters and working with farmers to help them coexist with, in particular, leopards and cheetahs. They have a visitors centre at Okonjima with lots of information about the cats they have on the reserve, and a veterinary clinic. When I was there they were operating on a cheetah with a group of local school kids watching on and a number of tourists.
Africat and Okonjima have some leopards and cheetah that have proven to be too difficult to rehabilitate and release into the wild again. These are kept in smaller enclosures and used as cat ambassadors for tourists. Animals that can be rehabilitated (typically coming originally from farming area's that are injured or orphaned or just relocated), find a home in the main reserve.
This male leopard below I think is the biggest most impressive looking leopard I have ever seen, surpassing even an enormous male I saw in Botswana once. He is radio collared and our driver spent about an hour tracking him before we finally heard his distinctive 'sawing' call in the scrub. We followed glimpses of his spots along a track for about 10 minutes before he finally walked out right beside out vehicle. I got about 30 seconds to get a few shots off before he moved on. I was please to get the first shot below that doesn't show the radio collar at all and looks perfectly natural. His scarred visage and the pale slightly greenish eyes give this old boy a tough expression I really like. The second image below shows the radio collar. This is a completely wild animal but he is radio collared for management and research purposes.
The female leopard below is a collared wild cat in the main reserve. We found her up a small tree (we actually almost drove right underneath her before spotting her). She was injured and showed signs of having fought the larger older female that lives in an adjacent territory. There were blood stains around her neck and the back of her head. As it happened Africat had a team of South African vets at the surgery that day operating on the aforementioned cheetah so they chose to dart this leopard and take her in for checking and treatment. We wer able to see her later that day sedated and in a transport cage after treatment, a real thrill for my 9 year daughter. She was expected to make a full recovery. This kind of hands on care is unusual for a game reserve environment and is only made possible through the presence of the Africat Foundation.
This lovely young leopard was one of three un-collared siblings that we had a brief siting of after tracking down their collared mother. To have three cups survive to this age is quite an achievement for a leopard mother.
Despite the terrain being quite scrubby and treed, with pockets of open grassy terrain, cheetahs also thrive in the reserve. It is possible to track cheetahs on foot, though this was something I was not able to do since I was travelling with my young daughter. We did however get a chance to spend good time with a small group of three cheetah's that were all re-habilitated and living completely independently. Our guide allowed me to leave the vehicle and approach the cheetah's on foot to get better shots of them as they sat on a high mound of earth enjoying their vantage point. I shot handheld with my 500mm getting some nice close up shots. They were completely relaxed in my presence though I did not approach any closer than the focal length of my lens would allow. You can just see the collar on this cheetah.
Okonjima has an ambassador leopard name Wahu that is kept in a small separate reserve. Wahu is basically a captive animal and is used for allowing an up-close view of a leopard from a sea container hide built into the wall of the enclosure. He is not able to be rehabilitated back into the wild. He was raised from a tiny cub by a Namibian farmer after being orphaned. Apparently the farmer realized he had could no longer keep the leopard after it caught a wild warthog that strayed too close to the farmhouse. Wahu proceeded to dismember and consume the warthog on the kitchen table (leopards instinctively take kills up to high places to protect it) and aggressively defended his prize, showing how dangerous a wild animal can be even when raised from infancy. Taking photo's of a captive leopard are not really very interesting to a wildlife photographer and I would never use images like this for my main wildlife image galleries, but it was fun for my family to watch and the animal certainly serves an educational purpose.
All predators need a steady supply of game and Okonjima certainly has an abundance of that. All the main ungulate species of Namibia can be found here including Giraffe and Oryx. I even managed to grab a nice portrait shot of a scrub hare that stopped within four metres of our vehicle for a few seconds before vanishing into the grass.
For anyone doing a self-drive safari of Namibia this is a fantastic place to have your introduction to the countires wildlife and the photography that is available. There are a few different levels of accommodation from camping all the way from camping to luxury lodges. We stayed in the mid-level plains camp and it ended up being one of our favourite stays for the whole trip. Friendly staff, knowledgeable drivers, great food and beautiful wildlife - everything one needs on a trip to a Namibian wildlife reserve.