Some people book a safari dreaming of seeing lions, elephants and rhinos. Not me. My main concern when choosing my safari was where to see cheetahs.
Why cheetahs? Well, obviously they’re the most adorable of the African Big Cats. But they’re also the most endangered. I didn’t want to miss what may be my only chance to ever see cheetahs in the wild.
It turns out Namibia is pretty good for cheetah sightings. More than one-third of the remaining 8,000 cheetahs on Earth live here — and the population is actually, remarkably, increasing. As I was researching where to see cheetahs on safari, one place in Namibia kept coming up: Okonjima, home of the Africat Foundation.
Africat offers game drives with near-guaranteed cheetah sightings, along with an extensive explanation of their conservation work and how it relates to the local community. The foundation also provides close encounters with a leopard who cannot be reintroduced to the wild. I was sold!
Note: I have no affiliation with the Africat Foundation. In fact, this blog wasn’t even live when I went to Namibia. I just think they’re that great and wanted to share my experience with you.
What is the Africat Foundation?
The Africat Foundation is a conservation organization dedicated to improving humans’ relationships with big cats, with a focus on education.
When the foundation first got started, leopards were a big problem at Okonjima. They were killing unsustainable numbers of farmers’ livestock. In a country still largely dependent on a ranching economy, a few big cats in one area could devastate an entire community. So ranchers would trap the leopards. Africat would come and pick up the cats, rehabilitate them, and reintroduce the ones it could.
As word of the foundation spread, ranchers and farmers from across Namibia started calling Africat. It quickly became clear that no single organization could serve all the cats caught up in conflicts with farmers.
So Africat began to shift to a model of conservation through education. Today, it rarely accepts new cats to be rehabilitated on-site. Instead, it brings children from across Namibia to tour its facilities and learn about cheetahs and leopards. The goal is to teach the next generation of Namibians that trapping and killing big cats is neither good for wildlife, nor for the community — it’s better to learn to coexist with resident cats.
So what does this have to do with where to see cheetahs?
Africat’s primary focus may be education. But it still has plenty of cats on-site — some who are currently being rehabilitated, and some who cannot be reintroduced to the wild.
Additionally, the foundation’s grounds are home to most of Namibia’s iconic herbivores — including oryx, giraffes, dik-dik, kudu, jackals, and more warthogs than you’ve ever seen.
In other words, it’s not a bad place for a game drive by any standards.
Most visitors arrange an afternoon game drive, when the cheetahs are most active. It starts with a leopard feeding (more on that in a minute). Then, you go on an hour-long tour of the education center, where you learn about the kids’ programs, cheetahs’ natural behavior, and how the center rehabilitates the cats. In between, you see plenty of wildlife as you drive along.
Finally, you drive around the 20,000-hectre cheetah area in search of the cats — with almost guaranteed sightings.
The leopard feeding
While Okonjima’s tourist activities focus on where to see cheetahs, no visit would be complete without meeting Africat’s resident leopard.
Wahu — named for the sound baby leopards make — was found in the bush by a farmer as a kitten (warning: ridiculously cute baby Wahu photo here). The farmer told Africat he had found a cub and was going to kill it if they didn’t pick it up, so Africat came to his rescue.
Unfortunately, Wahu was so young when he was rescued that he needed a lot of hands-on care. That meant he was habituated to humans from the very beginning. He even lived in one of his caretakers’ homes for the first few years of his life.
Once a cat is habituated to humans, they can never be re-released into the wild — they would be too much of a threat to humans, and their lack of fear of human development would put them in danger as well.
So now, Wahu lives in one of Africat’s conservation areas. But he shows up once a day for a feeding, which is open to tourists. It’s an amazing experience for any animal lover. There is nothing separating you from the cat. You’re in a room, but the window is open. Wahu has to climb trees to get his food (wild leopards often hide their kills in trees). It’s highly unlikely you’d ever get this close to a leopard in the wild, so take the opportunity to appreciate how incredibly beautiful these cats are.
My game drive at Okonjima
Since I was mainly concerned with where to see cheetahs during my trip to Namibia, I was pretty excited for my day at Okonjima. And it didn’t disappoint.
Within minutes of being in the game vehicle, I saw giraffes, warthogs, and dik-diks (it was the only place in Namibia I saw the country’s smallest antelope). Throughout the afternoon, I saw every one of the park’s herbivores.
The leopard feeding was first on the agenda, and for me it was the highlight. I’m still in awe. I know, for someone who was so worried about where to see cheetahs, it sounds strange — but the cheetahs were totally upstaged by Wahu.
The tour of the education center was rewarding. My favorite part was when our guide told us his strategy for getting kids on board with cat conservation: teach the kids that cheetahs are cute, so they protest when their parents try to kill them. He said more than once, parents had called Africat saying, “I can’t keep this cat because I’m afraid it’ll kill my livestock/children, but my son/daughter won’t let me kill it — what do I do?” That simple phone call opens the door to a conversation about how to avoid conflicts with the cat.
The tour dragged a little bit when it went into detail about some of the research — I didn’t really need to see the 30 different types of tracking devices they’ve used over the years. That time would’ve been better spent in the game vehicle.
Finally, we got our chance to search for the cheetahs. We found them after about five minutes in the reserve. They were pretty lazy in the afternoon sun. One was too shy for photos and hid behind a tree when we drove nearby, but the other two we found were indifferent toward the vehicle. They were every bit as cute as I’d imagined.
If you’re wondering where to see cheetahs on your African safari, consider a day at Okonjima. The best way to visit is on a one- or two-night stop between Windhoek and Etosha National Park. It’s about a two-hour drive from each. Like most of Namibia, you’ll need your own vehicle or you’ll have to take a tour. You may be able to find public transport or hitch down the main road, but you’d need to walk the final 10 km or so to the reserve.
Okonjima has its very own campground — one of the best I stayed in in Namibia. Each site feels truly out in the bush. The shower and toilet are both outdoors (each site has their own). There is a large cement shelter for cooking, including a sink and some counter space. Campsites cost N330 per night.
If you stay at the campground, a game drive costs N500. If you have a little extra time, or want to try a free activity, see what you can find on the self-guided walking trails. You’ll likely encounter rare bird species and maybe even some warthogs! (Seriously, they’re everywhere at Okonjima.)
If you stay more than one night, you even have the opportunity to track cheetahs on foot. It’s pricey, at N670.
In addition to being a great place to see cheetahs, Okonjima occupies a gorgeous location. Definitely check out some of the viewpoints, soak up a spectacular sunset, and simply relax and enjoy being in this remote corner of Africa.
Have you seen cheetahs in the wild? What was your experience like? Leave a comment!
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