Zululand, South Africa
Volunteering in Africa at the Big Cat, Elephant, and Rhino Conservation project was a thrilling opportunity. In March 2012, I spent two weeks working on the project. Each volunteer is able to select which project they want to be involved with. The projects include Large Predators (mainly lions and cheetahs, but there are also leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs that are on the reserve; however, they are more difficult to find), The Big Five project (which focused on Rhinos and Elephants, but the volunteers also get to experience the large predators on the game reserve. There is also a community project that performs a wonderful service supporting the local community’s schools and clinics. In addition, there is a four-week photography track that seemed really well-organized from an outsider’s perspective and provided good training on not only photo taking, but photo editing.
The volunteers can choose to spend some time on other community or conservation project than the one selected as their primary focus. The project coordinators were very willing to provide this opportunity if you express an interest.
The project I selected was the large Predator track. It was AMAZING to see the lions in their natural habitat. We witnessed them hunting, eating, and mating. The project coordinator gave me the opportunity to work on the lion identification books so that the volunteers and staff could identify the lions by their unique whisker pattern, tails, and scars when a lion is sighted on the reserve. There are two prides at the reserve, but they are beginning to socialize and mate, through the introduction of a large mature male lion named Mufasa.
During my stay we also prepared a holding pen for the arrival of a new female cheetah. There are currently two males that are very majestic, but a little lazy, which is normal for a Cheetah, I think. In addition to the large predators, I got lots of exposure to the other animals including elephants, rhinos, giraffes, jackals, hyenas, gazelles, impalas, wildebeests, wart hogs,and water buffalo. I got some great photos!
The typical day at the reserve working on the Large Predator project including sunrise (at 5:30a, oh my goodness) and sunset game drives. During the afternoons we worked on our photos, the animal id kits, had lectures, did conservation work, and socialized. The project gives you enough downtime during the day to rest up for the afternoon game drive. Occasionally, we went on night drives and the number of stars in the night sky was astonishing.
At nights as we slept, we were occasionally awakened by the lions calling to each other. Very thrilling! The accommodations are very basic but comfortable. Each cabin has a bathroom with a hot-water shower. The water is safe for brushing your teeth, but the project provides purified water for drinking. The cabin roofs are thatched and they now have mosquito nets which you can use if you like. I did not see a single mosquito at the reserve during my stay in March 2012.
In addition, to the conservation work, I also participated for an afternoon in a community project. It was a blessing to be able to spend some time getting to know the local people. Understanding their most basic human needs were unfulfilled was life-changing for me. Please get involved in the community projects during your stay at the reserve. They need your help.
One thing I did not consider before the trip was the age and diversity of the volunteers. Coming from the U.S. and being much older (48) than most of the 25-30 volunteers had its personal challenges for me. I have to confess that being around young people and people from so many different countries was a shock for me, one I didn’t consider before the trip.
Overall, my participation in this project was very rewarding and in some ways life-changing. The project itself is fairly young, but is eager to improve, which in itself is inspirational. Go and enjoy this experience!