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Walking with Cheetahs

South Boston News
Rising college senior Walker Abbott in Namibia, working with the Solitaire Land Trust, a Namibian-American private organization that is striving to save the nation’s cheetahs. (Contributed photo) / August 21, 2017

They’re the fastest land animals on earth, clocking in at top speeds of 60 miles per hour. Cheetahs are among the large cats, native to southern Africa and parts of the Middle East. The felines are considered threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and their populations are declining due to habitat loss and hunting.

Walker Abbott of Halifax, a rising senior at Washington & Lee University, spent three weeks of her summer interning in the African nation of Namibia, working in cheetah husbandry and land conservation. Her stint in Africa is in line with her double major at W&L: in biology and environmental science.

In Abbott’s words, the cheetahs were “not tame.”

She didn’t get to play with or cuddle the cheetahs — that kind of contact was forbidden — but Abbott prepared their food, made sure the cats’ records were up to date, and tracked other wildlife.

Abbott is no stranger to getting her hands dirty and caring for animals. She grew up on a farm in Halifax, taking care of chickens, guineas and horses, among other animals.

“We butchered game meat into pieces for the cheetahs every day, and my colleagues were shocked that I was completely unfazed from the start,” she said.

Abbott couldn’t touch, but she could observe. In order to care for the cats, she had to get to know them. “Such an important part of animal husbandry is learning an animal’s personality,” she said.

A wound or sickness may not be immediately obvious — because other predators like leopards and lions recognize that as a weakness and can attack the cheetah. Deviation from normal behavior can indicate something is wrong, so it’s good to know the animals’ characters.

“[Cheetahs] are predators and carnivores,” said Abbott, “but they’re at the bottom of the totem pole” compared to lions and leopards.

Abbott also tracked herds of animals, identified animal tracks and checked wildlife trails and hidden cameras.

Her internship was with the Solitaire Land Trust, a Namibian-American private organization devoted to protecting native creatures and restoring damaged land. Solitaire lies outside of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, a major ecological tourist attraction. The trust is the caretaker of 45,000 acres, much of which was bought back from farmers. The organization works to restore land and flora, remove fences, remove invasive species and set the stage for wildlife to move back in.

The group also attempts to reconcile the returning predators with the interests of local farmers. The new education center offers guests an ecological perspective on why cheetahs and other predators are important and offers tours, hikes and safaris.

All of the cheetahs in the care of Solitaire Land Trust are animals that couldn’t survive in the wild. In Namibia, it is illegal to breed the animals in captivity, as many of them cannot be introduced into the wild successfully. The law also quashes the “cub petting” industry — having semi-tame animals that paying sightseers may touch and play with, a practice in other cheetah-native nations that makes money but does little to help the species in the wild.

Abbott flew to Namibia out of the Raleigh-Durham airport in mid-May, ending up in the small village of Solitaire. The town is a crossroads of sorts, with a lodge, post office and bakery, as well as the only petrol station for hundreds of kilometers.

“It’s this funny little place,” said Abbott.

Namibia is a dry, mainly desert nation, with the second lowest population density of any nation. The country achieved independence from South Africa in 1990, having previously been a colony of both Britain and the German Empire. Its German influence leads to obvious and not-so-obvious carryovers from those eras: Solitaire, said Abbott, is famous for its apple pie — an oddity given its desert climate.

As for the taste of this apple pie, “It’s really different; I’m used to the Southern kind,” she said.

While Abbott is unsure what she will be doing after graduation next spring, she thought the trip was worthwhile: “My time in Solitaire will be a great background for many careers options I am considering in the conservation, environmental management or even veterinary medicine fields,” she said.

Abbott is the daughter of Bill and Darnell Abbott of Halifax.

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