In 2007, Dr. Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren established the Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary, an animal conservation project in central Namibia. The Naankuse (original: N/a’an ku sê) Foundation serves as a safe haven for injured and orphaned animals like cheetahs, leopards, rhinos, elephants, meerkats and many more.
In the first part of the interview, Dr. Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren talk about the origin of the Wildlife Sanctuary, their work and one of the most endangered species of Namibia.
RsL: Why and how did you start the Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary? Can you tell us about the early days of this endeavor?
Rudie van Vuuren: After Marlice and I got married, we lived in the city of Windhoek to accommodate my profession as a medical doctor. Marlice had spent most of her life in the heart of the Namibian bush, growing up on the wildlife sanctuary owned by her parents in the east of Namibia. To keep my animal-loving wife as happy as possible, we would visit her parents’ wildlife sanctuary whenever we could. It soon became known among the San people living at the sanctuary that I could offer medical advice and services, which I did free of charge.
In 2003, when we were enjoying a long weekend and public holiday at the sanctuary, a San woman came to our door with a young child. The child was desperately ill, and hospitalization was crucial. We called the hospital in Gobabis, an approximate 2-hour drive away, requesting that an ambulance be sent to the sanctuary as quickly as possible. However, the ambulance failed to arrive. Instead, Marlice and I, together with the ill child and her mother, made the journey to Gobabis. Despite our best efforts the child passed away that day – a tragic incident that could so easily have been avoided. During the ordeal of doing our best to save such a young life, it became clear that the San in Namibia are heavily ostracized, being considered a third-rate community by so many and subsequently marginalized. Marlice grew up with the San and has a beautiful affinity to them. She also speaks the San language fluently and fully understands and respects the significance of their ancient culture. The child’s death severely impacted us both, and we were prompted to take action.
A philanthropic couple from the Netherlands, Jan and Tineke Verburg, funded the start of what has grown into the N/a’an ku sê Lifeline Clinic. Since 2003 this facility has been providing free healthcare to almost 4,500 patients annually, the majority being San and approximately 40% children and babies. Over and above medical treatment, the Lifeline Clinic provides many other supportive services including the treatment of malnutrition, TB screening, the provision of food, outreach services to communities in remote locations, and much more.
The Lifeline Clinic was the start of the N/a’an ku sê Foundation as a whole, humanitarian effort triggering the beginning of what was to become one of Namibia’s most active and well-known conservation foundations. Jan and Tineke Verburg remain valued conservation partners of the N/a’an ku sê Foundation, together with a number of other Dutch partners who chose to join the Verburgs’ drive to assist the people of Namibia, as well as the wildlife and habitats. We couldn’t do our work without the support of the van Uden Group, the Ten Brinke Group and many other donors and partners. Namibians also complement our conservation efforts, Dr. Jannes and Mrs. Diene-Marie Brandt proving crucial to our endeavors too.
The N/a’an ku sê Foundation has expanded extensively since 2003, a charity lodge and the N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary opening their doors in 2007. We now manage a total of 87,000 hectares for conservation. These hectares are protected land, also ideal for the relocation of conflict animals, and are comprised in the following reserves:
Zannier Reserve by N/a’an ku sê: 7,500 hectares
Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate: 14,500 hectares
Kanaan Desert Retreat: 35,000 hectares
TimBila Nature Reserve by N/a’an ku sê: 30,000 hectares
We certainly have come a long way since the start of the Lifeline Clinic itself in 2003.It was tough in the beginning but we kept trying to address social and conservation needs and we firmly believe if you keep doing good, no evil can derail you.
RsL: What are some wildlife conversation tasks you’ve accomplished over the years?
Rudie & Marlice: A key conservation research focus of the N/a’an ku sê Foundation is that of human-wildlife conflict mitigation, especially with regards to carnivores. Namibia has a high number of free-roaming carnivore populations, and indeed, Namibia boasts the highest population of free-roaming cheetahs in the world. Conflict with man and carnivore is inevitable, especially with farmland having encroached on what previously was wild habitat. We started with what we term the “Rapid Response Unit” in 2008. An increasing number of Namibian farmers are buying into conservation, no longer opting to shoot predators they encounter on their lands.
