Lionesses resting in the sunshine

Fall in love with Africa - just one side effect of ACE volunteering

Africa gets under your skin. Everybody in African Conservation Experience (ACE) knows that only too well – for most of us, that’s why we love what we’re doing! And it’s wonderful to follow someone else through their journey, from planning a trip to experiencing the country and wildlife firsthand, falling in love with Africa themselves.

Sharon Ringel takes us through her life-changing experiences at the Phinda Wildlife Research Project earlier this year.

My experience at Phinda Wildlife Research Project was my first trip to Africa and has left me with incredible memories to cherish forever. After watching television programs on Game Reserve Management, I was drawn to Africa and was enthralled by their work to conserve and manage wildlife there. I fell in love with the rhino specifically and just had to see them in their natural habitat and get a better understanding of what their plight is like there.

I chose Phinda to also work with the Big 5! I was unprepared for what I was about to experience, as I underestimated the impact a trip like this can have on your life. It has changed me in so many ways!

On my first day at Phinda, I met JR (the resident Wildlife Monitor), with whom I and the other volunteers would spend the next three weeks. On our first monitoring patrol through the reserve, we saw an eight-member herd of elephants (eles!). There was a matriarch with a radio collar on and several other adults and calves in the group. They were walking right next to the vehicle, so close you could have touched them. It was a neat discovery to see how quietly they navigate through thickets or on roads, with barely a sound. I learned later during my trip how hard it truly is to find these majestic animals despite their enormity. I was next surprised to see how protective they were of their young. It was hard to get a glimpse of the young calves, as they were often at the underbelly of their mom or between several cows. Being my first ever interaction with elephants, I was excited; it was more than I had ever expected on day one. I had no idea what more was in store for me over my three weeks there, and every day was even more exciting than the last.

Over my three weeks there, I learned to use telemetry equipment to track leopards and elephants to identify tracks of lion leopards for monitoring purposes. I also participated in biopsy darting on a lion. Rhino participated in a lion tranquilisation darting (for DNA collection so two young males could be sold to an interested party). I learned to identify rhino through ear-notching count techniques. We collected valuable data on animal counts, GPS locations, sex, age, and size and catalogued it in their archives. The research we participated in was primarily long-term data collection and observation of animals on the reserve (health, watching for injuries, snares). The data we collected is used by the reserve to control populations and predator/prey balance, monitor habitat requirements, and maintain reserve biodiversity. I was also fortunate enough to spend an afternoon with the Anti-poaching team on the reserve and was enthralled with their commitment and dedication to their cause despite its dangers. During my time at Phinda, I observed almost every type of animal on the reserve, including the Big 5, as well as kudu, nyala, impala, giraffe, warthogs, hyena, waterbok, crocodile, hippos, zebra, duikers, vervet monkeys, jackal and many unique birds including marabou, Burchell's coucal, and bee-eaters. It was a breathtaking three weeks, and I met some tremendously special people along the way!

My three most exciting experiences

I was tracking an ele to a water hole where over 40 of them eventually arrived one by one to take in some mud baths and water on their way through this reserved area. In this particular interaction, I witnessed young bulls play fighting with their tusks, water showers the ele's would indulge in, and more baby ele's than one heart can enjoy, but most significant of all was the eight different ele's that came right up to the Land Rover and where I was face to face with these magnificent animals. The trunk of one bull, ele, to figure out what I was, came within inches of me as he navigated his box towards me. Nothing is more special than my experience at Phinda with these eles.

Lion tranquillizing. With a prospective buyer for two young male lions, our job was to find them and capture their DNA so their health, sex and general welfare could be determined. We went to an area where they had been spotted and located them there. With a warthog kill tied to a tree and animal distress calls being played on a speaker, it took two minutes for the lions to start appearing. In all, there were six. The lioness was the first to kill, and then her sub-adult cubs arrived individually. It was thrilling to hear the groans and growls of the gorging lions. Very intimidating and very real, noises that did not stop throughout the entire feast, and we were just feet away from the chaos. The two males of interest were in perfect position for darting; the darts hit their target, the lions slumped to the ground, and our work began. They were moved onto the back of the truck so work could be done safely on them 50 feet away from the others. Clippings from their ears were taken and put into vials, their general body condition was analyzed, their eyes were checked, and then I had my opportunity to touch and get pictures with the lion. I picked up his paw, surprised at how heavy it was, and then I lay beside him to show how big he was. It was a genuinely fantastic experience I will not soon forget.

My precious moments with the black rhino. As I mentioned, this was one of the main reasons I came to Phinda; I wanted to get to know the black rhino. On this excursion, I had a good hour with these cherished animals and came to love them even more. It was a group of six in a marsh area of Phinda. We turned off the Land Rover after getting within 20 feet and sat and watched. One by one, the rhino came closer and closer to investigate us.

One by one, the rhino came closer and closer to investigate us. First, it was a brave calf, and he cautiously meandered his way to us, often looking behind him to see if Mom was in tow. As they approached the vehicle, faces pushed up in the air to get a smell. They came within three feet of me, and I could gaze into those big, beautiful eyes. This was the culmination of my trip!

They were very curious that day, and all six were around our vehicle, just looking at us and grazing with no fear. This moment changed me significantly as now I could truly understand why they were such a threatened species… they so quickly stood within reach of me. As much as I wanted to experience that moment, I was saddened to know that their gentile nature is part of the reason they are also in trouble. If I could do this, so could a poacher. This was an unfortunate but precious moment for me. But it is not all bad news, as Phinda has a fantastic anti-poaching team that works hard every day and night to ensure their safety. Ryno and his team are very passionate about their work!

Coming home was very emotional for me! I had so many memorable moments and memories at Phinda that I was in love with all the animals and those working relentlessly behind the scenes by the end of this trip. With a heavy heart, I left, teary eyes and all, and arrived home with a newfound love of South Africa and its incredible animals.

Now I know… Africa is a place I will visit again!