12 Mar


I woke seconds before the alarm – at 3.10am. Not the tiniest sliver of light, only the hush of soft rain, as we wrestled groggily into our rain gear. By 4am, we were on the open safari vehicle with our Wildlife ACT Priority Species Monitor, Marumo Nene, at the wheel. Each person had their designated seat and tools to perform a specific role. We were tracking an African wild dog pack.

Our base was the research camp of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, where the monitors and volunteers of Wildlife ACT (African Conservation Team) reside, and from where we would head out on the morning species monitoring session (never termed a game drive), living the life of a volunteer. We hadn’t a clue what was involved, nor how intense, exhausting and utterly satisfying the experience could be. There were four volunteers – a young French couple, and two young women, one English, the other American. Over dozens of volunteering options, they had chosen Wildlife ACT. We were intrigued as to why.

Wildlife ACT was founded to provide vital “priority species” monitoring services to reserves which don’t have the means to do so themselves. They offer this service free of charge, to ensure the continuing safety of these endangered species – especially wild dogs – but also cheetah, black rhino, vultures, elephant, lion and leopard. They work in partnership with the management of five reserves in KZN. It’s costly, laborious work, but vital for so many reasons, including supplying regular, meticulous data to various organisations worldwide and devising effective management practices.

The funding for Wildlife ACT comes from the volunteers, and this funding model has supported the operating costs of the monitoring project for the past 10 years.

Johan Maree is one of the three founders, the others being Chris Kelly (based locally) and Dr Simon Morgan (Stanford University, USA). His welcoming words, “The work you do here is often not pretty, glamorous or easy. But what we can tell you is that it’s REAL.” And it is, for volunteer funding aside, without their manpower, the volume of monitoring work would make it impossible.

The majority of volunteers are international, but South Africans do join the team. They include young people on a gap year or during their tertiary education work experience, more mature participants on a career break/annual leave looking for meaningful opportunities, or retirees who have time and a wealth of experience to share. Most international volunteers have only ever seen Africa’s iconic species in zoos, so although a love of animals is usually a prime motivator, everyone has a vision to make a difference. Yes, they’re going to learn, see new countries, and meet new people, but their primary goal is to contribute meaningfully to conservation.

Volunteering has spawned an industry, particularly in the field of wildlife, and there are agencies established to facilitate this. Volunteering encompasses a wide range of countries, activities and costs. Africa, with its complex issues around wildlife, poaching and poverty, is a popular choice, but homework is essential. Word of mouth is a good indicator, but it’s not enough. There are many organisations happy to take your money, but you need to ensure complete transparency around an authentic experience.

If potential volunteers are unsure about the credibility of a volunteering experience – specifically around wildlife – this independent platform is useful: the Volunteers in Africa Beware Facebook page. It’s a valuable resource, as it highlights the pitfalls of many pseudo- conservation volunteering organisations with questionable ethics that lure many unsuspecting participants.

So, how did these four young people, namely Florent, Louise, Jo and Ally end up at Wildlife ACT? They did their homework. Reservations Manager Bronwen Kelly handles the volunteer bookings: “The majority book directly through me (via our website, or emailing directly via word of mouth), and we have a few agents.”

Florent Locatelli from France, says, “My desire to volunteer stems from a personal passion for conservation work, fed by books, documentaries and travels. I wanted to contribute to this endeavour, and learnt about Wildlife ACT through web research and friends.” Expectations? A grin, “Mostly I came prepared for anything!” Ally Pierce says the team gelled from the outset: “I have smiled more in the past two weeks than I ever have in any other two-week period. I feel like I have gotten back my childlike sense of wonder about the world.”

Jo Haughton’s always loved animals: “Volunteering let me see animals in their natural habitat, while also doing something to help their preservation. Wildlife ACT seemed to be one of the few projects genuinely putting volunteers in the position to be a part of the conservation effort, and as it was supported by the WWF, I knew it was doing great work. It’s honestly been one of the best experiences of my life.”

Did we find the wild dogs? Yes, thanks to Marumo’s skills and the telemetry equipment. It can take laborious hours, just waiting for a stationary, unseen animal to start moving. But the deep sense of satisfaction when that animal is seen, its puppies safe, no snares, and a host of other quantifiable markers, is unlike anything else. To know that you matter, the work you’re doing matters, that fitting fresh batteries into the remote-controlled camera traps to monitor black rhino, cheetah and leopard enables valuable data to be utilised, is everything.

If you’re volunteering at Wildlife ACT, you won’t have an en suite room, or even your own room. You’ll cook, clean, overheat, freeze, get wet, and tired. But while you’re collating the photographs and data from a camera trap or hanging on to the vehicle over rough terrain to ensure the safety of that wild dog, you’ll know that what you’re doing is the real deal.

When you sit round the campfire, talking about your day, your dreams for the future … you’ll know precisely why you’re there.


NOTE: The volunteer participation fee is R22 000 a person for the first two weeks, then R15 700 for every two weeks thereafter. There’s a discounted rate for South African citizens: R17 700 for the first two weeks, and R13 600 for every two weeks thereafter. This includes all meals and accommodation.

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