Namibian landowners, usually livestock farmers, having trapped large carnivores such as leopard, cheetah and brown hyena in capture cages, call us for assistance. The Rapid Response Unit immediately reacts, travelling to the site in less than 24 hours. The animal is immobilized by our veterinarian and fitted with a GPS tracking collar. Ideally, the animal is then released back onto the farmer’s land and not removed from the territory. This is in line with the N/a’an ku sê motto of “keeping the wild in the wild”. We then intensively monitor the animal using the GPS data. This is important to both N/a’an ku sê’s carnivore conflict mitigation research AND to the farmer concerned. The data from the GPS collar is shared with the landowner each day, together with detailed information on the animal’s movements and behavioral interpretations. In this way the landowner can modify his livestock grazing locations and protection methods. Since the start of the Rapid Response Unit in 2008, the number of captured carnivores persecuted on farmland has been reduced by 80%.
Our scientific approach in dealing with conservation matters has earned us a reputable reputation. Namibia’s Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) does ask for advice and assistance when circumstances dictate. One such instance involved a bull elephant who appeared at Namibia’s coast in December 2019. Of unknown origin, this elephant was fitted with a GPS collar by the MEFT and attempts were made to return him to what was assumed to be his original territory. However, the elephant returned to his chosen coastal location, the town of Swakopmund. He settled in a suburban area on the outskirts of Swakopmund, the residents approaching him ever closer. Even though the elephant was wonderfully calm in nature, if humans approach what is essentially a wild animal, the repercussions could be fatal. To avoid future conflict and the potential destroying of a magnificent elephant, the MEFT made the decision to relocate.
In April 2020, the N/a’an ku sê Foundation, together with representatives of the MEFT, undertook the massive relocation operation from Namibia’s coast to the Zannier Reserve by N/a’an ku sê located in the central parts of the country. The elephant was named Apollo and soon became a “big brother” figure to two younger bull elephants on the Zannier Reserve. Here he is removed from potential conflict and can essentially live at peace. His is a conservation success story.
Another life-saving operation involved two of Namibia’s desert-adapted lions. In May 2020, the MEFT was made aware of young lions whose mother had been shot and killed for targeting livestock in Namibia’s Kunene Region. Unable to hunt or survive on their own, the young cats were on the brink of starvation. Representatives from the MEFT, the N/a’an ku sê Foundation and the Desert Lion Trust travelled to the area and succeeded in finding and immobilizing the lions – a complex task that took well into the hours of darkness. So emaciated and weak at the time, necessary IV lines had to be inserted into the lions’ stomachs, a lack of blood pressure making intravenous insertion impossible. The team then drove through the night, arriving at the TimBila Nature Reserve by N/a’an ku sê during the early morning hours. Here the two cats were released into a soft-release camp. This allows them to grow accustomed to the area while simultaneously gaining strength and their health subsequently improving. They will ultimately be released onto the 30,000 hectares of the TimBila Nature Reserve itself.
Yes, human-wildlife conflict remains a key focus of the work we do, facilitating a peaceful co-existence between man and wild a top conservation priority.
RsL: Which animals are the most endangered ones in Namibia? And why?
Rudie & Marlice: The African wild dog, also known as the painted dog or painted wolf, is the most endangered canid in Namibia and southern Africa, and the second most endangered in the whole of Africa. These dogs are highly successful in their hunting tactics, hunting perfectly as a pack and using their stamina to run down their prey over long distances. With their hunting success rate so high, they have become a target for farmers who fear they may lose high numbers of their livestock to painted dogs. That, yet again, emphasizes the conservation concern of human-wildlife conflict. Furthermore, the painted dog is unfortunately not a “charismatic” animal such as the leopard, lion or cheetah. This results in them receiving even further “bad press”, with their tourism value lowering as a result. Animals with a higher tourism value can more easily be conserved.
