Kansas National Guard Discovers, Aids Nature

DISCOVER AND AID NATURE REFUGE, Djibouti - An African spurred tortoise makes its way toward a tray of food at the Discover and Aid Nature Refuge in Djibouti, October 16, 2011. This reptile is the largest tortoise on the African mainland and the third-largest tortoise in the world. The spurred tortoise can grow to be two and a half feet long and weigh as much as 240 pounds. (U.S. Army photo by Specialist Michelle C. Lawrence) U.S. AFRICOM Photo DISCOVER AND AID NATURE REFUGE, Djibouti - An African spurred tortoise makes its way toward a tray of food at the Discover and Aid Nature Refuge in Djibouti, October 16, 2011. This reptile is the largest tortoise on the African mainland and the third-largest tortoise in the world. The spurred tortoise can grow to be two and a half feet long and weigh as much as 240 pounds. (U.S. Army photo by Specialist Michelle C. Lawrence)
As the hot, African sun beat down on U.S. service members stationed at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, a studious focus was evident as they quietly listened to the history of what is commonly known here as the "Cheetah Refuge."

"The actual name is DECAN Refuge," began Scott Johnson, co-founder of Camp Lemonnier Cheetah Refuge Volunteer Program. "It stands for Discover and Aid Nature; and is part of a larger organization called Association DECAN."

Numerous soldiers from the 1st Battalion 161st Field Artillery volunteer weekly to assist with the clean-up and expansion of the refuge.

According to Johnson, Association DECAN was founded by a local French veterinarian, Dr. Bertrand LaFrance, in May 2001, to protect wildlife and develop a knowledge of nature throughout Djibouti. The association works closely with local schools and the French and U.S. militaries to educate about environmental and ecological issues in Africa.

The association's first mission was to protect sea turtles. Throughout Djibouti, restaurant owners were serving turtle soup, so LaFrance began convincing them to stop serving it, and for people to stop buying it, Johnson said.

While travelling among the different local restaurants on his turtle-saving campaign, LaFrance came upon a baby cheetah, chained up and on display for the entertainment of patrons. In Djibouti, it's illegal to own any exotic animals. Knowing this, but fearing for his and the animal's safety, LaFrance had a patron convince the restaurant owners that the cheetah was sick and needed to be brought to his office for treatment, Johnson explained.

"When the owners arrived at Dr. LaFrance's practice, he had the police waiting to confiscate the cheetah," said Johnson, as he continued the story. "This is how his efforts to protect cheetahs and other exotic animals from ownership and exploitation began in Djibouti."

At one point, LaFrance harbored five cheetahs in the backyard of his veterinary practice. These five were rescued as babies, between 2000 and 2002. By late 2002, they were beginning to jump the fences into the neighbors' yards, Johnson said, and LaFrance approached the Djiboutian government to ask for land to build a refuge. The government agreed, and granted him 35 acres.

Construction on the refuge began in 2002 and the initial phase was opened in 2003. It was referred to as the Cheetah Refuge because the cheetahs were the main reason he established it, even though the habitat also housed gazelles, tortoises and caracals, Johnson explained.

"The ultimate goal of the refuge is to eventually release the animals back to the wild," said Johnson. "Unfortunately, most of the animals are somewhat domesticated, coming from being owned by people. They are too used to humans and associate them with a provider of food, so they cannot ever be released."

Johnson came to the refuge in early 2008, and immediately fell in love with it.

"Coming here and seeing what Dr. LaFrance had done inspired me to talk to him," said Johnson. "I wanted to know what I could do to help."

By April 2008, Johnson established a volunteer program that travelled to the refuge four times a week to begin clearing out the land for additional residents.

"We also received an additional land grant from the Djiboutian government of over 100 acres in 2008," said Johnson. "The expansion wasn't opened until 2009, but the land was completely cleared for habitat by U.S. service member volunteers from Camp Lemonnier."

The volunteers usually begin by trimming back brush and plants to make walking trails accessible. Next, they outlined every trail with rocks to keep people on the paths.

"Working at the refuge is a lot of hard work, but at the same time is very rewarding," said U.S. Army Master Sergeant John Speer, 1-161 FA and volunteer with the Camp Lemonnier Cheetah Refuge Volunteer Program.

According to Johnson, the volunteer work is no easy job.

"It's like heavy yard work with plants that fight back," Johnson said.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Alicia Altman, Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa veterinary services technician, is a volunteer who also helps coordinate service members looking to help at the refuge.

"I volunteer because I feel the work that Dr. LaFrance does to protect the animals is fantastic," Altman said.

The DECAN Refuge has officially been open to the public since November 2003. It now encompasses more than 200 acres, with plans to obtain additional land for the more than 215 animals already living there.

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