What is it REALLY like to be a Conservation Volunteer?

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and I can hear the grunting male impalas rutting outside in the cold. I’m warm and cosy in my canvas tent, snuggled up underneath the two duvets that I’ve layered over myself. All is well, except for one thing.

My bladder is in desperate need of being emptied.

Reluctantly, I embrace the reality of the imminent situation and with a massive sigh, I slip out from under the covers and layer up in preparation for the 100m dash to the communal loo…

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I have been employed at Welgevonden Game Reserve for approximately a year now, and although my position has enabled me to interact with the volunteers, I thought it was time that I took a hands-on approach and experienced what it would be like to live like a volunteer for an entire day.

Que back to me dashing over the dew covered grass at 4am to go to the bathroom.

It might have been cold, and it might have been an inconvenience to leave the comfort of my large canvas tent, but one look up at the vast starry sky stopped me in my tracks.

I took a moment to appreciate the Milky Way in all its glory while listening to the crickets chirping loudly into the night.

Going to the bathroom as a volunteer is definitely an experience in itself.

Tented Camp

Volunteers and students stay in large, canvas tents

Later that morning, once the sun had risen and all 10 volunteers (including myself) had dumped their prepacked lunches into the green game viewer, we set off to conduct the first item on our agenda for the day: Panthera Camera Traps.

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Panthera is an organization that is devoted to the conservation of 40 different wild cat species across the globe. Their “Project Pardus” aims to understand where sustainable leopard populations currently exist or can be rebuilt, and implement conservation actions to reduce leopard killings.

Panthera makes use of camera traps, remotely activated cameras equipped with a motion sensor, to monitor and, after statistical analysis, map the range of various leopard individuals. This non-invasive monitoring technique is useful in detecting the behaviour and range of shy, nocturnal species.

These traps are set up on a number of different reserves within the country, with a portion of them placed in strategically selected spots within Welgevonden. Once a week or so, the batteries of these traps need to be replaced and the photos extracted onto an external USB drive. As the Reserve’s Research Centre is responsible for managing the project, this task falls unto the volunteers.

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As a newbie, I mostly watched (and photographed) the procedure at play, which the competent volunteers seemed to have already perfected.

Before the data can be extracted, a photo is taken of a board with the date and time stamp written on it to document when exactly the photographs were extracted.

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They then carefully remove the camera from the tree/stand, replace the batteries and patiently wait for the photographs to download onto the USB drive.

Once complete, a photo of the same board, now with a different time stamp, is taken to mark the beginning of the next photograph collection.

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The volunteers also keep records of which camera traps were visited, their condition and any other information that may be of relevance to the survey.

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Research Coordinator, Phillipa Myram, made use of the time between camera traps to assess the well being and distribution of certain rhino individuals – and it is no wonder why this task has been designated to this passionate individual.

Pip’s eyes lit up with excitement every time we would spot one of these massive mammals placidly grazing on the plains. With a yelping “Rhinoooooo”, she would enthusiastically drive up to the sighting and proceed to tell the group the personal story of each individual within the herd.

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She would record which rhinos were in the area, jot down general notes, and report any abnormalities, if present, to management for assessment.

With the current global rhino crisis, it is of utmost importance that management keep tabs on and maintain the well being of each individual within the population.

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Pip Myram and one of her beloved rhino’s during an intervention in May 2018 – a vet was called in to treat a puncture wound on the individual’s abdomen and the team made use of the opportunity to collect DNA samples for the purposes of the RhODIS projet.

The camera traps are distributed far and wide apart meaning that by lunchtime, we had been driving for 6 hours straight. I’m sure you can imagine that camera traps were starting to feel pretty monotonous at this point.

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But, as per usual, no day ever goes according to plan when you’re working in conservation, and while I was perched on a rock, making use of the precious lunch hour to warm up in the winter sun, Pip received a phone call.

“Yes, okay, well we’re busy finishing up with the camera traps this side, but we’ll head to Main Gate as soon as we can.”

Pip put down the phone and turned to us.

“Right guys. So, we have three trucks of zebra arriving today and we’ve been tasked with overseeing the release. We still have two traps to do, so hop back on the vehicle and let’s get going.”

And with that, all of our plans changed.

We raced along to finish up with our camera trap responsibilities before heading down to Main Gate where we arrived just as the trucks did.

Welgevonden had purchased approximately 40 zebra to be released onto the Reserve as part of the Game Introduction Programme. It was now our responsibility to collect the trucks and lead the convoy to an offloading ramp within the Reserve.

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Once there, Pip clambered up onto the trucks, opened each hatch and peered down into the dark trailers to record the condition, sex and age of each individual.

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Once all was in order, the doors of the trailers were opened and the zebra released.

It is quite a spectacle to observe the animals scrambling off from the trucks. Some have to be coaxed out with enthusiastic whistling and a friendly prod, others shuffle out backwards, while most race out of the open doors at the first availability, leaving nothing but deep tracks and a dustbowl in their wake.

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After the zebra had all been offloaded, the relevant legal documents signed, and the trucks had left, we were finally ready to embark on the long journey home.

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As the sun dipped down towards the horizon, we slowly bumbled back to camp, chatting excitedly about the busy day now past.

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Although today might not have been as exhilarating as two days prior, where the volunteers had been given the opportunity to assist with an elephant collaring procedure, it had been a typically Welgevonden day nonetheless: productive, exciting, and unpredictable.

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Earlier that week, the volunteers were able to assist with an elephant collaring procedure

As a South African citizen and an active member of a conservation management team, I often worry that the concept of voluntourism is over glamorized by advertising campaigns.

Don’t get me wrong, volunteering is a fantastic experience, but it is definitely no vacation.

Someone who is interested in becoming a volunteer should be eager to learn about African systems, better their knowledge on animal behaviour, learn basic conservation skills, and contribute towards Reserve management in whatever capacity possible.

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A number of volunteers and vet nurse students played an important role in the Wildlife Protection Project where they helped collar the sentinel animals and conduct various experiments.

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In this industry, it is important to remember that every small activity contributes towards a greater conservation goal.

Managing the Panthera camera traps for example, will ultimately lead to an improved understanding of leopard behaviour and in turn, the improved conservation management of this elusive species.

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The truth, as much as the industry would like me to try and convince you otherwise,  is that conservation is not a glamorous job. It is often the case that hard, long days go uncelebrated and successes are either unnoticed or potentially misconstrued by the media. But conservationists, ecologists, and biologists did not choose this line of work for superficial reasons.

We are here to preserve and protect wild species’ that cannot fend for themselves in a human dominated world. Simply knowing that our combined efforts contribute towards the sustained longevity of wildlife is the major driving force behind our continued efforts.

Our rhino runners pushing themselves on the uphill

CEO, Bradley Schroder, Conservation Manager, Samuel Davidson-Phillips, and Pip Myram took conservation beyond the work place and ran the Marakele Marathon to raise funds for rhino conservation. They will all be running the Comrades Ultra-Marathon on the 10th of June.

Volunteers need to understand this attitude and adopt the same values if they are to embark on an African volunteering experience. Flexibility, resourcefulness and an open mind are all necessary if one is to truly enjoy being a volunteer in Africa.

Let me tell you, this industry is tough, but it is worth every moment.

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