Interview: Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary (Part Two)

In part two of our interview, Dr. Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren talk about the Naankuse Lifeline Clinic and Primary School, their film & TV work, the impact of the Covid crisis on ecotourism and their future plans.

You can read part one HERE

RsL: Besides the Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary you also established the Naankuse Lifeline Clinic and the Naankuse Primary School. Can you tell us a little bit about these projects?

Rudie and Marlice: Well, we did mention quite a lot about the N/a’an ku sê Lifeline Clinic in answer to your first question. The clinic itself is based in the east of Namibia in Epukiro, Omaheke Region. This area is home to a large number of San communities, most of the San living in poverty. It is important to note that the Lifeline Clinic continues to grow in its many humanitarian projects. In January 2022, a chapel will be built on the clinic grounds, and on weekdays this chapel will also function as a school.

We have also established an agricultural project at the Lifeline Clinic. This project will aid self-sustainability by providing a variety of fruits and vegetables. We also deem it vital that community members be encouraged and supported through the teaching of practical vocational skills. We plan to start with vocational skills training in the future. Our “Housing and Clean-Up Project” at the Lifeline Clinic is proving immensely successful. For every 10 bags of rubbish picked up by community members, a roofing sheet for a house is provided to the person concerned. Once enough roofing sheets for a house have been earned by the community member, the Lifeline Clinic builds a house. This project is aiding the environment and bringing a steady end to the issue of so many San not having access to shelter. All in all, the Lifeline Clinic not only provides free healthcare. The clinic exists in support of a people who have been marginalized for far too long. Healthcare aside, the San deserve that which most other Namibians have access to – education, training and a future in which they can readily cope.    

N/a’an ku sê Primary School

With an ever-increasing workforce at N/a’an ku sê, the need to provide education to the many children of our valued staff members became evident. This led to the N/a’an ku sê Primary School, previously called the Clever Cubs School, being established in 2009. Furthermore, San children too often face bullying when attending mainstream schools, and at N/a’an ku sê Primary School we are able to ensure that San pupils are not ostracized or unfairly treated by their peers. The school accommodates Grades 0 to 7, and not only places emphasis on academic subjects. Being located at the heart of a wildlife sanctuary provides the opportunity to teach the children about animals, nature and conservation as a whole. After graduating from Grade 7, the children attend mainstream schools, this fully funded by the N/a’an ku sê Foundation through our “Sponsor A Child” initiative and the support of donors and partners. We believe that every child has the right to education, and the N/a’an ku sê Primary School enables us to provide just that – a free-of-charge educational foundation. 

RsL: What were your biggest setbacks you have experienced with regards to either the Wildlife Sanctuary or the Clinic or the Primary School?

Rudie and Marlice: Covid has been very challenging for us it had a negative impact on the school the sanctuary and the clinic. The long periods of draught and global warming also have massive impacts on our work.

Corruption in Namibia is a big concern, and if you are not willing to be part of corruption you often encounter resistance to do the work you want to do.

RsL: You are also producing a local television series “Groen: Namibie” and you support other film productions via your own company – Naankuse Films. What made you decide to start the company?

Rudie and Marlice: Filming is a vital source of funding for the N/a’an ku sê Foundation’s many conservation and humanitarian projects. Renowned international production companies film with us, relying on our expertise with those animals within our care. Our ambassador animals – those animals unable to be released back into the wild, mainly due to their habituation to humans – now act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts.

Cheetahs, caracals, painted dogs, leopards, lions and chacma baboons are just a few that have been used in a range of natural history documentaries, not only earning funds for the foundation, but also educating a global viewing audience into the magnificence and significance of these animals.

Rudie and Marlice van Vuuren

Some of our filming partners have included SKY, ITV, CNN, BBC, Animal Planet and National Geographic. Having the foundation itself and the animals of N/a’an ku sê appear on the small screen at an international level, provides unpayable promotion. Filming projects also include news segments for CNN and other global news broadcasters, as well as reality-based series for a variety of networks world-wide.

Groen Namibië is a reality-style series focusing on our work and is aired on Africa’s largest satellite broadcaster, DStv. This means that our work is showcased on a host of channels, the educational value yet again being unpayable.

RsL: How do you finance all of your endeavors?

Rudie and Marlice: Through constant fundraising efforts, innovative fundraising campaigns, international film crew, our volunteer projects and our guests. Being an NGO, we do not receive any government funding. Ecotourism is that which ultimately keeps our conservation projects alive, responsible ecotourism being fundamental to our efforts. Today’s traveler is far more “educated” about the finer nuances of conservation destinations. No longer can irresponsible and ultimately cruel wildlife practices be “packaged” as an exotic experience. Correct ethos and animal welfare is crucial to the responsible traveler, this making corresponding responsible ecotourism irreplaceable.

At N/a’an ku sê we have always placed ethics ahead of frivolous wildlife “fun”, the welfare of our animals and the offering of a true conservation experience priorities that will always remain at the top. Our lodges offering this responsible, authentic conservation experience include N/a’an ku sê Lodge, Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate, Kanaan Desert Retreat and, currently in construction phases, the lodge at TimBila Nature Reserve by N/a’an ku sê.

Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek is home to another two N/a’an ku sê establishments, Utopia Boutique Hotel and Traveller’s Inn. All of these accommodation and tourism facilities keep our conservation endeavors afloat. Of course the support of our valued conservation partners and donors is crucial too, but the element of ecotourism provides the sustainability that a charity organization cannot do without. 

RsL: Additionally to your TV and film production, you also use a variety of social media channels to spread your message and increase public awareness.

Rudie and Marlice: We do what we can. In addition to our social media platforms and television appearances (both national and international), we attend as many virtual/online conferences or expos as possible. Recently we had a virtual booth at the WCN 2020 (Wildlife Conservation Network). The WCN joins global conservation organisations with a host of relevant stakeholders.

The coronavirus pandemic caused a much-needed shift in how tourism destinations, conservation organisations and the interested traveler or stakeholder connect. It has become a far more virtual experience, which allows for more “immediate” professional relationships to be made and connections nurtured. Furthermore, the cost of attending international conferences is now minimized, a stable internet connection making connecting more convenient and accessible to many more.

As previously stated, we have seen how the mindset of travelers has changed – responsible conservation travel now a priority. This trend, thankfully, has a “policing” effect on wildlife organisations. Conservation messages spread through social media must adhere to ethical wildlife practices and not put the animal in an inadvertent place of peril.

At N/a’an ku sê we do not permit any photography, for example, of a person and sanctuary animal in close proximity. This encourages the mistaken belief that essentially wild animals are nothing more than mere pets. The ongoing development of social media and the increasing global awareness of ethical animal practices is the “policing” force that was lacking in the past.

The majority of promotion of our conservation work remains online and on small screens across the world. Natural history documentaries seem to increase in popularity each year, with our filming client base continually on the increase. Requests for interviews and appearances in reality-based online or television series is also constantly on the rise.

RsL: Your Foundation’s slogan is “Conservation through innovation”. What type of innovation do you mean?

Rudie & Marlice: With “innovation” we mean new and original ideas on how to raise awareness and funds for our conservation and humanitarian projects. One such innovative technique is the production of organic and hand-crafted Namibian wine at Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate. This reserve lies south of Windhoek and is one of the world’s driest vineyards. Brandy and rum complement the range of wines, and the profits from every purchase of a Neuras product get fed back into our conservation projects.

“Innovative” also means reacting to conservation challenges as they arise and, when possible, preempting a challenge before its very existence. Our Rapid Response Unit work arose from the need to mitigate conflict between humans and wildlife, this perhaps being the main cause of global species demise. Empowering communities is another innovative conservation tool. Impoverished, suffering people are unable to worry about conservation concerns. People with the means to survive have the inclination and ability to rise to conservation challenges and make a difference. 

RsL: What are the Foundation’s plans for the rest of 2021? What can we expect?

Rudie & Marlice: The 30,000-hectare TimBila Nature Reserve by Naankuse will act as a release site for animals removed from conflict. Various species are earmarked for this, all rehabilitated at the N/a’an ku sê Foundation Wildlife Sanctuary. The release process is a complex one, with many factors needing to be considered. Overall, we hope to increase the size of the TimBila Nature Reserve even further, making more protected territory available for conservation purposes, and giving more conflict animals a second chance at life.

Our Neuras wines are popular in Namibia, and we intend to increase the scope of sales, and the resulting profits benefitting conservation, by expanding sales to Europe and ultimately, the USA. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we were forced to close our desert lodge in southern Namibia, Kanaan Desert Retreat. In June, this spectacular lodge will be reopened. For the rest of 2021, the N/a’an ku sê Foundation will focus on attaining, and surpassing, the guest and volunteer numbers that profited our conservation efforts pre-covid.

RsL: Where do you see the Naankuse Foundation and all its branches (Clinic Primary School, Naankuse Films) in the next 10 years? What are your hopes, dreams or even fears?

Rudie & Marlice: Everything we do comes back to our purpose as an organisation: We strive to help conserve the landscapes, protect the wildlife, and improve the lives of the people we work with through innovative sustainable commercial activities.

In a decade we hope to have more schools and clinics established, in those areas of Namibia that need it most. The N/a’an ku sê reach and resulting impact should extend nationwide, both conservation and humanitarian aid being readily available in even the remotest locations. The current 87,000 hectares of protected habitat under the conservation management of the N/a’an ku sê Foundation will be significantly increased.

We definitely have to help legislation in Namibia. Currently we have outdated laws and there are no up-to-date laws to protect the welfare of animals, and to us this is unacceptable.

The publication of annual scientific papers, based on the conservation research performed by the N/a’an ku sê Foundation, will also prove paramount. After all, evidence-based conservation techniques, decided by scientific substantiation, could ultimately positively influence conservation legislation in Namibia, and perhaps the world.

And fear? The fear of failure makes a dream impossible to achieve. Our dream is a peaceful co-existence between man and wild… an Africa, and a world, where humans and wildlife live and thrive together. This may seem unattainable, but the “seemingly unattainable” keeps us driven.

You can read the third and final part of the interview 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

Interview: Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary (Part One)

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.

Rudie van Vuuren

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.

Marlice van Vuuren

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.

A Giant is Saved

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.

Painted Dog

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 bookings@naankuse.com.

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.

The Volunteer life

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