The reputation and image of the painted dog needs to be “repackaged”. They should be respected for being one of the most altruistic species globally, never failing to look after their fellow pack members. Their hunting strategy should also be revered, and not feared, education being the key in changing the overall perception of the painted dog. The estimated number of painted dogs remaining in Namibia stands at 550 in 45 packs. However, as a lot of this falls on the Namibian border, they often move in and out of neighbouring countries. At N/a’an ku sê we are active in the conservation of the painted dog. The Zannier Reserve by N/a’an ku sê is home to a free-roaming pack of painted dogs, these dogs having come to us through situations of conflict with man. The successful rehabilitation and release of painted dogs into protected habitats is one of the driving forces behind our conservation efforts.
Namibia is also home to the world’s most trafficked mammal – the pangolin. These animals are so often poached due to the mistaken belief, in some cultures, that their scales hold almost magical properties. Their meat is also considered a delicacy in some parts of the world. Pangolins having been removed or rescued from incidents of trafficking have been released on the Zannier Reserve by N/a’an ku sê.
RsL: Do you get any support from the government or the general public?
Rudie & Marlice: Being an NGO, we do not receive any government funding. Our fundraising efforts are ceaseless and vital. We forge and maintain strong relationships with local and international supporters and donors. The general public is crucial to our efforts, not only on a monetary basis, but also through the supply of items we require for both the wildlife and humanitarian projects.
For example, Namib Mills, one of Namibia’s leading suppliers of staple food items, donates approximately 2 tons of dry goods per month for the school and the Lifeline Clinic, and 1.5 tons of maize-meal for the wildlife. Namib Poultry donates a monthly amount of 1.5 tons of chicken – a huge help in keeping captive carnivores fed and healthy.
The N/a’an ku sê Primary School and the N/a’an ku sê Lifeline Clinic enjoy a lot of local support, over and above the incredible generosity shown by those sponsoring a school child or a clinic patient, Dutch partners, Jan and Tineke Verburg, the van Uden Group, the Ten Brinke Group and many more. Chalk Gymnastics and Performance Training hosts our children free of charge, the regular gymnastics lessons a highlight. Shoprite, a Namibian and South African supermarket franchise, regularly supplies the Lifeline Clinic with tinned foods, and also sponsored five water taps in ensuring the local community has constant access to clean water. Both local and international support from the public at large is irreplaceable and keeps our projects running.
RsL: Volunteers are essential in your line of work. How do you contact them, or, how can they contact you? What are some criteria someone has to meet to be accepted?
Rudie & Marlice: Yes, volunteers are crucial to our funding and, of course, also assist in so many ways when here with us on the ground. Our volunteering projects extend to Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate, Kanaan Desert Retreat, the TimBila Nature Reserve by N/a’an ku sê and the Lifeline Clinic – these sites all in addition to the N/a’an ku sê Foundation Wildlife Sanctuary itself, and the Zannier Reserve by N/a’an ku sê.
We promote our volunteer projects as much as possible on our social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We of course also market the volunteering projects on our website www.naankuse.com. Interested volunteers can make direct contact with our bookings team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also have strong relationships with various volunteer agents across the globe. Many of our volunteers are return volunteers, having so enjoyed their experience with us they simply cannot resist coming back. We love maintaining contact with past volunteers, and Marlice and I hold a Facebook and Instagram Live at 7PM each Saturday evening – that’s Namibian time. Hundreds of questions from past and future volunteers are posted during these live sessions and it gives us the fantastic opportunity to interact with our global audience.
Volunteers need to be 18 years of age or older, but we do accept volunteers younger than 18 years if accompanied by a parent or guardian. We do not have a maximum age limit. If one is in good health, no matter the age, who are we to deny someone the experience of volunteering? We also offer programs for school children living in Namibia. After all, one is never too young to learn about the sheer importance and wonder of conserving.
You can read part two HERE
For more information and videos about the N/a’an ku sê Foundation:
Official Website: Naankuse
YouTube: N/a’an ku sê Foundation – YouTube