Medium: In Namibia, charcoal production is an unlikely lifeline for cheetahs.

In the stillness of the African twilight, wild creatures begin to stir. The only sound in the crisp morning air is the distinctive call of the nightjar as it searches for one last meal before turning in. A lithe cheetah female silently leads her two cubs to a nearby watering hole. Unlike most carnivores, cheetahs hunt by day. This little family is no exception, and will settle down close to the water source for the day, waiting for the grazing animals to make their appearance. Ideally the mother will search out one of the plentiful termite mounds to use as a vantage point, and slide into the tall grass when stalking her target. Despite being the smallest of the big cats, the cheetah is a surprisingly effective predator; research suggests that cheetahs boast an average success rate of over 50 per cent.

Her prowess in hunting might be the most important factor in the survival of this cheetah mother and that of her cubs. This magnificent species is the most endangered big cat in Africa, with threats ranging from habitat encroachment to conflict with farmers and the illegal pet trade.

In Namibia, a unique problem is the acacia brush that grows abundantly across the country. Some acacia species are so invasive that the shrubs dominate the landscape, impairing the cheetahs’ hunting abilities by encroaching on the open spaces they need to pursue their prey.

An Innovative Solution

Otjiwarongo in Namibia appears nondescript, a small city surrounded by yellow dust and red outcrops, but it is the stronghold for a project aiming to restore habitat for cheetahs.

In the 1990s Dr. Laurie Marker chose this location as the base for the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) a centre for research, education and conservation interventions. Among their many projects, CCF launched a charcoal production project called Bushblok which utilizes harvested acacia shrubs to create the charcoal briquettes. The factory employs 30 people and produces around 500 tons every year.

Traditional charcoal producers often harvest mature trees but leave small bushes, which does not open up the savannah. “We positioned ourselves as whole tree processors. But we were careful not to encourage clear-cutting,” CCF General Manager Dr. Bruce Brewer says.

“We are trying to lead by example with a win-win that combines biodiversity conservation with improving livelihoods by restoring a productive savannah. We are linking economics, biodiversity and social aspects — and saving a species,” CCF Senior Ecologist and Forest Steward Matti Tweshingilwa Nghikembua points out.

Since harvesting began, Nghikembua says that CCF has seen animals and grass species coming back as the savannah is restored.

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