WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
If you love your dog/cat/guinea pig but have a hankering to see and experience some of the magnificent wildlife around the world – a volunteer vacation may just be the way to do it!
From tracking wolves in the Carpathian Mountains, to protecting sea turtles in Costa Rica, there are many places to choose from. But do your homework. Look for reviews by former volunteers. Ask lots of questions. Is that baby hippo in the website photo still there? What do I wear? What can volunteers do in their spare time? Internet or no internet?! Most volunteers book through one of the volunteer hub organizations online like GVI. But if you’re on a budget, try approaching the project directly. It can sometimes cut your costs in half.
I’ve always loved rhinos and wanted some hands-on experience with rescued wildlife, so my first placement was two weeks at the Moholoholo Rehab Center in the Limpopo region of South Africa. During my time there, I participated in the capture and release of two endangered Honey Badgers, hand-fed vultures, witnessed a rainy standoff between a hippo and a rhino, narrowly avoided being chased by a cape buffalo, and – the highlight – hung out daily with Dela, a 14 month-old black rhino rescued from a mud patch after being abandoned by her mother. Dela would eventually be released to live as an adult on a safe reserve. But for now, she was the baby who followed us to breakfast daily and nudged with her horn when she wanted more grapes!
Whilst the goal of Moholoholo is to release animals back into the wild, some do spend the rest of their lives at the facility because they’re either unable to fend for themselves or – in the case of big cats that are unafraid of humans – too dangerous to release. I didn’t like that leopards, lions and cheetahs were kept in small enclosures, but Moholoholo believes that these animals can at least be ambassadors to teach humans why they should care about wildlife. It’s just sad that so many of us have to be reminded…
The daily work was generally just a couple of hours feeding and cleaning in the mornings and afternoons. Ironically, as a vegetarian, it hadn’t occurred to me that volunteering with wildlife would involve lots of meat. So, when it came time to feed, I flunked when given a pair of scissors and bowl of frozen chicks. But overall, the experience was a chance to get up close with many birds and animals – from eagles to wild dogs, hyenas to newly hatched barn owls. I also learned about the fragile ecological state of the African environment. In the West, we tend to focus on saving individual species, such as the elephant. Once in Africa, you realize that the main concern in trying to save animals is saving the habitat. Without that, there is no more wildlife.
My second placement was a week at the Siyafunda Research Center, not far from Moholoholo. This was strictly hands-off. The animals roamed wild on the reserve, and any time we left camp on foot, we walked behind the rifle. No rhino petting to be done here! Volunteers could either stay at the research base, which basically involved daily drives to search for and monitor particular animals (buffalo, one day, elephant, the next), or, like me, they could opt for Bush Camp, which was more about experiencing the environment. We lived in tents without electricity or hot water and cooked communal meals on a stove fueled by a gas burner. Our guide, Bethel, showed us how to drive a 4×4 on rough terrain, taught us about animal tracks and how to survive in the bush. He explained the poetic stories behind many of the indigenous plants and trees, such as the buffalo thorn – two thorns – one straight to signify where you’re going – and one curved, to signify where you’ve come from.
It was good to be walking and talking, imbuing all this knowledge. Not so good was the rain that poured and discovering I had Tick Bite Fever. It looked like an infected mosquito bite and felt like bad flu. Luckily, it was easily treated with antibiotics. I was just grateful it wasn’t malaria but it did dampen my enthusiasm for being at one with the bush. I hi-tailed it back to the research base for good light, and a hot shower. It rained the next day, too. By my experience, April is not the best time to go to South Africa. Locals recommend Dec, Jan and Feb as the best time to view animals because it’s winter and the bush is more sparse. September and October are also popular.
Siyafunda was situated within a huge reserve area that contained some fancy lodges. So volunteering in a place like this, you get to see the wildlife without the huge fees that go with Ferrari Safaris. And you have more time. There’s nothing quite like spending an hour watching a family of rhinos, or sitting six feet away from two lions lounging in the sun, ignoring you. If you’re ok. They’re ok. Unless you step out of that open-topped truck and attempt to cuddle one. Perhaps that’s ultimately the most important lesson to be learned from these kinds of volunteering projects. Respect. It’s easy to watch animals on the Discovery Channel, then move on to the next reality show. But to see them close-up, to hear a wild lion roar, and to learn about their natural environment is truly awe-inspiring. It drives home the message that if they are to remain, we have to respect the needs of the animals as well as our own. The world needs wildness.
Some of my Photos:
Originally published August 30, 2013.